Family Activities to Teach Personal-Social Skills to Children With Disabilities

by Joy Wills

We say hello in less than 2 seconds -- in that time, most school-aged children can successfully and unconsciously make more than 15 decisions based on social rules about personal space, eye contact, safe touch, word choice, volume and tone of voice, and whether to wait or initiate talk. Children with disabilities may struggle to use the social skills needed to make these decisions, but there is good news -- you can teach these skills! With patience and by creating a nurturing environment, your child can learn the skills she'll need to navigate social situations.

Create a Calm, Safe, Nurturing Environment

Patience and a nurturing environment are key in teaching your child social skills.

Children learn best when they feel safe to make mistakes without fear of anger or ridicule. This is especially true for children with disabilities because they may experience repeated failures or taunting outside of the home. Everyone participating must know their primary job is to take care of others. There are no winners or losers, only learners. When correcting mistakes, it's best to notice what went well, compliment it, then give simple advice for how to improve. It is best to model the task and know that you may need to repeat the task many times before your child is able to do it on her own.

Observe and Take Note of Needs

Play games that make a problematic social skill fun to practice.

Notice how and when your child struggles the most. Make a list of the skills that will help her to function well in those situations, then choose games and activities that will support those specific skills. For example, if your child struggles to share, take note of this and create opportunities that make it fun to share by choosing activities or games like Go Fish or Candyland.

Reading Faces and Interpreting Emotions

Social skills, like greeting others, can be practiced at the kitchen table.

Many children with disabilities struggle to interpret the emotions of others. Try some games that support listening, observing and interpreting emotions. Emotion Charades is a fun way to practice this skill. To play, make game cards by writing emotions or drawing faces on index cards. Then, split into 2 teams. A player has to "read" the emotion card and act out the emotion for her team. Her team members have to guess the emotion being shown to get a point. Kitchen Table Greeting is an activity that you can play at the breakfast table (or even in the car). In this activity one person says good morning (or another phrase). His voice and body language should show how he feels (happy or tired). Everyone else greets him back in unison by mirroring his voice and body language and guesses the emotion he is expressing. Continue by giving everyone around the table a chance to greet and be greeted. Give your child a chance to talk about how she knew what emotion was being shown. When your child is ready, move toward greeting each other one-on-one around the table and practicing skills like shaking hands, making eye contact, practicing what to say and talking about differences between greeting friends and authority figures.

Self-Control and Following Directions

Practicing self-control can be fun.

Incorporate games that support listening, following directions quickly, personal space and conflict resolution. Simon Says is a classic, and will help your child with skills like following directions and exercising self-control. Talk about allowing for personal space and what to do if someone is bumped. Another fun game that focuses on practicing self-control is Sneaky Statues. This game is similar to Red Light, Green Light. To play, choose a museum watchman. Everyone else will be statues. When the watchman is facing the statues, they must freeze in place, like statues. When the watchman turns her back, everyone dances, hops or moves around. When the watchman turns back around, everyone must freeze so the watchman doesn't see them moving. If the watchman sees a person move, that person sits until the next round. The last person standing becomes the watchman. Tip: Prepare your child for the game by telling her the skills that she will need to be successful. When your child is successful, talk about what helped her do well (watching the watchman carefully or listening and doing what "Simon" says quickly).

Sharing and Working Together

Some children with disabilities may struggle to share or work well with others. In order to be successful with this game, sharing and working together is a must. Origins Online, an online resource that supports the development of social skills in classrooms, recommends Alphabet Volleyball. You'll need a playground ball or other soft ball. One player hits the ball up in the air and all the players chant the letter "A." The next hit is "B" and so on. The goal is to work together to successfully hit the ball into the air 26 consecutive times, calling out letters A through Z without letting the ball fall to the ground. A player may hit the ball more than once but not two times in a row. So, players will have to think about how to make sure someone else can hit the ball after them. If the ball touches the ground the game starts again at A. Tip: When several failures occur, stop and have the players discuss why they think this is happening and what they can do differently. Also, the chanting is part of the group experience and helps reach the goal.

Connect and Explain

Connect the games and activities to the skills they will use in social situations.

Connect the skills in these games to other parts of the day when needed. Do this proactively to prepare your child for a challenging situation, or after to help your child reflect on her actions and decide how she could have handled things differently. For example, say "Just like in Sneaky Statues when you REALLY wanted to keep dancing, you did a great job stopping. You have to do the same and have self-control during art class."

About the Author

Joy Wills has worked with children for more than 15 years, including the last 10 as an an elementary school teacher. She is currently teaching kindergarten and first grade in Denver. She began writing professionally in 2011 for various websites, specializing in articles focused on family, education and spirituality.

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