“What are you doing to teach social skills?”
I taught a self-contained ESE class for over sixteen years and that was a question I got frequently. I had a specific time that I had to teach Math and ELA (English and Language Arts). Science and Social Studies often had to share a time slot so those were on a rotation throughout the week. We were assigned a time for related arts or “specials”, lunch, and recess. These were all typically with one grade level class that we joined for mainstreaming and other activities. There was little to no time left so finding time to teach social skills was a challenge but it wasn’t my only challenge. What do I teach for social skills was just as much of a question. Our district did offer some resources to share among our multiple self-contained ASD units but we did not have a specific social skills curriculum, just some books and resources to well, cherry pick from. It often came down to what the students needed at the time. Taking turns, following directions, using kind words, and executive functioning skills were all topics that we had to review frequently, along with many others. To be honest, though, it never seemed to be quite enough.
Toward the last few years of my teaching career, our SLPs, or Speech-Language Pathologists, began to incorporate various social skills as part of a large group instruction since so many students had similar goals on their IEPs that addressed pragmatics, which tied into language goals. Though I was labeled a VE class, most of my students were diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum for the last eleven years of my teaching career. Most of the SLPs would include the entire class in the lessons as usually there would only be one or two students that were not on their case load. This was incredibly helpful and gave me a jumping off point for the rest of the week. I also could go to our SLP and hint about future topics that were needed. “Hey, we are having a lot of trouble with seeing things from another person’s point of view. Can you help me with some perspective taking lessons?” This partnership was really helpful. It wasn’t perfect, and it still involved a good amount of research for activities that would engage the students, but it was an improvement from where things had been in the earlier part of my career.
Now I had some help in the “what” department. In addition to the weekly scheduled group lessons the SLP ran, the “when” usually happened in the afternoon after recess when many of the kids were still wound up. This was usually when our science and social studies lessons were scheduled. I would allocate a few minutes each day at this time to helping my students learn to self regulate and then incorporate a social skills lesson. Sometimes it was just a few minutes. Some days it would take up more time but we always started the same way.
We would start the transition by sitting at our desks with the lights dimmed. I would play quiet music with little to no words. We would do some brief deep breathing and stretching activities to calm our central nervous system and learn ways to self-regulate our emotions and pay attention to how our bodies were feeling. After the breathing and stretching, the kids would take a little desk Savasana (this is the resting period at the end of a yoga class). They would rest their heads on their desk for just a couple minutes, lights off, music playing quietly. Ahhhhh…..do you feel calmer just imaging it? After this “brain break”, I would sometimes go with a topic I had planned. Other times I would pick something that came up during the day or had just happened at lunch or recess. It might “look like” a brief discussion and brainstorming session: “I observed ____ today. If ____ happened to you, what are your choices? What could we do differently next time?” Other times, we would turn it into a game. It really depended on how much time we had.
In addition to social skills, and an area I was probably much better at incorporating on a consistent basis, was infusing calming skills and strategies throughout our day. Because most of my students from year to year where on the Autism Spectrum, it was important to teach them ways to self-regulate and keep tools at hand at any given time. They often needed to be taught how to manage those BIG feelings, as I’ve come to call them. I’ll go more into that on another blog post but having certain tools at hand made our days, for the most part, go much smoother.
Every year we dedicated one area of the room as a safe space. This was usually accomplished with a gym mat on the floor in a quiet area of the room with minimal distractions, using bookshelves or other sturdy furnishings to provide some privacy for the student needing a break. Posters displaying calming techniques would be in prominent areas of the room to remind students what they could do when they felt anxious or stressed, how and when to ask for a break, and what tangible tools were available to help them calm down, like go-with-the-flow bottles, stress balls, a stuffed animal, weighted lap pillows, and other fidgets. I toyed with allowing the students to bring in a fidget for a couple years. The rule was that it had to fit in the palm in their hand and they could close their hand around it. For some students, it was helpful and they used it appropriately. For others, it was more of a distraction or they had a hard time following those rules. Eventually, I chalked it up as an experiment best not repeated and just kept a selection of fidgets in the room that they could use at will. For the most part, that worked well. There are always those exceptions, in any classroom.
I hope this gives you some food for thought for how to incorporate social skills and calming strategies within your classroom. It is important to note that these ideas are not exclusively for a self-contained ESE classroom. So many students with various needs mainstream for part or all of their day. Having these skills and strategies in place in all classrooms are very important. It may save you from dealing with some undesirable behaviors in the future. It will also give you a classroom full of students who can, or are actively learning how to, self-regulate those BIG feelings.
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You can find yoga brain breaks and social skills packets on Mariann’s TPT store, Spoonful of Love and Learning. Go to
They are also soon to be on the website: OmmazingKids.com A store full of amazing things is COMING SOON!