Stepping Outside Your SLP Comfort Zone - Setting Up A School Wide Social Thinking Program

Today, I'm pleased to welcome Daria from Speech Paths with the latest installment of my "Stepping Outside Your SLP Comfort Zone" series!

Hello everyone!  My name is Daria O’Brien from Speech Paths and I’m sharing how I stepped out of my comfort zone!  Thank you to Natalie for hosting this terrific series!

Before I tell you my journey establishing a school-wide curriculum, let me briefly orient you to my background and school environment.  I’ve always been drawn to challenging populations, especially kids who struggle with social skills and behavioral concerns.  Since so many of the students I have worked with throughout my career struggle navigating the social world (both in and out of the classroom), I quickly keyed into the work of Michelle Garcia Winner.  I remember hearing Michelle speak at our state convention in the 1990s, before autism was a part of our clinical vocabulary and before she coined the phrase “social thinking”.  She described what was then called “semantic-pragmatic language disorders”.  No matter what we were calling it, I knew she was on to something and that my students would benefit from her intervention methods.

I officially became an “MGW groupie”, reading her work, attending numerous seminars and utilizing the methods that became the foundation of Social Thinking.  I even had the pleasure of speaking at her conference in San Francisco and again in Philadelphia. 

For the past 7 years I’ve worked in a private school with a primary population of students classified with some sort of behavioral issues.  Most stem from learning disabilities, autism spectrum, and attention deficit problems.  We are an out-of-district placement, with classrooms K-12 and an enrollment of nearly 300. Most of our students require social skills training as part of their IEP.  As we realize, in order for students to generalize these skills and use them functionally, they require the support of educators and their peers to practice learned skills across a variety of social contexts.
Although I have implemented social-cognitive therapy with my students during our speech time, I knew the curriculum was applicable to ALL students in my school and felt strongly that the methods would help control behavioral issues.  My “big picture” was to implement a school-wide Social Thinking (ST) curriculum. 

Initially, I had to suppress my impulse to run to administration and unleash my brainstorm.  Although it was a great idea, I needed to proceed slowly.  One lesson I have learned along the way is that most people are resistant to change and coming across too strongly and quickly is never advisable.   Too much too quickly would almost certainly be my downfall—20 classrooms, nearly 300 students and countless staff would certainly require a team approach that evolved in stages.

My first step was to organize my thinking and put together a plan.  ST is comprehensive; which aspects would most effectively serve the school’s population?   A common denominator among the majority of students was struggles with emotional regulation.  The Zones of Regulation program (Leah Kuypers) and foundational ST skills (expected/unexpected behaviors, whole body listening, thinking with your eyes) provided a great starting point. 

Next I decided to pilot the program and measure its success.  I consulted with several colleagues who were open to collaboration and could provide me with access to several classroom settings to “test the waters”.  This collaboration allowed me to push into areas such as health, counseling and even language arts while still aligning to state standards.    The pilot lasted an entire school year and the results were significant: behavioral incidents decreased and teachers reported an increase in overall social communication skills. 

Armed with these results, it was time to approach administration.  Prior to our meeting I wrote a proposal of how I would like to implement the program school wide including the team that would be involved and their responsibilities, alignment to CCCS, and scheduling.  With administration’s approval, the implementation of a school-wide ST curriculum was slated to begin in the fall of 2013.  As we end our second year, the ST program continues to evolve, grow and benefit our students.

Here are some tips to help you if you would like to step out of your SLP comfort zone and establish a curriculum into your school:

1.  Have a plan.  As SLPs, we are great at establishing goals and objectives as well as breaking tasks into small subsets.  Use this strength to think of the “big picture” and the increments needed to reach your goal.    

2.   Collaboration is key.  A school-wide program is too great of a task to develop and implement on your own.  Communicate with supportive staff and establish a team.  Use your leadership skills to reinforce the value of those you are collaborating with as they are critical to your success.

3.     Educate staff.  Hold inservices and regular meetings to reinforce concepts so there is consistency in methods and a shared professional vocabulary.  Our team provides updates and tips at weekly staff meetings as well as through emails and incidental discussion.

4.     Find help for “clerical” tasks.  Find an eager staff member to pitch in to make copies, bulletin boards, etc. (we have two classroom aides that volunteered their services).

5.     Provide visuals.   Every room in our school, from the nurse to the cafeteria, is equipped with Zones posters.  Hallway bulletin boards also help to keep the concepts in the forefront of the student’s minds. Visuals are also sent home for display and discussion.

6.     Bridge what you are teaching into academics.  Most ST concepts translate easily into areas such as language arts, where students need to understand the emotions and thoughts of story characters.  By embedding ST in the general education setting, our school has adopted common social-emotional language that is accessible to all students. 

7.     Proceed in gradual phases.  For example, during phase 1, SLPs and counselors versed in ST provided whole class lessons to classrooms to model instruction and share knowledge about vocabulary and concepts. Phase 2 focused on co-teaching with classroom teachers, and in Phase 3 teachers will be expected to teach and use the Social Thinking framework in their classrooms (with on-going professional development and support provided by the team).

8.     Provide parenting workshops.  Our first was held at the beginning of the school year; communication is maintained through regular emails and letters. 

9.     Measure your results.  We developed a rubric that teachers can quickly fill out to measure the behaviors and communication skills in their classrooms.  We also take into consideration the number of behavioral incidents dealt with by crisis specialists.  Parents also provide anecdotal information.

10.  Be prepared for setbacks.  Many people are resistant to change in the status quo and some are defiant.  Take a deep breath and respect their perspectives.  Let those people know that you are willing to do whatever it takes for the benefit of the students.  Eventually, they’ll come around!

     - Daria


  1. Thank you! May I ask for a copy of the rubric given to teachers to measure behavior and communication in the classroom? I would love to better collaborate with teachers in this area.

  2. Thanks for a fantastic post Daria! Your school is fortunate to have you implementing social thinking and you are exactly right, it helps ALL kids!


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