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Running a Social Group for Middle and High School Students

A group of students meeting for a peer social group

At a Glance

Social groups can be beneficial to get groups of students together and spend time getting to know each other.

Social groups, like Peer Connections developed by Autism Grown Up, focus on social experiences, building connections upon interests, and student-led activities.

We go through the steps and process of putting together a social group, an evidence-based practice called peer-mediated instruction and intervention (PMII).

We're all familiar with the "old school" social skills groups from back in the day - these primarily focused on teaching social norms. Why don't you join us at AGU in moving away from those types of methods!

We're more interested in the students' experiences within the social group as well as building and supporting connections between students.

We're also more interested in moving away from teaching social norms such as, maintaining eye contact, turn-taking, saying hello at the "appropriate time", and anything else starting with "appropriate". 

Based on these old social norms-based social skill groups, autistic students were the ones who had to socially bend and be flexible to the needs of their neurotypical peers and adults in their lives. 

Wouldn't it actually be more helpful that neurotypical individuals also learn more about their neurodivergent classmates? What about starting with a neurodiverse group that learns about how each other interacts, how they themselves interact, and working together? Now, that's more our style!

With the isolation of the pandemic, siloed classes and groups of students, and generally the lack of opportunities that autistic students may have to connect with their peers - social groups may be a great option for you to implement!

What Does a Social Group Look Like? (Without the Social Norm Focus)

Just a group of likeminded students who meet on a recurring basis. That's it! You may do  lunch bunch, meet after school, meet before school, study hall, etc.

We like to have a neurodiverse group of students. Maybe they have similar interests or goals, or their lunch periods overlap.

We have built social groups off of an evidence-based practice for autistic students, called Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention and further, can be generally helpful for any student in need. 

Social Group Set-Up

Some social groups may center around a "target student" or two. Starting with them,  you can recruit and add students who are a good fit for the group.

Social groups can last a range of times based on interests, needs, and time you have available. 

We have a social group program of our own called Peer Connections, where we have created all of the recruitment materials, planning forms, and facilitation information. We have example schedules for 9-week, semester, and year-long Peer Connections social groups.

In Peer Connections, we walk you through every step from starting a group, to end a group, and even running multiple groups!

Get to Know Each Other

Each set of students in a group is in a different place when they initially meet. The whole group or a couple of members may already know each other, they may know of each other, or not even at all. 

It is always fun and helpful to orient the group with a series of "Get to Know You" games. Even students who may know each other may learn something new.

These games help set the stage for group dynamics and students can identify similar interests, hobbies, discussions, and projects. A bonus from these icebreakers is that they can initiate early and fun social experiences for those who were unsure about joining and being in the group.

They also help you as the facilitator get to know students and identify moments that may need feedback and guidance (e.g., students don't know what to do about echolalia, or how to be more specific in questions to their autistic group member). 

You can start with icebreaker questions - printed on slips of paper, index cards, or activities that incorporate movement. We also like themed icebreaker questions too!

Games to Play

This is the fun part! Our autistic and non-autistic students have really loved this part about being in the social group. 

Focusing on fun, students' goals, and prioritizing group connections help those who may have done social skills groups and training in the past to actually enjoy social groups. 

We like to choose games that students may already play. Some of these these games may already have social components to to them. And for other games, we build questions into them - from silly questions and to some more discussion-based. 

Students Take the Lead

Last but not least! This is what stands out to us regarding our framework for social groups, especially for Peer Connections... students take the wheel! 

Our curriculum for social groups is very loose because we want students to start making decisions from almost the beginning regarding what the group will focus on. Don't worry, there's still structure in there 😉

But your role as a facilitator is to be on the sidelines and step in as needed. You bring the group together, establish the structure of the group meetings, and away the group goes! 

This is probably why we have so many teachers and professionals running more than one group at a time! 

This makes your job easier and students do really love this chance to decide together what they want to do to connect and have fun. And at the end of the day, all of your group members, including your target students get to build more connections with each other inside and outside of the group, make friends, talk about their interests, and find a safe space where they can be themselves and grow. 

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