Social Challenge

Ah, recess.

The benefits of recess are well documented–physical activity, social development, learning readiness, the works.  I am grateful to teach in a school where the value of recess is not questioned, a school where every child has that crucial bit of downtime in their busy instructional day.

For many of my students, recess is a highlight of the day.  Jonathan loves the monkey bars; Elijah hunts for butterflies in the garden.  With one exception, even my quirkiest students have found meaningful social connections and delight in time with a cherished friend or two–even though we often need to put in a fair bit of effort to make those interactions go well for all parties.  The third grade girls have Art Club; Saleem trades Pokemon cards with his classmates.  Finn has graduated from his previous recess endeavors of selling snails to his peers and creating girl repellent with an inverted traffic cone and dirt; one now typically finds him playing Capture the Flag or spinning hula hoops.  Juan Carlos has genuine skills in basketball–though he usually shoots hoops alone, he holds his own when peers ask to join him.  I made my students on the autism spectrum a PowerPoint demystifying the concept of recess, introducing it as a time with “two big ideas”.  Have fun, and be social.  For most of them, both are possible.

Left to his own devices, though, Yosef’s recess is a very private affair.  He enjoys running, perhaps twenty feet at a time, flapping his hands and making high vocalizations.  Sometimes, he spins things.  Sometimes, he sits.  Yosef typically shows what Pamela Wolfberg would describe as an “aloof” play style–he’s not super interested in the “be social” part.

I’m torn, when it comes to kids like Yosef.  On the one hand, I consider it absolutely vital for my students to experience at least a few minutes of genuine self-directed downtime–school is so challenging, academically and socially, for exceptional learners that I don’t think it’s an option to not have a break.  But on the other hand, the social interactions of the recess yard are such crucial opportunities for my students to develop key skills in authentic contexts. Ultimately, following the thread of a social conversation is a more needed life skill than long division will be: we can’t just miss the bus on this stuff.  At the same time, it needs to be said that really “doing” recess is, for some kids, just as cryptic and inscrutable a task as long division is for others.  “For some kids,” says child psychologist Candy Lawson in her fairly comprehensive overview of social skills in the educational setting, “social skills can be the hardest subject to pass in school.” When it comes to students with significant pragmatic deficits and unstructured exposure to 200 peers, a simple “go play” won’t get the job done.

My compromise, then: Social Challenge. I require Yosef to get at least some of the “be social” stuff taken care of, currently by telling him exactly what to do. With colleagues and feedback from my friends who are parents, I brainstormed about twenty different short, specific and acceptable social interactions–everything from saying “good morning” to an adult on the yard to asking a kid with an upcoming birthday what kind of birthday cake they like best.  I tied names to some of them–go find Finn and ask him what he’s doing, ask the p.e. teacher if it’s mile day today.  Others are less about having an interaction and more about noticing the interactions others have: take five pictures of what kids do at recess, notice what a fourth grade boy does and tell me if you’d like to do it, yourself.  All are little tiny stabs at getting my most internally-driven students out of their own worlds and into the larger social universe of unstructured recess play, an attempt to make something as incredibly open ended as “connect with your peers” feel a little more manageable because it’s one specific act.  I typed each little Challenge on a strip of paper and laminated it, so that the paper fits discreetly in a child’s hand.


We have a set routine for Social Challenge.  First, I give my students about 7 minutes to do whatever they feel like doing, to decompress a little from the learning they just did. Juan Carlos shoots his hoops; Yosef runs around and flaps. Sometimes, they drift towards each other and talk a bit: this was more common last year, but since then, honestly, Juan Carlos has grown out of the endless Frog-and-Toad monologues both used to enjoy.  If Juan Carlos is independently interacting with another kid at the moment I would typically give him his challenge, I move quickly away: the goal is what’s on the paper, not the paper itself, and it’s more about the big idea than it is about the details.

If not, though (and honestly, for Yosef, it’s usually, well, not), I move in.  The slips are in a leather pouch I wear like a small purse: I pull them out and select three or so that could work for the day.  The birthday one only happens when everyone knows that a classmate has a birthday coming up; we don’t ask about the library on non-library days.  Every Monday, I pull the one that directs you to ask someone what they did on the weekend. If Finn looks bored, I pull the one that kicks a kid over to ask him what he’s doing; if Finn is doing something esoteric or naughty, I pretend that slip’s not there.  I greet my student and offer out the papers: they look them over, pick one, and hand me the rest.

At the beginning, we worked a lot about how, exactly, one does Social Challenge. Yosef, especially, went straight for the closest kid and often interrupted in his eagerness to get the whole thing over with.  Practicing the preliminaries of choosing a partner and evaluating how best to initiate contact was its own huge, and hugely useful, set of lessons.  Do you know that kid, or not?  If you do, use her name to greet her.

