Special Needs

Using Community Activities to Build and Develop Social Skills

What are social skills and why are they important?

Social skills are behaviors that promote positive interactions with others and the environment; skills we use in every aspect of our daily lives – at home, in the homes of friends and family, at work, the grocery store, at school, on the playground, in our neighborhood, and in our JCC. These skills are extremely important because they are the indispensable tools we need to make and maintain family relationships and friendships, hold jobs, follow social norms like waiting on line, listening to people when they talk to us, and respecting personal space. Without them, it would be difficult to navigate day-to-day life and things like eating in restaurants, going to the movies, or even just riding the bus, would become challenging. Most of us take these skills for granted, but for many, these skills need to be taught and practiced.

Why teach Social Skills?

Teaching social skills provide the essential “tool box” everyone at any age needs to strengthen their interpersonal relationships and cultivate greater independence. The goal is to improve social awareness and interaction in a variety of environments, such as home, school and community, where individuals can practice using the skills they learn to better understand and respond to social events in an age-appropriate way. Teaching these skills requires thoughtful and intentional structure, and to be truly successful, should be practiced in the “natural environment.”

Can successful social skills really be taught? 

Absolutely. No matter what age a person is or what underlying challenges they may face, every child, teen or adult should have access to the right kind of support that will allow them to build successful social skills and develop self-confidence. Here are some tools that Jed Baker suggests in his eye-opening book Social Skills Training, (Baker, J. 2003). We, at the Guttenberg Center for Special Services, incorporate many of his proposed tools in our programs at the JCC:

How Not to Be a Space Invader (Respecting Personal Space)

  • Stand at least one arm’s length away
  • Don’t get too close

Listening Position

  • Make eye contact
  • Stay still – quiet hands and feet
  • One mouth moving at a time

How to Ask Someone to Play

  • Find a “friend”
  • Find something to play that you both like
  • Approach your friend without getting too close (no “space invader!”)
  • Wait for your friend to make eye contact
  • Ask: “Do you want to play with me?”
  • If they say YES, great!  If not, ask someone else or suggest something else you might both enjoy

Learn to Take Turns

When someone says “hello,” say “hello” back.

Two-question rule:  When someone asks you a question, like “How are you?” and you answer it by saying: “I’m fine, thanks,” get in the habit of asking that person a question in return, such as “I’m fine.  How are you?”

Social Skills Require Social Environments – The Importance of Community Activities

There is no better “natural environment” to learn and practice age-appropriate social skills than out in your community.  Activities such as grocery shopping, visiting the library, going to the park or the Post Office, eating out, or attending programs at the JCC provide the “ultimate” natural environment to learn, practice and reinforce appropriate social skill development.

The JCC provides people of all ages and all kinds of special challenges with a wealth of programs and opportunities to learn, practice and develop the age-appropriate socials skills they need to live more satisfying, productive and meaningful lives. They learn in a structured and safe environment that offers the whole world in a microcosm. They can take classes, attend special events, eat in our café, swim in our pools, work out in our fitness centers, play on our playgrounds and tumble rooms, attend lectures and concerts and so many other things, that provide natural venues for learning and practicing social skills.  The JCC is a community within itself and the “perfect place” for people with “special abilities” to socialize and build life-long friendships. It’s a place where everyone is welcome, included and valued.

How can one assess a social skills deficit?

Observation over time is the best way to assess the need for specialized instruction and ask yourself the following questions as you observe your child or loved one: “Is he/she able to listen and pay attention to someone who is speaking?”, “Is he/she able to maintain eye contact?”, “Is he/she able to ask for help?”, “Is he/she able to wait and take turns in a predictable setting?”, “Is he/she able to maintain appropriate personal space?” If the answers are “no,” that person probably needs some social skill support.

So, what do you do next?

Our community offers many opportunities for social skills development, and the JCC has a wide range of programming, including year-round social skills building classes targeted specifically for a wide range of ages:

  • Sunday Funday for children ages 3-6
  • Sunday Social Skills for children ages 5-8 and 9-12
  • Transitions: On Our Own for ages 15-21
  • Summer Camp Programs:  Tikvah and Inclusion
  • Inclusive vacation programs and after school programs all designed to provide appropriate support and a great learning environment.

We also maintain a highly-respected and renowned Therapeutic Nursery Program (pre-school age) that is dedicated to providing intensive pro-social and language-based educational programs for children ages 3-5. This program also provides a parent education training component for children who require intensive social skills and language intervention and instruction.

Some other community organizations that support the teaching and learning of social skills are:

  • Marble Jam Kids
  • West Bergen Mental Health Social Skills Programs
  • Alpine Learning Group Social Skills Programs

One very exciting initiative is the Autism Friendly Theatre Program, which provides live theater experiences on Broadway or at the Push Cart Players at Paper Mill Playhouse.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art also offers family-based programs to make the museum experience accessible and fun.

If you have any questions or require support, please reach out to me at slevy@jccotp.org


Written by Shelley Levy
Director, Guttenberg Center for Special Services