This post originally appeared on the blog The Autism Vault.

When we start off working on communication with our less advanced students, we might spend a lot of time teaching the basic functions of language. However, once our students have mastered most of the ins and outs, we need to start thinking about how we can get them socializing with each other. You would think it would be easy enough. Give them some sort of fun game (Uno or Jenga, anyone?) only to find students who are less than interested and trying to find any and every way to get the heck away from each other. Or you may set up some sort of really (to be honest) boring setup in morning meeting where everyone says hi to one another, or asks about their weekend. Yawn, right? I have done plenty of this myself, so no hate! Having experience with this, it can get a little predictable and is not very exciting after a while. And personally, I think if it’s not so motivating to you, it’s probably not motivating to your students.

So how do we get our students engaged in social stuff? Well, we must make it reinforcing just like anything else. However, we want to try to keep the reinforcement as natural as possible. The way to do this is to make our peers reinforcing. Here are some of the ways I have been working on social language and making my students reinforcing to one another.

Peer Tutoring

Nothing’s more fun than playing teacher, right? You can always set up instances where students can play teacher. This year, I have found my fluency station to be perfect for this. I have three students who are practicing fluency phrases. I specifically made a data sheet with a task analysis of instructions for the instructor/data collector. This give students a chance to work together on something academic, yet reinforcing. 

Cooking Lessons

It’s really easy to get caught up in doing a cooking lesson as a whole group and generally guiding students through the cooking lesson. However, if you have more advanced students, you can always throw caution to the wind and let your students lead the cooking lessons. If you have two or three students can monitor the cooking lesson, put them in charge and guide their classmates through the cooking lesson as the “leader”.  This gives your more advanced students a chance to work in a leadership role, while giving your less advanced students a reason to ask them questions (“where’s the measuring cup?”)  Of course, food is always motivating, so it works really well in that it pairs something reinforcing (food) with something that may be not so reinforcing (peers).

What if my students are just not reinforced at all by their peers, no matter how cool or interesting the activity is?

It’s common to run in to this problem, so don’t feel like the worse teacher ever if this does happen. If this happens, it’s okay to implement a less natural reinforcement system. A group contingency is a great way to do this. This just means a reinforcement system where the group works together for a common goal.  For example, we have probably all seen examples in general education classrooms such as the entire class earning points based on the whole group’s behavior rather than an individual token economy. Make sure you are using a group contingency where students are earning more as opposed to losing. This works well to pair reinforcement with their peers during games or activities that may not be so naturally reinforcing at first.

Do you find your students to be reinforcing to one another? How do you work through it in order to teach social language?

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Liz Manolis has been teaching middle school students with autism for the past 8 years. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She has a passion for using the science of behavior to teach communication, life skills, and foster independence in her students. Liz brings her ideas and knowledge to others through her blog, theautismvault.com, and through her resources in her Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.