Iowa Area Education Agencies

Social Skills Set the Stage for Student Success

February 20, 2015

Imagine trying to go about your day without the innate social skills that most of us quickly pick up on as we grow up.

Imagine not knowing that it’s polite to say hello to a person you pass on the sidewalk. Imagine not knowing you need to make eye contact with the barista as you pay for your morning coffee. Imagine not being able to do a group project at work because you struggle with collaborating with your co-workers.

These situations can become reality for children with autism spectrum disorders and other “social strugglers,” for whom social skills don’t come naturally.

Enter Dr. Scott Bellini, a national expert on teaching social skills to students with autism spectrum disorders. Bellini’s work centers on the continuous improvement cycle and using evidence-based strategies to teach kids skills that many of us take for granted.

“The other big tenant that Bellini teaches is that social skills must be taught,” Jean Boger, Heartland AEA school social worker, says. “You can’t just expect all kids to pick up social skills. You wish they did, but they don’t.”

“Those things (social skills) are really hard to teach because most people get them just by living,” Dorothy Landon, Heartland AEA school psychologist, says. “And these kids just don’t. So it’s really hard for us to pick it apart and figure out what needs to happen, but this (Bellini’s) program does it for us.”

Two of the main components of Bellini’s teaching methods are the use of video self-modeling and peer mentors. Oh, and using games and role play to ensure that sessions aren’t boring for kids. “These are fun activities that kids actually want to do,” Eric Weichers, Heartland AEA school psychologist, said.

 Two years ago, Heartland AEA and school district teams came together for professional development sessions presented by Dr. Bellini about his building social relationships model. Multiple AEA discipline groups—school social workers, school psychologists and speech-language pathologists—participated with school teams to learn social skills teaching strategies directly from the expert himself. Bellini, who teaches social skills to students in a clinic setting, was interested in helping Heartland AEA-area schools implement his strategies in school settings, which was something that hadn’t really been done before. More professional development then followed for seven AEA/ school teams.

This past December two additional professional development sessions were held for AEA/school teams, facilitated by Boger, Trent Holmberg (school psychologist), Landon and Linda McAtee (speech-language pathologist).

These sessions delved deeper into how schools can realistically implement Bellini’s strategies and allowed participants to bounce ideas off one another.

“We really wanted to be able to share our work and what Scott’s (Bellini’s) theory is behind good social skills development with anyone else in our agency who would be interested in this,” Landon said. “That’s what brought us to developing the course. We hope additional teachers and AEA teams will work together to implement more so we can address the needs kids with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) have.”

From the initial group, the team at Crocker Elementary in Ankeny, including Heartland AEA staff members Kristi Truitt, special education consultant, and Weichers and special education teacher Regina Davis, has stood out for their implementation efforts.

“One of our goals originally was that we were teaming with schools,” Landon said. “These guys are shining stars of how the LEA (school) and AEA work together.”

At Crocker the training started out small for a very targeted group of seven kindergarten through third graders—kids with autism spectrum disorders and social strugglers alike. The students participate in social skills group instruction for 45 minutes once a week for nine weeks. After nine weeks the students are evaluated to see if they will benefit from further instruction. Teachers are kept in the loop of what the students are learning so they can also work on skill development with students in the classroom.

Weichers notes that teachers and principal Tom Muhlenbruck at Crocker have been great to work with as the social skills teaching has been implemented. He said their success is due to everyone being supportive of the program and willing to collaborate for the students’ benefit.

Weichers sites an example of a “shining star” from Crocker who has made great strides since beginning social skills instruction. The second grader was having lots of aggression towards her peers— pushing, name calling, sticking out her tongue. She wanted attention, but she was going about it the only way she knew how— with inappropriate actions. Since being taught proper social skills, her incidents of aggression have diminished from four to five a week to two a semester.

“She is now getting positive peer attention because we taught her the skills,” Weichers said. “She thought negative attention was what she wanted. She can now participate in a group and her inappropriate interactions have gone down to almost zero.”

Davis, the Crocker special education teacher, has been pleased with what she has learned about social skills instruction and the progress kids have been making. “Heartland brought in Scott Bellini and that was really impressive,” Davis said. “We (Crocker staff) immediately thought, ‘We need to do this and follow through.’

“Social skills affect every ounce of a kid’s day. Everything is socially based. They struggle every day in class, out at recess. It’s (the skills instruction) fun and interactive and fast paced, and we can modify it to meet their needs.”

Social skills instruction has also begun to branch out to Prairie Trail and Rock Creek elementaries in Ankeny as the district’s internal capacity has grown. Ankeny school social workers and counselors participated in the December professional development sessions to build their knowledge base about implementation strategies.

And while social skills instruction may not seem as critical as some other learning opportunities for students, the Heartland AEA group begs to differ on that assertion.

“I think the other piece of this that is maybe indirect is that social failure definitely affects academic attainment,” Weichers said. “When you talk about group work and partner work and when you talk about a student who doesn’t have the foundation socially to interact, it’s hard for them. They are completely robbed of that opportunity to work in a group.”

“It’s not just about making friends,” Landon said. “Social skills affect every single aspect of a person’s life. Anything you pursue outside of school, you have to have good social skills.”


Iowa Area Education Agencies
Central Rivers AEA Grant Wood AEA Great Prairie AEA Green Hills AEA Heartland AEA Keystone AEA Mississippi Bend Northwest AEA Prarie Lakes AEA
All Iowa AEAs are required to adhere to state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination in programs, activities and employment practices. For specific information, contact your AEA.
Iowa Area Education Agencies
Connie Johnson
Statewide Communications Director
Iowa Area Education Agencies
712/335-3588 ext. 2015

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Iowa Area Education Agencies (AEAs) were created in 1974 by the Iowa legislature to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children from birth through age 21. As regional service agencies, AEAs provide special education and school improvement services for students, families, teachers, administrators, and their communities.

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