Children Focus on Improving Social Skills at Callier Center Camp
A special end-of-summer event at UT Dallas helped prepare elementary-age children for what can be a confusing and difficult new school year.
Camp Interact, presented by the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, helps children who have communication deficits, perhaps as a result of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or social anxiety. The goal is to help the students deal with everyday situations they may encounter when in classes or after-school activities.
Rachel Wehner, the camp director and a speech-language pathologist at the Callier Center, said many of the 22 camp participants have trouble playing with other children, participating in groups, or waiting their turns.
“Maybe they'll tell you they don't have any friends, or they're bullied and teased and they don't know how to handle it,” she said. “They're not great at reading other people's body language or facial expressions, so they might take a message literally when it's not meant to be. A lot of times they might also have trouble when they don't get their way — more so than other kids their age might have.”
Targeting Specific Behavior
The camp provides continuing opportunities for the children to practice their social skills. Wehner said the days are planned so that there’s an opportunity to target a specific behavior for each child.
“We work on peer interaction, conversation skills, working together in a group, problem-solving and emotional regulation skills,” she said. “And we do it in a kind of camp environment so they have more time to practice.”
Sylvia D’Andrea’s 8-year-old daughter Ali participated in the camp for a second time. D’Andrea said that Ali does not volunteer to give answers at school, has difficulty working in groups, and wants to be in control when playing with a friend. She said Camp Interact made a difference last fall when Ali returned to school.
“The therapist at school said, ‘What did you do with her? I’ve noticed such a big improvement with her,’” D’Andrea said.
Making Social Training Fun
Wehner, along with speech-language pathologist Kelly Wilson and 11 speech-language pathology graduate students, developed lessons and led activities in which the children were able to practice their skills. The camp environment purposely is set to replicate the length and pattern of a school day. The children participate in small group activities, as well as large group events, with the goal of simulating what school might be like with same-age peers.
“Hopefully the children will automatically think back to what they did at camp and be able to calm or regulate whatever it is that they're struggling with.”
She said there always is an opportunity to target some kind of behavior with which a child may have difficulty.
“If I know a kid is struggling with being calm or being flexible, then maybe I don't choose him first. Instead I might have that child participate in the activity later in the hour,” Wehner said.
The social training was wrapped in a week’s worth of fun activities. A highlight of the camp for many of the children were special events each afternoon, including visits from the Richardson Fire Department, Campisi’s Restaurant, Kona Ice and a robotics expert from UT Dallas. Each activity provided children with a chance to practice social skills.
An important part of the camp is a meeting with parents on the last day, where they are given information about the vocabulary, strategies and visuals that have been helping the children all week. The idea is that the parents and the teachers can use similar strategies to help the campers be successful throughout the school year.
“If the parent or teacher encounters a similar difficulty, she can say, ‘What size is this problem? What strategy can you use? Or are you being a thinking-of-others person? Are you a flexible thinker?’” Wehner said. “Hopefully the children will automatically think back to what they did at camp and be able to calm or regulate whatever it is that they're struggling with.”
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