Holding a conversation, working in a group, giving constructive feedback and managing conflict are vital interpersonal skills that contribute to independent and connected living.
While some people seem to acquire these skills effortlessly, others facing social challenges may require additional support. This includes the autism community – a estimated 205,000 Australians with a higher prevalence in children aged five to 15 years.
Fortunately, we are now beginning to think of these challenges as stemming from social differences, rather than viewing them as deficits. In educational contexts for neurodiverse children, this has helped to emphasize the teaching of cross-cultural collaborative skills that are important for the development of each child.
Early in my teaching career, I found myself working with a cohort of students who each had individual learning plans and had socio-emotional differences. Several were autistic or had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while others had no specific diagnostic label.
What they all had in common was the need for extra support to develop lasting friendships and learn the skills to be able to work as a team while remaining true to themselves.
Importantly, they also all identified themselves as “gamers” and that was when I first experimented with using video games to teach social skills. I started a weekly lunchtime gaming club and was surprised to see how several students began to show new skills in cooperation and information sharing.
THE DIGITAL GAME AS AN EDUCATIONAL TOOL
As gaming has become mainstream, the use of digital games as teaching tools in education has also increased around the world.
Studies have shown that playing video games and identifying as a gamer can foster a sense of youth belongingwhich can be particularly useful for people with disabilities and neurological differences.
Several years after my experience with the club de jeux du midi, I embarked on a to research project to study how cooperative video games could help children with socio-emotional differences to develop targeted social skills.
To help students become proficient in learning and using collaborative skills, they need to both gain knowledge of the steps in performing the skill and understand why each skill may be important, and then recognize when to perform competence for the benefit of the team.
THE CENTRAL ROLE OF THE TEACHER
As part of my to researchfive students diagnosed with autism or Down syndrome participated in a 10-week collaborative play program teaching 15 targeted collaborative skills, ranging from “taking turns” and “doing our work” (participation), to ” ask for help” and “give feedback”.
Each workshop was filmed and the data analyzed, yielding valuable insights into the conditions that can foster social interaction skills. For example, in the first session, none of the students were able to demonstrate the targeted skill of “offering help to peers”, but in the last session, the skill was observed being used by band members 10 times.
Filming the workshops provided us with plenty of footage that we were able to edit into video models to provide children and their teachers with explicit examples of how the targeted skills could be performed and the contexts in which they were useful during play. .
When considering the best way to help students learn new skills, explicit instruction has proven to be a very effective method to teach most novice learners and develop basic knowledge.
This approach typically involves a teacher clearly explaining a new skill to students before breaking it down into the small steps needed to perform the skill. We took the same approach using video modeling and quickly started seeing positive results.
Among children, the number of children “using our voice to give instructions” increased from 44 to 122 during the intervention, while cases of “sharing information about tasks” increased from 25 to over 100 in each of the bottom four. sessions.
Meaningful interactions during play were also examined in more detail, so that the teacher-researcher could better understand what led each child to use a particular skill and their success in using the skill.
One of these events happened during the third session while the students were playing the game Legends of Rayman. Upon reaching a difficult level, a player had to clear a path blocked by doors, traps, and other obstacles. If they failed, the other players would be consumed by a wall of fire. Students showed signs of frustration with the high stakes and growing urgency of this task.
One student, Falcon*, attempted to guide his teammate Pit* using only one- or two-word sentences or non-verbal gestures towards the screen, resulting in multiple failures.
The scenario proved to be an ideal opportunity for the teaching staff to guide the players in using strategies to regulate their emotions and identify the language needed to give instructions that could be understood by the other player.
The teacher-researcher carefully coached both players as needed, and as a result, Falcon and Pit became more receptive to each other’s feedback and more in sync in their actions. They successfully cleared the level.
WHERE TO COME FROM HERE?
From explicitly explaining contextual rules about taking turns to modeling problem-solving processes by “thinking out loud”, teachers have played a prominent role throughout the intervention.
Although the research provides a guide on how schools might implement a structured social skills program to support neurodiverse students, further work is needed to determine whether the skills learned through a collaborative, learning-based intervention games successfully convert to real-world scenarios.
Celebrating neurodiversity means we need to recognize that there are different ways to practice these skills and we need to have a dialogue with neurodiverse individuals and their families about what really matters to them.
Teaching should be culturally appropriate and done in a way that affirms neurodiversity. For example, it is important for every child to learn to listen to others, but there are many different ways to show that we are listening.
It’s something we look forward to exploring at Next Level Collaboration, a recently established social enterprise supported by the University of Melbourne. Our evidence-based social capacity building workshops for neurodiverse children will soon be expanded to other sites and we look forward to collecting more data that will allow us to evaluate the impact of our support programs.
Families with autistic children go to great lengths to find support programs that balance effective learning of collaborative skills while respecting the differences of our neurodiverse communities. For many parents, finding an appropriate program that achieves this goal can be difficult.
It is therefore imperative that facilitators ensure that the programs they deliver are informed by both strong research-based practices and the voices of those we seek to support.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of research participants.
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