If you don’t know that kid yet, you need to evaluate whether she looks like someone you should meet right now, and you need to understand the particulars of meeting. As adults, we talk to strangers often– to ask for directions, commiserate about a late bus, pass the time at a large party, or find out where that person got that perfect piece of clothing.  First, though we make a dozen little decisions. Is this a time when talking is allowed? Is that person otherwise engaged in something? Does that person look friendly, or dangerous? How does she react when I start talking to her? Is it just “what time is it/thanks”, or have we made a connection where introductions make sense?  For now, I’m mainly having my students do Social Challenge with kids who already know them: eventually, we’ll build, I hope, towards ways to interact with kids they don’t yet know.

An initial concern I had about Social Challenge was how artificial the whole thing appears, at least at first.  Juan Carlos initially chose his slip and read it, verbatim, to his chosen classmate, with cue words and everything; Yosef asked Pilar about her weekend and walked away before she answered.  A few kids watched with interest and asked me what the slips were for.  Every time, I found the peers completely receptive to exactly the information they needed to have: the boys are practicing how to ask questions, how to make comments, how to interact with other kids, the way you might need to practice how to do a math problem or recite a long poem.  Soon, they might not need the papers: right now, the papers help them.  Everyone agreed that this was okay.

The reality is Yosef did look a little stilted, a little weird, when he did his first few rounds of Social Challenge–because it’s not what he’d naturally be doing at recess.  But honestly, what he would naturally doing was also something that his peers considered a bit “weird”–they’d long ago realized that Yosef makes noises and runs around and hangs out by himself, and they were perfectly okay with it.  The new normal for Yosef became that he’d make noises and run around, hang out by himself, and then spend a couple minutes interacting with his classmates with little obvious papers for ideas, and his peers accepted that just as readily.  At this point, we’re past most of the bumps–Yosef has learned to read the whole slip, commit the script to memory, and get peer attention as smoothly as he’s able: his classmates know the drill and many are happy to help him play it out.

For Yosef, Social Challenge is still a planned activity–it’s not something he does without the prompting, because social interaction is fundamentally not something he enjoys in the same way that he enjoys his own sensory experiences.  I’m not likely to change that; I don’ t intend to try.  It’s enough for me to help him develop the skills needed to have these little exchanges, so that they’ll be within his grasp should he begin to want more of them.

Juan Carlos, though, is a different story.  From the second day on, he would see me across the yard and run up to me, eager to read the slips and select his Social Challenge, thrilled to report back that it was a success.  I quickly moved him past the easiest ones (‘Say good morning to a classmate’).  We did a range of compliment themes–pay attention to how someone plays basketball and say “nice shot” when the ball goes through the hoop, tell someone “cool shoes” and find out where they got them, say something kind about a chalk drawing someone does.  Now, I can give him “give someone a compliment”, and we work together on the perspective taking to choose something to say. He doesn’t typically carry the slip with him any longer: it’s enough to pick the message and then hand the slip back to me.

After he did that several times, I told him specifically what comes naturally to almost everyone else: “Juan Carlos, you don’t need the piece of paper to do a Social Challenge.  You can write the ideas inside your mind and use them, whenever you feel like doing something friendly with a kid.” When I said this, I watched him literally doing what I said–closing his eyes and moving his fingers on his forehead, repeating this for each slip he did for several days, asking me for more slips so he could write new ideas down also.  We’re at the point now where I can flash him a blank strip of paper, and our next step is for him to start writing his own strips.   For kids who are less literal than Juan Carlos, these steps are unnecessary and artificial–typically developing kids don’t need a social screenwriter.  For him, though, building this scaffold has helped him to go places which were previously just too high for him to reach–and he’s been able to keep standing as I take the scaffold down.

In his discussion of Playworks, a structured recess program active in many urban schools throughout the country, David Bornstein of the New York Times sums up the centrality of recess in the lives of most young people:

Ask a young child, “How was school today?” and you’re likely to hear about recess. My son is 7 years old, and like many children his age, recess is the emotional core of his school day… Researchers say that one of the best predictors of whether kids feel happy in school is whether they feel comfortable and competent during recess.

Comfortable and competent.  That, when I think about it, is the ultimate Social Challenge.  And it’s one I will work on, with the paper slips and past them–because success for my students needs to go beyond the classroom, because their growth as human beings won’t stop when they stop school.

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One Response to Social Challenge

  1. fatdormouse says:

    I’ve said it before (I think!) and I’ll say it again: I wish I’d had someone as dedicated and knowledgable as you in my school when, I was teaching children with specific needs like these. I just bumbled through, probably making no sense at all! I find it fascinating reading how you help children to be the best they can be.

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