Social Skills Boost Academics Now that Common Core’s arrived in most schools, SLPs are needed more than ever to teach standards-dependent social and language skills. Features
Features  |   September 01, 2015
Social Skills Boost Academics
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School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Language Disorders / Social Communication & Pragmatics Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Features
Features   |   September 01, 2015
Social Skills Boost Academics
The ASHA Leader, September 2015, Vol. 20, 48-54. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.20092015.48
The ASHA Leader, September 2015, Vol. 20, 48-54. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.20092015.48
School has always been an intensely social experience, but now social interaction is a standardized and educationally relevant skill. What’s made this so is the Common Core State Standards, adopted by 46 states and adapted in other forms, under other names, in others. From elementary school language arts to advanced high school math classes, the standards set clearly defined expectations for students in pragmatic listening and speaking skills.
Kindergarten through 12th-grade students “must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups and with a partner,” declare the College and Career Readiness anchor standards for the Common Core. The standards call on students to respond to and develop others’ comments, compare and contrast, and analyze and synthesize ideas.
This social learning approach makes sense as we prepare students to work with others in the workplace, but it poses a challenge to students with communications challenges and the educators teaching them: The standards, in many ways, expect students to have already mastered social skills as a means of achieving academic skills, explains Mike Maykish, a speech-language pathologist at Belville Elementary School in North Carolina.
“The Common Core encourages and forces students to interact with one another and learn how to come to a consensus and express opinions,” he says. “It is expected that those interactions are a known thing, that these kids know how to interact. But our kids, particularly those on the speech-language caseload, don’t always have the language skills, or the social interaction skills, to do so in appropriate ways.”
What does this mean for SLPs? Across all ages, students need intervention in social communication to master the Common Core State Standards and their variants. As a result, say Maykish and others, SLPs have an increasingly important role in plugging themselves into the classroom, using their understanding of social communication, group communication and pragmatic skills to help all students become academically successful.
An implied skill
As far back as the late 19th century, the philosopher John Dewey argued that the purpose of true schooling was to train students in habits of mind, most importantly “plasticity”—the ability to take in and be changed by new information—and “interdependence”—the ability to work with others. Today those century-old “habits of mind” have been reworked as “21st Century Skills” and the so-called four Cs: critical thinking and problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity, all of which underpin the Common Core.
Speaking and listening are integral to these four Cs, but the Common Core typically sets out no curricula in these areas, notes Rob Dellinger, an SLP at Wilburn Year-Round Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina. “A teacher colleague of mine remarked that we have the speaking and listening standards for the English language arts curriculum, but we don’t have the lessons.”
Therefore, the teacher’s focus shifts to the academic reading and writing standards, on which the students are tested and on which students and teachers are held accountable. As Dellinger’s colleague says, “As a teacher, you are going to focus on the parts that get tested: reading and writing.”
In comparison, Dellinger adds, “Performance on speaking, listening and language standards is judged informally and based largely on teacher observation, so these standards get ‘unbolded’ and minimized.”
Quoting the legendary social ecologist Peter Drucker, Dellinger argues, “What gets measured gets managed and it is the reading, writing and mathematics standards that get prioritized and emphasized.” Therefore, speaking and listening skills are implied and observed, rather than taught and measured.
A crucial academic enabler
This situation is not a problem for students with well-honed social skills, but it creates difficulties for kids who have not yet developed those capabilities.
“Typically developing students bring a set of social learning abilities to the classroom that they have evolved from birth,” according to Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking and Common Core Standards. “The role of the classroom teacher when ‘teaching’ these standards is not to literally teach the core skills, but instead to provide opportunities to practice within the academic lesson. That means we expect most of our students to have adequate-to-solid social communication skills by the time they enter kindergarten.”
However, for students with socially based learning disabilities, the same type of social growth takes not only time, but explicit instruction. At the elementary school level, says North Carolina SLP Maykish, “The Common Core is expecting several-sentence paragraphs and there are some kids who are still learning how to be in school, let alone how to write a complete sentence. We are expecting them to climb a mountain that they have no foundation for.”
The challenge is not only relegated to younger students. Lynn Ruthenbeck, an SLP at Savanna High School, a National P21 Exemplar School in Anaheim, California, has seen the effects of increased classroom collaboration on her older students.
“For some of my students it has been helpful, taking the focus off test-taking,” Ruthenbeck says. “However, other students have found the focus on working in teams much more challenging and more issues have come to light. In particular, I’m working on social pragmatics with one of my more vocal students who is learning to withhold insulting remarks in class and to focus more on how his peers perceive him.”
Such a focus on speaking, listening and interpersonal skills is key to improving academic skills, says Dellinger, who works in an elementary school he describes as “high needs”—lower performing with high poverty. His beliefs are backed by the National Association of School Psychologists, which states that good social skills are critical to successful functioning in life and an influence on academic performance for children and adolescents.
But what exactly do we mean by “good social skills”? According to the expansive definition devised by Social Skills Rating System developers Frank Gresham and Stephen Elliott, social skills are the “socially acceptable learned behaviors that enable a person to interact effectively with others and to avoid socially unacceptable responses.”
In a school setting, particularly a Common Core school setting, social skills are logically related to academic performance. Directly, this can mean anything from cooperating in groups to productively participating in class discussions.
Indirectly, the development of competencies in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship skills mean that students can engage in more positive social behaviors and have fewer problems with misconduct and less emotional distress. This results in more engagement in the classroom and better test scores, according to a 2011 study by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
In other words, social skills become a kind of crucial academic enabler.
The SLP’s role
For the first time, the Common Core has given SLPs clear guidelines on students’ expected skills at each grade level. Therefore, by tying their services to the standards, SLPs can write goals and interventions that are individualized and curriculum-relevant.
For example, Maykish finds that he focuses a lot on appropriate ways for students to agree and disagree with one another.
“Since the Common Core demands that students interact with one another, state their opinions and give support for their opinions, it is crucial that our students get comfortable with that essential life skill,” Maykish says. He draws on Winner’s Social Thinking materials and the Model Me DVDs to teach skills such as turn-taking, initiation of play and asking for help.
To make intervention relevant to his students’ daily lives, Kevin Maier, an elementary SLP at Chester Community Charter School in Pennsylvania, encourages them to make connections to the classroom setting. “For example, we might be working on something so they can communicate better with their peers on a project or feel confident in giving a verbal response in class,” he says.
To start every session with positive reinforcement, Dellinger asks each student what has been going well that week in school.
“Recently, one of my kids told me, ‘Mr. Dellinger, I was assertive today because I volunteered for the big role.’ He stutters and he was performing a small role in a reading theater group. Then, on the day of the performance, the boy who was supposed to read the main part was absent and my student volunteered.”
The boy knew the word “assertive” because it is one of the five characteristics of a great communicator that Dellinger explores with his students.
According to the work of SLP Kristen Chmela of the Chmela Fluency Center, these five characteristics are being assertive, attentive, confident, effective and proactive. Dellinger unpacks their meanings:
  • Assertive: Speaking up for yourself and having your words heard.

