Finding an appropriate social skills group can be a challenge for parents whose child connects easily with adults, but has a harder time navigating recess…or who gets along wonderfully with peers, but only when he or she is in charge.
This month, I am delighted to introduce you to three of my colleagues within the field of social skills training, Heather Marenda (Social Scouts), Stefanie Canter-Karp (Social Stars), and Natasha Parsakia (Little Picassos).
I invited them to participate in an email Q&A, in the hopes of providing you with a glimpse into their backgrounds, perspectives, and individualized approaches to social skills training.
I hope that you find these insights useful, but when it comes to making treatment-related decisions for your family, be sure to consult with a professional, and keep in mind that, for children with asynchronous patterns of development, social skills training often represents one component of a broader multidisciplinary approach.
A Q&A with Heather Marenda, Stefanie Canter-Karp, and Natasha Parsakia
What common social cognitive/communication challenges do you see among the children in your groups?
STEFANIE: Many of the children in our groups are excellent communicators with adults; however, they’re not always as skilled with their peers. Participants often demonstrate difficulty in joining in with groups, initiating interactions, sustaining conversations, making appropriate comments, and regulating their own emotions for positive and successful interactions.
HEATHER: The children in Social Scouts often have difficulty initiating play and conversation, sharing ideas in play and conversation, recognizing nonverbal social cues and nuances, thinking and wondering about others, taking the perspective of others, and understanding abstract language (i.e. literal thinkers).
NATASHA: We’re used to seeing children who display signs of extreme perfectionism and who become disturbed that events may not have played out in the ways they envisioned them. We also see common executive functioning deficits in the areas of organization, flexibility, impulse control, self regulation, emotional control, and metacognition (being able to appreciate how one’s words/actions affect others).
What is your minimum/maximum group size?
HEATHER: Our minimum is two children, and our maximum is eight.
STEFANIE: The minimum group size is two children and the maximum is six.
NATASHA: So far we try not to have groups with more than five children at a time. We would rather run more groups than put a large number together; we’ve found that in order to fully support each child "less is more," so to speak.
What factors do you consider when putting together a group?
NATASHA: When assigning children into groups we consider children’s chronological age, as well as mental age. We like mixing things up by bringing together children with varying temperaments and skills, so that they complement one another.
STEFANIE: Children are grouped by developmental and/or chronological age. Not all children will be working on the same area, as one child’s strength is another child’s weakness. This diversity allows children to be models to each other.
HEATHER: Before accepting a child into one of our groups, we meet with both the parents and the child for a comprehensive intake/screening process. In determining eligibility, we consider a child’s interests, gender, chronological and developmental age, diagnosis, and his/her profile of strengths and challenges in terms of language and play skills, social communication, emotion regulation, executive functioning, and sensory processing.
What in your own training, history, and practice has contributed to your depth of understanding?
HEATHER: My partner [Amy Wilhelm] and I have almost 30 years of combined experience, and we are constantly collaborating with various professionals, seeking parent input, and keeping up with the latest research through continuing education. The children we work with prove to be some of our best teachers.
STEFANIE: Before becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist, I spent many years working with typically-developing children in summer camp settings, where I regularly observed appropriate social interactions and helped problem solve social situations. As a Speech-Language Pathologist at the UCLA Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program, I worked collaboratively in facilitating language development and social interactions between children. After several years of working with children individually and in small groups, and after shadowing some children in their school settings, Social Stars was born. In addition to my professional training in this area, I’m also the mom of a twice-exceptional son and a neurotypical daughter. The experiences I have gained being their parent has greatly influenced how I run my groups.
NATASHA: My career started at the UCLA Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program, where I collaborated with speech therapists, occupational therapists, recreational therapists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and leading psychologists and psychiatrists. From the beginning I was taught that maladaptive behaviors are caused by underlying deficits in needed skills, and effective treatment entails training children with the necessary skills and replacement behaviors to ensure overall success.
My partner at Little Picassos, Stefanie Trenholme, also places a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary teamwork. She, herself, is a licensed speech and language pathologist, with a background in art education. Together, we have been able to create social skills groups that target social and language skill development, and shape children's behaviors to encourage more success in natural environments through children's creativity in art and play!