Introducing Conversation Club:
A Fun and Innovative Way to Teach Conversation and Develop Social Cognition in Students with Level 1 Autism
By Lynn Cannon, M.Ed.
We know that conversation is an important way of building and sustaining relationships, especially among peers. We also know that healthy social emotional development, and positive peer relationships have a significant impact on students’ academic success and emotional well-being. For many individuals with Level 1 Autism and other social cognition challenges, the ability to carry on a conversation remains frustratingly out of reach.
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Why is conversation so difficult for these children?
Meaningful conversation requires the ability to quickly and accurately process many rapidly changing social stimuli, and respond flexibly and appropriately to the conversational context. Conversational competence further requires awareness of and sensitivity to one’s conversational partner. These abilities are all part of what is known as “social cognition” or the mental processes we use to make sense of our social world.
Because of brain-based differences, children with autism have challenges related to perspective taking, joint attention, meaningful eye gaze, and focusing on the big picture or gestalt. All of these challenges impact their ability to successfully navigate interactions and conversations.
Because of the transactional or give and take nature of conversation, it is critical that conversation partners understand why conversation is important, know how to read and respond to one another’s social cues, and are able to adapt their contributions accordingly.
The Conversation Club is the first curriculum of its kind to provide a comprehensive instructional framework for teaching elementary-aged children with Level 1 Autism and other social cognition challenges both the “how” and “why” of conversation, also known as a social cognitive approach.
Before introducing Conversation Club to our students, we noticed they did not seem to understand why a conversation was worth engaging in or how conversation contributed to keeping a friend. Many also failed to recognize the implications of not orienting their body towards their partner. The following are a few of the activities and resources, from the Conversation Club, that address each of these critical skills from a social cognitive approach.
Conversation Club makes use of extrinsic motivation while at the same time cultivating intrinsic motivation. Throughout the program, club members receive specific and contingent praise and earn points for demonstrating target conversation skills. These points serve to highlight the desired behaviors, as well as increasing students’ desire to display them.
Ideally, however, we want conversation to be experienced as a reward in itself. In order to nurture intrinsic motivation, the skills are introduced by a cast of engaging conversation club characters. Presented in colorful storybooks, the characters serve as touchstones for thinking about each skill and the strategies they represent.
Selecting and Staying on Topic
Through a variety of activities, students learn what topics and subtopics are, how to brainstorm topics of interest, and how to develop perspective taking by thinking about your conversation partner and what they like to talk about. One such activity is the conversation club file.
The goal of this activity is to help students recognize that to make conversations enjoyable, they need to think about topics that interest their partners. After interviewing their conversation partners they use that information in future conversations to help generate conversations.
Using Our Eyes and Our Ears to Think About Our Conversation Partner
Active listening is a critical component of successful conversations. Our eyes are as important as our ears in gathering clues to inform our conversation. We listen with our eyes by observing our partner’s non-verbal cues, including their facial expressions, body posture, and gestures. In addition to helping us hear what our partner has said, our ears help discern their tone of voice.
These clues, both visual and auditory, are on display and rapidly changing throughout the conversation, requiring second by second, in-vivo analysis. Several activities throughout the curriculum are devoted to helping students develop the ability to use their eyes and ears to gather information and to understand why this is so important to having a successful conversation.
One such activity is the “Checking In” with Our Eyes Game. In this lesson, students learn that the goal is to have their eyes on their conversation partner, and by doing this they are able to acquire important information that will help them be successful in the game.
In addition, we teach students that when they “check in” they are letting their partner know they are thinking about them, and that they can gauge if their partner is paying attention or not. Students take turns talking about different topics, and explore the concept of “checking in” by “passing” the turn to their partner using their eyes.
Successful conversation is the cornerstone to successful relationships. Through engaging lessons and storybooks, Conversation Club provides instruction, not on the skills necessary to engage in conversation, but the rationale or “why” these skills are necessary.
This social cognitive approach is critical for students with Level 1 autism or other social cognitive challenges related to perspective taking, and focusing on salient social information.
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Do you have students who have a difficult time starting a conversation, keeping a conversation going over multiple turns, or repairing a conversation that has broken down?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions or would like to know more about teaching children both the "how" and "why" of conversations, join our webinar on June 12th to learn more about the Conversation Club.
Conversation Club is a research-based social curriculum that will help children with social cognition challenges learn the constellation of skills required for successful conversation.
During the webinar, we will share with you engaging activities that you can integrate into your classroom right away.