Social Skills, Therapy Ideas

Social Skill Generalization – At Recess, Lunch and More!

This is a fabulous guest blog post by: Sher DeGenova MA CCC-SLP

Social skills generalization is critically important, especially if you notice that your lessons on social skills aren't translating to the lunchroom and the playground for your students. Learn more about how to make social skills instruction active in real time and applicable for your students.

When I first started teaching social skills generalization 10 years ago, I followed in the footsteps of many special education staff before me and focused on game-playing.  My students learned the rules of Headbanz, Pirate Talk, Snail Pace Race, Sight Word Bingo, and a host of other special ed games.  But those games didn’t generalize to the gen ed classrooms…

…so I switched the games I taught to what I saw typical kids playing.  Now my students were learning Uno, regular bingo, I Spy Memory, and charades.  But we were still only a lonely speech therapist and a group of special needs students playing games with each other…

…until I spent some time observing my students at lunch and recess.

I was shocked.  I was upset.  Most of all, I was humbled.

Here I thought I was teaching skills that would help my students to maneuver socially with peers and staff.  HA.  I had been fooling myself.   I saw my students struggling to get attention from their peers in a variety of inappropriate ways.  I saw some students walking around the periphery of the playground doing ‘movie talk’ (my name for delayed echolalia) and flapping.  By themselves.  I saw a few of my students lie down on benches and shut out the world of play entirely.  In the lunchroom, it was more of the same; my guys were sitting away from the others, isolating themselves, or they were talking to themselves even if others were around them.  They were stared at or ignored.

We know that generalization of skills does not happen with kids on the autism spectrum.  If I wanted to teach skills for lunch and recess, I would need to teach those specific skills in those specific settings.

First, I observed some more on the playground.  It seemed like every grade was different.  The third graders played 4-Square and jumped rope.  The fourth graders loved kickball and a variation on basketball.  There were also structures like a climbing wall, swings, and a hang-glider-type-thingy.  My students would need instruction in all these areas.  I decided to aim for a level of ‘familiarity’ rather than expertise, and downplay competition.

I set out to make an outline of what social skills would now look like:

1-on the playground:

  1. Identify each area/sport (including equipment, rules, and safety factors)
  2. Map the sequential steps to playing/participating in each activity, from start to finish

2-in the lunchroom:

  1. Manners, both in line to buy food and eating at the tables
  2. Expected behavior – what is ok, what is not, how to get help, how to be a helper

I sent this outline home for parents, not for permission but so they would understand my purpose.  I did get permission from case managers, teachers, and the lunch ladies (cafeteria workers who are vital to success at lunch/recess).  I borrowed equipment from the gym teacher so we could practice throwing and kicking skills in the hallway.  I dragged my whiteboard easel everywhere so I could diagram each game or structure, review safety rules in an instant, draw speech bubbles to script conversation – because visuals are essential for my students.

I also sent home outlines of what we were doing, encouraging parents to play these games with their kids at home.  I forgot to tell you that many parents loved this whole idea of social skills in realtime – and several hated the idea.  They felt that lunch/recess was their child’s downtime – and their child should be able to stim or isolate or simply not participate in social skills if that ws their choice.   My argument was this:    The teaching of skills is based on evidence of deficit, not on the child’s choice.  Our autism program works on an ABA model using positive reinforcers.  As my students participated in this new type of social skills, most were successful to some degree.  The ones who did not show progress had parents who pulled them out of social skills because their kids “didn’t like it.”

There are a few drawbacks – here in NJ when there is snow on the playground, we still often go outside for recess.  When it’s snowy, balls are not allowed, nor are the climbing/swinging structures (they’re covered in snow).  Bummer.  But on days when it’s “indoor recess”, the students play games in their classrooms – and my students are pretty darn good at games.  After all, that’s where we started.

Some recess activities we have learned:





-2-person jumprope

-swings, climbing wall, slides, hang-glider, and hide-n-seek

If an activity is played in such a manner that is too competitive or becomes dangerous, it’s ‘banned’ for a week or so.  Usually the students want the game back so they play more appropriately.  At our school the rule is never tell someone they can’t play…there is always room for 1 more.

Finally, I decided that our special needs students shouldn’t be the only ones doing all the work.  I approached the gen ed classroom teachers and asked if I could come in twice a year (or more, if they need me) to give a presentation on Disability Awareness .  I made a power point based on an Easter Seals program called “A Friend Like You, A Friend Like Me” that discusses similarities and differences between everyone, and focuses on how to be a friend.  I make sure the presentation is scheduled at a time when my students are not in the class, so I can spend time explaining autism and how it is a brain difference, not just bad behavior.  I end with a Q and A, and I always get lots of great questions from the students!

Social Skills deserve to be taught in a real setting, in my opinion.  In our district, they are scheduled twice in a 6-day cycle, for 30-40 minutes.  It’s not enough, but it’s a start.  Some years I have compromised and had 1 session in the speech room, and 1 session in the cafeteria/playground.  It should be fluid, and based on the needs of the students…..

          ….and it should be fun.

Would you love to contribute your expertise on Speechy Musings? I’d love to have you and the SLP community needs as many voices as possible! To apply, click here or on the image below:


{thanks for reading}

Social skills generalization is critically important, especially if you notice that your lessons on social skills aren't translating to the lunchroom and the playground for your students. Learn more about how to make social skills instruction active in real time and applicable for your students.

Do you love all things SLP?

Enter your email below to get the Speechy Musings newsletter. Once you sign up, you'll get instant access to an exclusive freebie library.

I respect your privacy. You can unsubscribe at any time.

You Might Also Like

Previous Story
Next Story

6 Comment

  1. Reply
    Louise Valente
    November 3, 2016 at 7:26 PM

    Terrific post!! I am a new subscriber, and will look forward to your blog. By the way, if you are still thinking about how to help on the playground, a (brilliant) SLP that I work with uses an acronym “PLAY” to remind kids of the sequential steps. We featured it on our newsletter in March of 2011. Here’s a direct link If the “bots” disable the link, you can go to Pacific Coast Speech dot com with no spaces, and you will see it. Hope it’s helpful – she likes it because you can “wave” the hang loose sign from across the playground at a lost kid to cue them and no one is the wiser. Have a great day!

    1. Reply
      November 3, 2016 at 7:28 PM

      Wow! Thank you so much for sharing that link. Looks great!

  2. Reply
    Kathy Butterworth
    November 4, 2016 at 7:57 AM

    This article broke my heart…just visualizing those students alone on the playground and in the lunchroom – a scene all too familiar to those working with students with Autism. But, it gave me hope and a new direction re: intervention. THanks for the valuable suggestions.

  3. Reply
    November 4, 2016 at 9:29 AM

    I loved this post! Great ideas to work from the social skills in our rooms to social competency outside of speech, thanks for sharing!

  4. Reply
    November 4, 2016 at 2:09 PM

    I enjoyed this article on generalizing! I’m planning on implementing your ideas, especially those about going in at lunch and on the playground. Thanks for sharing

  5. Reply
    Erica Zavala
    November 4, 2016 at 3:24 PM

    Loved this post! Generalizing social skills is one of the hardest tasks! Would you mind sharing the PowerPoint you put together?

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below.