Social Thinking Articles


Grouping Students for Treatment: Looking Beyond the Diagnostic Label

Grouping Students Treatment

Updated: May, 2015
© 2020 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Many people ask me about how we group students at our Social Thinking clinic for more effective treatment. The short answer I give is this: we look beyond the diagnostic label.

It is a generally accepted practice that when we provide treatment to help individuals develop stronger social skills, we do this in the context of a group. Groups provide more complex social environments. They encourage students to take the perspective of others, learn to interact among others, and students benefit from getting feedback from a range of individuals. The idea of a group setting is a good one.

That said, it is important to recognize that simply putting students into treatment groups because they are similar in age and/or diagnosis can actually create more problems for both our students and those of us who provide treatment!

Generally the people who are asking me questions on grouping students echo a common set of concerns and/or situations that influence how their students are currently being grouped:

  • Our administration has us run an “ASD classroom” for students with that diagnosis. Everyone goes into that one group. It includes students who are minimally verbal and intellectually challenged alongside students with very high functioning ASD who have strong language and learning skills but struggle to learn in the traditional classroom. How do we provide social skills teaching to this large a cross section of students?
  • We have limited available time for pull-out services, so we group students who have the same scheduled time off, regardless of diagnostic label or treatment concerns. There is no alternative; it’s just the way it is!
  • My schedule at the school is so limited I can only see a group of students at a specific time. I don’t have the choice to group students together differently, even when they have very different learning needs within similar diagnostic labels.
  • The owner of my clinic wants to group students based on their common interests, as research suggests our students work better together when they can align around shared interests and related activities. The kids are motivated to come to group but how do we teach social skills from there?

These scenarios illustrate some of the more common reasons students are grouped for treatment: the mainstream classroom schedule, diagnostic label, the treatment specialist’s schedule, or common interests. Are you noticing anything here that considers their individual social learning abilities?

If our goal is to provide effective social thinking/social skills treatment to a group, it is crucial that we recognize and acknowledge that students with similar diagnostic labels can have vastly different social learning abilities. Just think about kids you’ve met with ASD or ADHD—they are often more different than alike!

Whatever the reason we use to put students together, the result is that we often end up creating treatment groups for students who have very different social learning abilities and for whom the expected outcomes are vastly different.

A Different Approach

Let’s think a little differently for a moment about how we group students. Imagine that a classroom teacher determined that some of her students need to learn basic math facts and other students need to learn calculus. Would that teacher decide to group these students together based on teacher convenience, scheduling conflicts, or common interests among the students? Obviously, not. We would group them based on their math learning abilities and related learning needs. It just makes sense, and isn’t this approach one of the reasons behind public education introducing Response to Intervention (RTI)?

So why is it that we think we can and should group students based on factors other than level of learning ability when it comes to teaching social skills?

Historically, effective social skills teaching was thought to relate strongly to students receiving the right amount of social modeling from typical peers coupled with giving out behavioral rewards as students approximated “typical behavior.” This was commonly accepted as the “right approach.” While this model sounds logical to those who believe that social skills are simply modeled and reinforced, we now know differently. Years of deep research by a range of research teams around the world and literally thousands of journal articles have emerged in the last 20 years that demonstrate that social cognitive factors influence how our students interpret and respond to social information. In a nutshell: the different levels of the social mind are key indicators for how we should approach treatment.

And, that’s precisely the premise upon which Social Thinking was built. Social Thinking’s treatment philosophy and strategies are based on the research as well as clinical experience and family/client input. We recognize that students with solid to strong language and learning skills need “more” than rote lessons about rote behaviors to use in a specific situation or setting. Instead, they need to learn more about the “how and why” of social situations and the value to be gained when we think about and interpret what is going on around us based on the situation and the people in the situation.

This means that our students with social learning challenges benefit from lessons that first break down and explain the social learning process (thoughts, emotions, intentions, varied perspectives and interpretations, multiple modes of communication, figurative versus literal language, etc.). This teaching and learning forms the foundation from which they can then figure out how to adapt their behaviors (social skills) to do what is expected.

Grouping Students by Ability

Social Thinking has mapped out 6 different levels of the social mind to help explain how varied the social learning needs of ours students can be. This helps us better understand why some of our students with solid or even strong verbal IQ scores may need to learn basic facts about social thinking and related social skills (in the same way that other students with learning disabilities need to start with basic math facts) while other students with similar IQs already know the basic facts and instead need to work on social nuance. In fact, we have identified three different levels of social groupings for students who can benefit from Social Thinking:

  1. Our very, very literal students, described as Challenged Social Communicators
  2. Our more clever but fairly literal students, described as Emerging Social Communicators, and
  3. Our more typical appearing students who are socially out-of-sync in subtle ways, described as Nuance Challenged Social Communicators.

We present these different levels of the social mind in our free article “Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile” and discuss them in more detail in my book, Why Teach Social Thinking? Questioning Our Assumptions about What It Means to Learn Social Skills (2013).

As I share this information around the country people get it. They know in their gut that grouping students based on teacher or therapist convenience or common areas of interest can only take a social learning group so far—and often that’s not very far at all. In many of these groups the adults wind up just trying to keep students paying some measure of attention to each other; the lessons are not easily understood by the weaker learners or are way too easy for the higher level social learners. Just like math, written language, or reading, we need to group our students based on their different social learning levels and teach lessons appropriate to each student in the group. Yet, as much as people “get it” in theory, they report back that they just can’t do it; the system doesn't allow for it.

Clearly, in spite of the research reporting that some of the most predictive measures of success in adulthood relate back to solid social skills during the school age years, politicians, administrators, teachers and/or parents don’t seem to value the social learning process as being nearly as important as “academics.”

Moving Forward

How can we encourage teachers, clinicians and parents to advocate that students be grouped based on their social learning levels? Federal legislation mandates that IEP services must be “free and appropriate.” The fact is that while poorly organized services that have little connection to a student’s ability or learning needs may certainly be free, they are far from “appropriate.” We need to do better.

To start, educators and service providers can think more creatively about how they provide social learning/social skills treatments when students are not grouped by their social learning levels. Instead of thinking a large group is the only option, use RTI type teaching and divide the larger group into weaker, solid, and stronger social learners.

  • Provide more basic lessons to your most limited social learners
  • Introduce a bit more sophisticated rule-based learning to your emerging social communicators. Often individuals at this level need help just figuring out how to work as part of a group and interpret and respond to their classmates and curriculum.
  • Provide lessons about the more subtle aspects of social interactions, and behaviors that are less rule-governed to your more nuanced social learners.

For now, also consider that being in a group isn’t the only way your students can learn about Social Thinking. All students can benefit from working with a therapist, clinician, or teacher in one-on-one instruction to learn core Social Thinking concepts and related social skills. Teaching students to observe, stop and think, and decide how to respond is a valuable goal no matter what the treatment setting. Whether it’s within individual or group sessions (or better yet, a combination of both!), when we help students learn to take this social learning out the door of the treatment room and apply it in their everyday, more complex social environments, we give students the tools they need to become better social thinkers...wherever they find themselves.

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