This is my third post on the use of rubrics for instruction and assessment. In this post I will review some effective ways to use rubrics for students who struggle with social skills. Many of these student have been labeled as autistic (on the autism spectrum or as having a Pervasive Developmental Disorder).
Rubrics fit well into explicit and sequential instruction in social skills. (Hey! Just as in phonics instruction!) Using a case study approach, let me introduce you to Jonathan. He was identified as having PDD in preschool. He’s a bright kid who looks a lot like a miniature “professor.” Jonathan is very rule-oriented and eager to please. He is easily distracted by sounds and movement around him and is on medication for a diagnosed attention disorder. He appears to be daydreaming much of the time.
When I first observed Jonathan in his classroom, he was sitting quietly but not accomplishing much. His teacher confirmed that he did very little unless he was seated by her or the assistant. It was fairly easy to change that behavior by setting specific goals for task completion and monitoring/rewarding his progress.
I also observed Jonathan in the cafeteria and at recess. That particular cafeteria was in a perpetual state of bedlam, but I did notice that other kids managed to talk (or yell), whereas Jonathan seemed overwhelmed by the noise and activity levels. At recess, Jonathan was glued to the teacher assistant, who was quite impressed by his wide range of knowledge on certain topics. However, he would only talk about his particular interests and never responded to questions on other topics.
Jonathan began a course of social skills instruction individually because of scheduling issues. It is possible to teach social skills to one student at a time, but it’s not ideal. I prefer a group of 6 or 8 (even numbers, please!), but you take what you can get. After a couple of sessions to prepare him for a small group “lunch bunch” with some typically developing peers, we were ready to launch. His targeted skills were eye contact and willingness to respond to topics other than his primary interests. I had permission to videotape, so Jonathan and I could review his conversational skills individually. Jonathan used a rubric similar to the one below to evaluate his performance during lunch bunch. I had designed the rubric so that he would not score below a two in any category.He chose not to use the rubric during the actual lunchtime. Students vary in their desire to have visual cues as they participate with classmates. If they choose to have cues provided (which may take the form of a rubric), I make sure that all members of the group are prepped with the same cues. I also practice nonverbal cues with students like Jonathan, so that my prompts are as subtle as possible.
After the first couple of lunch bunches, Jonathan experienced a sudden spurt of interactions with peers and was even talking in the cafeteria. Jonathan revealed that he was quite desperate for relationships with the most popular kids in the class, which resulted in his ignoring those kids who asked to join him for lunch. The more popular kids tried one lunch bunch and decided they preferred the melee of the cafeteria. Jonathan was then left with his “second” choice of classmates for lunch bunches; however, he continued to ignore the interested students and started begging the elite group to rejoin him (until I discovered what was happening). By then, I had to make lunch bunches a more desirable opportunity because no one wanted to join us (we moved from a conference room to my classroom, which had games in it). We finally had a stable lunch bunch group when we hit another bump in the road. Jonathan became obsessed with anything that made other kids laugh. Forget those intellectual discussions on his topics of interest. Suddenly, all his conversational topics were related to toilets and private parts (he had obviously been absorbing social skills on his own!). I had to drop our videotape reviews because once he saw himself being silly, he was so thrilled that he copied himself. His rubric changed to match this new fascination and continued to successfully shape his behavior. Since humor was his preferred way to get attention, we began using riddles and jokes as a conversational topic. Although Jonathan was as rigid with that subject as he had been with others, his classmates could participate more easily. I eventually set a time limit on the joke topic in order to preserve my sanity and any order in the group.
Note: It is important to respect personal preferences, even as you teach kids to navigate social settings which are out of their comfort zone. Once he started interacting with others, it became obvious that Jonathan was a funny kid who loved to be the center of attention. Despite his zoned out appearance, he was definitely absorbing social information. Had we not curtailed the toilet talk, he might have gotten into trouble simply because he was operating from a different perspective and set of rules.
To summarize, rubrics provide clear expectations for social behavior, such as conversations, playground interactions, and interactions with teachers. As evident in the example above, your rubrics will change as kids both develop skills and help set their own preferred course for making friends.