Therapy Overload

Q: My eight-year-old son received many services from the local school district this past year. Now, for the coming year, his school wants him to receive “socialization skills training.” He does definitely need the physical therapy he gets, as it helps him play ball better, and that is an important part of a boy’s life. His occupational therapy is improving his dexterity so his handwriting has gotten better, and his special-ed teacher is helping him keep up with his general studies.

While the speech therapist or school counselor could work with him on improving his socialization skills, I feel that he’s taken out of the classroom enough! We try very hard to avoid having him miss Rebbi time, as his limudei kodesh skills aren’t that strong. But limudei chol can’t be totally replaced by therapies, either.

Though I don’t disagree with the school’s assessment that our son needs help improving his interactions with peers, my husband and I feel that we could work with him in this area ourselves and thus avoid another therapist in his life.

A: Though the lack of socialization skills in certain children is truly a learning disability, it is something that can be worked on, to some degree, at home. The optimal method for learning socialization skills is in a group setting, but this format is not always available or desirable, depending on the individual child’s temperament. A child might feel uncomfortable in a group setting and instead need to focus on the acquisition of these skills on a one-to-one basis.

If you want to attempt to work on this yourself, since you are reluctant to add additional therapies to his already busy schedule, you can try the ideas suggested below.However, one must be honest with oneself: If you don’t see the desired results, you need to proceed on other avenues. It is usually worthwhile to have professional socialization skills training — even if it is short-term — from which the child can benefit for years to come.

There are socialization-skills books that contain pictures of various social situations with captions suggesting appropriate responses to the situations. Though often used by speech therapists and special education tutors, parents can use such materials if they are not didactic, but rather playful, in their approach to it.

One page might show how a child opens a conversation, or how a child asserts himself appropriately. A parent can ask questions about the picture and use humor in describing the situation. Since the children in the picture do not look like the child’s friends or family members, this method is usually not threatening or uncomfortable for the child.

The questions one asks his child need to have answers, and a parent has to be prepared to offer solutions for these complicated social situations. The conversations should be more philosophical and general and not focus on the child’s particular issues — unless the child himself brings that up and wants to talk about it. A parent needs to be non-judgmental in this discussion in order to elicit a sense of comfort and a more open response from his child.

A more creative parent can role-play social situations and show possible appropriate responses to difficult situations. A parent can demonstrate what spatially appropriate distance feels like to another person, if the child has that issue, again using humor rather than appearing to be condescending.

If a parent himself has an issue in certain social situations, he can tell his child how he functions — for example, feeling shy in a large group. Seeing how an adult might have a similar struggle can normalize the child’s feelings about this challenge, and give him more fortitude to overcome this issue in his life.

Clearly, not every parent feels comfortable in assuming the role of “social skills trainer” to his children, and when that is the case, professional help can be very beneficial. Some children do not pick up social skills naturally, and need to be taught to look for other people’s reactions to their words and actions. Positive reinforcement for good eye contact and good conversational ability can always be given to children to help build self-esteem and reinforce positive change.