No matter what specific social skills you are addressing, data is crucial.
Baseline data tells you where a student is currently functioning. In the past, when teachers made a special education referral, they might have said, “He’s aggressive,” or “He can’t get along with others.” Now that many schools have Response to Intervention (RtI) in place, the descriptors of student behavior should be much more exact. In my experience, that continues to vary considerably. Observation is the key to determining precisely what behaviors are interfering with the student’s ability to learn. Even for students who are currently placed in special education, ongoing observations provide valuable feedback on whether your interventions are effective.
Observation sounds like a science, right? Not so. Observations can be biased, vague, and meaningless. Data collection should be repeated across time and settings. In my experience, observers have differing strengths. I know one school psychologist who is masterful at watching the “identified” kid and a random peer, marking off behavior for both in ten-second intervals on a range of behaviors. Personally, I have strengths in capturing anecdotal detail, perhaps because I have spent so many years observing (and can write at an incredible speed). I make use of peripheral vision so that the kid I’m observing is typically unaware of my copious notes on him or her. I may deliberately interact with other students to lessen my target student’s possible self-consciousness. I mark exact times down the left side of my papers. An observation of 20-30 minutes is the minimum. I also use checklists that I have adapted, to which I will attach my typed copy of the observations (which are otherwise illegible). Here’s a sample checklist:
I have found it difficult to maintain an adequate rate of classroom observations for kids who are already placed with me. Because I have used lunch time and planning to serve students, groups must be canceled in order to observe. Still, I have managed to watch kids through windows and by peeking around a teacher’s office. That’s life, right?
What do I look for? For kids with social skills issues, I am watching the interactions between the student, his peers, and the teacher. Where is the student sitting or working? What is he saying or doing? What do others say or do around him? What events are occurring in the classroom (or gym or recess)? What is the tone of classroom? Are kids loud, in constant motion, silent, working in groups, seated at tables, moving to centers? The student is not operating in a vacuum. In fact, I want to capture as much information about the the environment as possible. With so many school settings and interpersonal variables, unless you have other compelling reasons, multiple observations are best. Observations at lunch and recess are often the most difficult but worth the effort. These are the environments in which kids with weak social skills are most likely to be stressed, bullied, and overwhelmed. It’s a challenge to capture conversations on a playground and I may stick out like a sore thumb, since most assistants are supervising on the fringes of activity. Still, it’s quite feasible to get a decent observation. Kids get used to seeing me out there with a clipboard; I can take advantage of those who are curious by appearing to watch them instead.
How is the baseline data presented? Typically, a referring committee receives anecdotal information by teachers (which is often a log of discipline issues) and checklists/recommendations from specialists. Since I know that my ten-page, single-spaced observation is not likely going to be read by everyone (like a thousand word blog post!), I give a copy to parents ahead of time, along with a summary of key points and the adapted checklist. To guide my own instruction, I make a list of those key points for evaluating current IEP objectives/benchmarks, as well as guiding the development of a new IEP. I may also create a graph which provides a rough picture of how the student is progressing on annual goals. The observation/s is a snapshot, not ever a complete picture of how the student performs, so those graphs must be combined and/or compared with measures of teacher and student feedback and performance in a small group setting.