Does it work? I guess when it comes right down to it, that is the question parents ask of us when they come looking for help for their children. It may surprise you to know that we, as clinicians, ask ourselves the same question every day. As the creator of Stepping Stones—the intensive 35-40 week social skills program for elementary school age children and their parents—I want to know that the concepts I have devoted my life and career to are making a difference in the lives of the families who entrust my practice with their children.
Although it is unusual to have a therapy practice conduct research on its own methodology, that is exactly what we have done and continue to do to be sure of the efficacy of our programs. I am exceptionally proud to be able to report that after years of study, our initial findings have shown that our program results in statistically significant improvement across all ten of the areas of social skill development we work on with our families. Through a survey of the parents, given at the beginning and end of the program, we are able to measure the progress of the children and pinpoint areas that require more focus, in addition to those that indicate the beginnings of mastery.
The ten areas of social skill development that Stepping Stone’s encompasses are:
• Basic Skills
• Joining In
• Communication/Conversation Skills
• Reading Social Cues
• Dealing with Teasing
• Stress Management
• Problem Solving
• Conflict Resolution
• Anger Control
Each of these topics represents 3-5 weeks of intensive work in group therapy sessions with both parents and children, practice at home, communication with teachers/other treating professionals, and reinforcement of skills throughout the entire program. The social skills we work on in groups are central to a child’s success throughout childhood and especially as they mature into adults. Just like every other major developmental step a child takes, it is important to have guidance from parents to help make each transition. Certainly, it would never occur to parents to allow a child to potty train on their own. Similarly, a child who is struggling with social cues should not be left alone to just “figure it out”. The coping techniques children learn when they are young will carry them successfully into adulthood. Conversely, not learning the basics of social skills can have adverse effects in all areas of that child’s life; school, work, and relationships.
As parents of school age children, many of us are familiar with the signs that our child is having trouble with social skills. They may have difficulty making friends, trouble regulating emotions, struggle reading social cues, or be the target of bullying.
So much research has been conducted about the importance of having a high Social IQ but not much evidence exists on how to achieve that if it is not innate. By studying the children in Stepping Stones and surveying the parents about their progress, we are able to see that the work we are doing is paying off. Parents report improvements across all categories of social skills from the beginning of the program to the end. This translates into real life, concrete, observable change. It can be the difference between a child who begins without the ability to make eye contact with peers, progressing to one who has learned how to join into a group of other children on the playground.
There are so many examples of what progress looks like across the spectrum of social skill development in the children we treat, but it is important to understand that these improvements are actually the foundation for success into adulthood. Certainly a great deal of focus for school age children is on their ability to succeed academically so that they can continue on to college. I’m sure we can agree that there are many kids who could get into a university based on their grades alone. However will they succeed there? Can they make friends, feel comfortable asking questions in class, and seek out help when they need it? Being able to read social signals, body language, and facial expressions is one of the most important skills we cover in Stepping Stones. It is also the phase that parents report shows the most improvement. Being able to read social cues means you understand when something you have said is not going over well, when the expression on your friend’s face means that he doesn’t understand you, or when a date is telling you through body language that they are not into you. Put two kids in a job interview, one who understands how to read the room and one who doesn’t, it’s pretty clear who has a better chance of landing that job.
Practice with reading social cues is just one of the topics in the comprehensive program I have designed. Another really valuable skill we underscore is learning how to handle strong emotions, such as anger. In very young children, outbursts are not uncommon. They are not even especially concerning if the tantrums are infrequent and the child is able to calm down on their own after a short while. However, picture this same child in middle school and imagine that she has never learned any other way to express frustration? It is really much more common than you would expect. Anger is something that is tricky to work through with our children. We want them to understand that it is ok to feel angry, but it is not ok to scream and cry and throw your phone at another child at school. By working together with families in a safe therapeutic space, children are free to experiment with different techniques to cope with anger. Similarly, the adults work with a therapist in their own group to express concerns and learn how to parent through their own strong emotions. I cannot overstate the importance to our society of raising children who constructively express their emotions. Certainly recent headlines underline this necessity.
As Stepping Stones has grown and evolved over the course of the 20 years since I created it, one skill that we found that provides the foundation for many other skills is the development of a strong sense of self. This is a tall order for many of the kids we treat. For some, the roadblocks are obvious. They might have ADHD and been told over and over that they are badly behaved because they can’t sit still. Others might experience social anxiety and have not found opportunities to socialize comfortably. However, even these seemingly obvious hurdles are much more nuanced when internalized by the kids themselves. Negative self-talk can be really loud for these children. Even the best-intentioned parents can misstep with these kids by labeling things “a phase”, or rearranging their family’s whole life to prevent an anxious child from feeling discomfort. Group therapy with peers provides a unique platform for participants to try on a more positive persona amongst others who have the same struggles. Over time, as the group dynamic forms and trust is established, members are faced with a reflection of themselves as worthy of friendship and that slowly shifts their negative self-perceptions. This is not an assumption. This is based on research.
With all of the options out there to work on social skills; apps, computer programs, lunch bunch at school, short-term therapy, kids only therapy, individual therapy, and even Pinterest worksheets (!), it is obvious that we as a society feel a high social IQ is valuable. In fact, there has been a gradual shift from the singular focus on academics to a more well-rounded approach encompassing the social/emotional needs of children as well. As a clinician, I believe the mastery of basic social skills is absolutely critical to the health and well-being of children and adults alike. As a parent, I know that we each have finite resources and wasting anything as precious as time, emotional energy, or money on things that don’t work doesn’t make sense. So I encourage you to look at where you are directing your efforts to help your children. Ask questions. Find out if there is proof that what you are doing is really going to help. If the answer is yes, then go all in. For the thousands of families who have committed hundreds of hours of work in our practice and at home to ensure their children have the best possible chance at success, I dedicate these research results to you.