  • Attentive: Listening with your whole body, connecting and staying in the conversation.

  • Confident: Focusing on eye contact, first impressions and voice volume.

  • Effective: Saying what you want to say.

  • Proactive: Goal planning and a sense of honesty about communication.

At the end of every session, Dellinger makes sure to praise his students for any improvements. “I always give them feedback on what they are doing right, every move they are making toward becoming the kind of communicator they want to be, or we want them to be.”
As a result of the Common Core, some schools encourage SLPs to do more direct classroom work. With such a focus on oral presentations and group discussion, Maureen Wilson, an SLP at Hunt Club Elementary in Oswego, Illinois, finds that “the push-in model is the best way to observe students in their natural setting and then help to facilitate the use of skills from the speech room to the classroom.”
Erica Levinson, an SLP at Atholton Elementary in Columbia, Maryland, also finds that incidental, in-the-moment teaching is particularly effective with preschool and kindergarten students. She works with teachers to produce instruction in social language skills during students’ group activities.
However, with the stress of accountability and the increasing focus on test scores, not all teachers welcome the introduction of SLPs into the classroom, notes Perry Flynn, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the speech-language pathology consultant to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “Some teachers believe that if SLPs serve students in their classrooms, the standards will be watered down,” he explains.
Rather than arguing against that belief, Dellinger highlights the fact that “research suggests that the location of therapy—pull-out therapy in the speech room versus push-in therapy in the classroom—matters far less than whether or not the SLP and teacher collaborated on the lesson ahead of time.”
Teachers can stay at the center of their classroom communities, and SLPs can still see their work carry over into the class dynamic. The greatest success comes from getting “buy-in” and carryover from teachers, Dellinger says.
Time to step up
One particular gift of the Common Core is the common language about communication it provides to SLPs, teachers, counselors and psychologists alike. “We make sure to use similar materials and similar language so that it can be consistent for the student,” Maykish says. “By making social skills a part of the classroom structure, it’s not just the one identified student on the caseload who benefits from the instruction, but the whole classroom.”
SLPs need to speak up to underscore to the team what they do for students’ language outcomes, says Maier. “Teachers offer a great amount of insight with regard to social skills because of the sheer volume of social interactions they witness in a day,” he says. “Yet, they are often unfamiliar with what we do. We must keep those lines of communication open. We have to advocate for ourselves and inform teachers that social skills are often treated by speech-language pathologists, so that social issues that arise can be addressed as immediately as possible.”
In her high school, Levinson makes the time to educate teachers on her individual work with students and offers up her services in the classroom. With busy schedules, a great deal of the communication about students happens over email, but she recommends meeting face-to-face with teachers as often as possible to discuss students’ particular needs and growth.
In North Carolina, Flynn has seen a surge in SLPs partnering with counselors and school psychologists to coordinate social communication groups. These groups benefit both IEP-eligible and non-identified students and give those who are struggling a chance to practice skills learned in intervention. Flynn describes a lunch-buddies club in one of the high schools he serves: “Students from regular education sit with the special education students from the self-contained classes and chat during lunch every day.”
In Maier’s view, the Common Core gives SLPs a new opportunity to showcase the impact of their work. And with the public backlash against the persistent focus on test scores, there is an emerging recognition of how noncognitive factors, such as social skills, affect long-term academic success. Increasingly, says Maier, SLPs are finding their place in the classroom, finding more ways to improve student effort and performance, and using their skills to create effective and socially adept learners.
By working as an integral part of the education community, SLPs can help the students build the social skills they need to succeed in school, and in life, Flynn agrees.
“The Common Core Standards have changed how SLPs practice,” Flynn says. “Because we are both working toward mastery of those educationally relevant standards, it is easier for teachers to see a place for us in their classroom and for us to find a part-time home in regular education. If school cultures are really aware of what we do, the standards give us newfound value. Increasingly, people understand that we exponentially ratchet up the delivery of the standards if we are included in the mix.”
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September 2015
Volume 20, Issue 9