5 best practices for virtual social groups

Setting up and maintaining a productive virtual social-skills group requires patience and flexibility.

When a student with a disability, such as autism, goes off-topic during a social-skills group at school, you may give him a brief look or tap on the shoulder to rein him back in. But keeping the conversation flowing during a virtual session may be trickier.

Along with reminding students about the rules for participation, you must also strive to keep them engaged through the screen.

“Expectations have to be clearly stated,” says Adam Soffrin, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and educational consultant based in San Francisco. “But we have to have patience. As much as we want things to go as we want them to go, we have to be flexible and understanding and make sure students are having fun while learning, too.”

Use these ideas to set up and maintain productive virtual social-skills groups.

  1. Decide on goals for the group. Before bringing students together virtually, clarify what your goals are for the group, Soffrin says. “It’s easy to have a conversation with others over Zoom or another platform, but … you need to know what direction you want to head and be able to redirect students if need be.”
  2. Set and maintain meeting norms. At the beginning of every virtual session, remind students about appropriate behavior. Have a system for stepping in if a student starts to monopolize the conversation. You may want to offer one warning verbally or through a private message, then mute the student for a minute. “I have had kids in the past be very offended when I muted them,” he says. “You have to give them a warning and say, ‘If you’re not quiet, I’ll have to mute you, then bring you back when you’re ready.’ ” Also be prepared to turn off students’ cameras at any time. “I’ve had to quickly turn a student’s camera off because he started taking off his clothes,” he says. Keeping groups small will allow you to keep tabs on every student during the videoconference. If you have too many students in a group, you won’t be able to see all their faces on the same screen. If you must have a larger group, ask a colleague, such as a paraprofessional, to join the group to keep an eye on students while you run the meeting.
  3. Promote creativity. Find out students’ interests, then incorporate them into your group videoconferences. For example: If students like to draw, share a picture of something on the screen and encourage students to draw on it using an annotation tool, Soffrin suggests. They can work on teamwork and taking turns talking. Have students act out a scenario with you where you demonstrate what would be rude or awkward in a conversation, such as abruptly changing the subject or leaving an interaction while someone is talking. You may model what would be inappropriate or appropriate first, then ask how that would apply to other situations and have them practice. Allow students to work on their social skills while playing online board games or other multiplayer games they like, such as Roblox, Soffrin says.
  4. Foster friendships. Invite students without disabilities to be a part of the virtual group to model appropriate social skills, but also to form connections with the students with disabilities that go beyond the group. Students created an additional Zoom meeting on their own after spending time together in Soffrin’s virtual group. “One student, who had had so few opportunities for interaction before the group, started getting them naturally through her friends,” he shares.
  5. Promote engagement. At the same time, recognize that connecting through a screen may not be engaging to some students. You may need to use some strategies to keep them engaged, such as posting an online poll for participants to answer, then asking for their reaction to the results. If a student doesn’t respond, ask others to weigh in, then ask the student for his thoughts on the responses. Draw on students’ interests to bring them back into the conversation if they are tuning it out, Soffrin says. For example, you may share a picture of a wrestler on the screen and make a joke to cue a student who loves wrestling to refocus on the conversation. You can also offer the chance to watch a short wrestling video together after the social-skills group ends for the day if that would serve as an incentive to contribute. Giving the student a choice of three videos would allow him to have a voice in the process.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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