It’s All About Relationships: Teaching Social Skills to Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

by | in Inside the OU

Gone are the days when individuals with developmental disabilities were deemed unteachable. Today they’re reading, writing and holding down jobs. But as their expectation for Inclusion increases, so does their desire to do more of what the rest of the community does—such as, get married.

A few parents of these young adults took it to the experts; they called Yachad, the OU’s program serving Jews with special learning, communication or social needs.

“This population should enjoy the blessings of marriage,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, national director of Yachad. “But before one gets into an intimate relationship, he or she needs to learn the foundational social skills necessary for positive human interaction.”

“Picture two friends sitting on the bus together on their way to a Yachad Shabbaton,” says Dr. Lichtman. “They arrive at the Shabbaton and one expects the other to sit with him at the seudot, the oneg Shabbat and throughout the event, but the entire Shabbat his friend is spending time with others, leaving him feeling hurt and frustrated. His inclination might be to go over and shout ‘I hate you!’ Most of us manage to pick up on what is and isn’t appropriate social behavior from adult role models, but for someone with developmental disabilities, it’s not that easy.”

Teaching basic social skills to its members has been a priority for Yachad since 2001 when it launched its Relationship Building Course (RBC). Over the years, the program has helped a growing number of individuals with developmental disabilities make and keep friends, improve their job performance and lead fuller, more gratifying Jewish lives. The program also recently broadened to accommodate individuals across the autistic spectrum who require a more intellectually appropriate approach.

This year, a total of fifty students will attend RBC sessions in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey. Dozens more will meet in Yachad chapters around the country including Chicago, Los Angeles, Teaneck, New Jersey, and Omaha, Nebraska. Participants meet once weekly for ten two-hour sessions and then graduate to an advanced socialization program. Offering both beginner and advanced classes and led by social workers, RBC teaches students essential social skills including initiating and holding conversation, maintaining optimal hygiene, respecting personal space, resolving conflicts and dealing with anger, frustration and hurt. Upon graduating the program, students receive an RBC certificate.

Responding to the parents who expressed an interest in RBC addressing dating and marriage, Yachad will adjust the curriculum next winter.

“Special education is really just very good education.”

“Thirty years ago, we didn’t teach reading to people with Down syndrome,” says Dr. Lichtman. “Supposedly, they couldn’t learn to read. Then someone said, ‘Let’s try, maybe they can.’ Now we know they can learn if we take the time and use the right approach to teach them. The same way we teach children with developmental disabilities reading and math by breaking it down, demonstrating and reinforcing, we can teach social skills. Basically, special education is really just very good education.”

The ABCs of RBC
Typically, an RBC session begins with the group leader introducing the day’s topic. After carefully defining the particular concept, she demonstrates it through role playing, drawing upon real-life examples from the students’ lives, such as meeting people in the synagogue. The teacher illustrates the “wrong way” and then the “right way” to conduct oneself—asking the students each time what she did wrong, as well as what she did right.

“Today’s topic is personal space,” announces the group leader the day I observe RBC in action. “Personal space is the right amount of distance between you and the person you are talking to. If you just met, your space would be at least an arm’s distance away, like this.” The leader illustrates the distance with a student. “Or you could imagine there’s a bubble around the other person. If you were very close friends, you would stand closer, but not too close. Let’s role play.” Chaim, a twenty-something-year old, waves his hand eagerly to volunteer. He stands a good number of yards away from the instructor. “Hi Chaim,” she shouts. “How are you?”

“Why am I yelling?” she asks the group. “He’s too far away! Move closer,” the students cry out in unison. Chaim moves closer to the teacher. She also moves closer. “Too close!” a student alerts. “Tell me when I’m giving the right amount of personal space,” says the instructor as she steps back. “Okay, that’s good,” the class announces. Chaim agrees. “You’re right; I’m pretty much an arm’s length away, just the right amount of space. Let’s give a hand to Chaim,” the instructor says. All enthusiastically applaud.

Virtual Friends
With so much social interaction taking place online, RBC has also begun addressing topics such as safely and productively navigating Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. “When we started RBC, we focused on how to leave an appropriate message on a telephone answering machine; we weren’t even talking about e-mail back then,” says Dr. Lichtman. “Now it’s all cell phones and Internet.”

“Our population needs to learn how to differentiate a Facebook ‘friend’ from an actual friend and how to communicate within appropriate boundaries,” says Dr. Lichtman. “It’s great that we have these additional outlets for communication, but it can also be very misleading.”

After the session is over, Daniel, a satisfied student rushes over to me to express his gratitude for RBC. “People like me more because of what I’ve achieved here,” he says. “I’m learning how to get along with people.”

And, unlike most of us, Daniel has a certificate to prove it.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2012.

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