Teaching Social Skills While Social Distancing

Tell us more about your role and your classroom.

I am a special education teacher working primarily with students with Autism in a K-8 setting within the Minneapolis Public Schools. My licensure area is in the area of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) so I specialize in working with students with autism but also service students with other varying abilities.

As a setting three autism teacher, I work primarily with students who are in the self-contained special education classroom but I also service students that participate the majority of their day in the general education setting as well. Minneapolis Public Schools is a very large district and my school is located in the Southeast neighborhood of the city. However, my classroom has been online using Google Classroom and I work from my office in my home.

What is your current situation like? How have you been interacting with students?

I have been engaging with my students using Google Classroom and through Google Meet. This is a stressful time for most of my families. The one area that we come together for, social skills, is a challenge during these times being that we are social distancing. So we are coming up with ways to stay connected though we cannot meet in person. I appreciate my students showing up once a week for a game day where we can practice our social skills with each other. Other days I have a question that they engage with using text back and forth within the chat function of the classroom.

I also work on expected and unexpected behaviors following Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Behavior Mapping. This is where we are able to connect on real-world experiences and engage in how expected and unexpected behaviors make other people feel, how they make us feel, and the consequences for our behaviors. We also discuss daily living skills and how they can be incorporated with students at home and in the perfect place to practice them.

I run small meetings to work one-on-one with students or in group settings where I encourage the general education teachers to join us so they can have contact with the students as well. I also work with students in math, reading and writing throughout the week.

How are your school and district stepping up for students at this time? Do you feel that your role has shifted?

I have been really proud of Minneapolis and how the district has stepped up to ensure that children are getting food. They are providing it for any student 18 years of age or younger. They are able to come to a food site, (there are usually 10 a day) throughout the week and students can receive seven days worth of breakfasts and lunches to take home.

My school building is one of the sites for child care for essential workers. I know of support staff that typically work with my students during the year who are helping around the district to provide care and support for students while they are in the buildings.

This has been a whole new challenge, learning how to teach from an online platform and teaching social skills in a manner that is unconventional, or at least not my first choice. I have attended more professional development in the last couple of months than I could put in a whole school year.

This was a rude awakening to the inequity that we knew was there, in the fact that we do not provide one-to-one devices in our district. We have students that do/did not have internet access or most recently just got a device to complete any work. Students are caring for siblings or there are multiple children in a home trying to use one or two devices, so their time needs to be split up throughout the day. Accommodating times when students feel most comfortable or the ability to connect has been a challenge. It is compounded by the fact that we also have families at home that we are also trying to connect with outside of school hours.

What is a success or milestone that you feel like you’ve hit since schools have been closed?

I have been really proud of what we have come together to create as teachers and the connections that we are making with each other across the district and with our students.

I found that the day that everyone got connected, meaning that that last student that I was waiting to hear from got connected — that was a special day. It was a huge milestone because it took a while to get a device to them. Even though I do not see them on a daily basis, I appreciate every time they make a connection, feel confident in what they are doing, and are proud of their hard work.

What remains a challenge when it comes to meeting the needs of your students?

A continued challenge in terms of meeting the needs of my students is that we need to make connections and practice social skills. That we don’t get farther away from each other and continue to distance.

I’ve had parents contact me explaining their frustrations and the fear of what the new “normal” will look like. They fear the one area where their child needs the most support will be pushed aside, and they will not get what they need. Meaning they’re being successful in online learning because they do not have the distractions of the classroom and the behaviors; or being worried about who’s looking at them and dealing with all of those social aspects (what challenges them).

By distance learning we won’t have those challenges in particular, but we will have a deficit in social skills when we all come back together. I do fear for the kids that aren’t being told or explained about what this looks like to them. This is uncharted territory for our generation and we are going to continue to find ways to help and to teach the necessary skills our students will need.

What are some tips you’d give to someone in your position who is looking for ways to further support students?

I think the biggest way that we can support students right now is through relationship building, doing those check-ins, giving the extra support, and communicating with parents. Everyone is dealing with something and we have to understand that we need patience and understanding. I love seeing my students’ faces and I can guarantee we are all here doing the best we can. Some days it isn’t pretty, but we are all trying our best.

What do you most look forward to when you’re back at school?

Honestly, hugs (when it is socially acceptable again). I’m a person who truly enjoys face-to-face connection, in real time, picking up on visual cues, gauging the environment and mood of the group, making that hard shift if the lesson isn’t going as planned, and meeting the kids where they are. That’s what I’m going to look forward to.

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