According to the National Core Indicators (NCI) national survey of outcomes, 43% of adults with IDD report that they are lonely at least some of the time. The NCI survey of families indicated that 38% of individuals have no friends outside the family or paid caregivers. Difficulty forming friendships starts in childhood, and researchers attribute this difficulty in part to a lack of social skills.
Social-emotional learning has been part of Aspire’s educational curriculum since ALL Academy was founded. At ALL Academy, social skills are taught using a variety of evidence-based programs starting in kindergarten right through to post-high school transition services.
Principal Lisa Riggi is currently finishing a program evaluation of ALL Academy’s use of the Second Step curriculum with middle school students. This sort of evaluation is important because, like most curricula of this type, Second Step was not created from the lens of students with special needs. “Teachers have been pulling from a variety of social skills programs -- such as the PEERS, Zones of Regulation, and Second Step programs-- and breaking down skills themselves to meet the needs of individual students,” reports Riggi. “I wanted to understand if the Second Step curriculum could be implemented effectively for ALL Academy students given all their differing needs.”
Riggi found that the program was effective at keeping students engaged. Mike DeNegre, ALL Academy teacher who works with the students using this curriculum, sees good outcomes as well. “What I’ve seen is much less yelling and arguing when they don’t get their way--a lot more stopping and reflecting on how the other person feels…I remember one student said something mean about a classmate and immediately another student said to the classmate, ‘Well I always like having you around. I’m glad you’re in my class.’”
This longstanding work at ALL Academy is having an effect beyond their classrooms. When Danielle Epperson switched departments from Aspire’s education services to become clinical director for adult services in CT, she brought that commitment to evidence-based training with her. Although Aspire had long used evidence-based treatments like ABA with adults experiencing significant behavior challenges, formal social skills training was not offered widely to people who didn’t also need ABA services.
Epperson is committed to bringing those practices to the adults supported by Aspire. Along with the CT clinical team, she selected the PEERS curriculum to pilot with a group of adults who were having difficulty forming relationships. The participants gather once a week for teaching sessions that include instruction, video models, and role play. They practice with a social coach who gives them feedback in real life situations and helps them identify where to meet potential friends.
Participant skills are evaluated at the start and end of the course. One of the clinicians, Cole Mills, reports that progress is already visible, “One of our participants didn’t want to leave the house at all before this class. Now the person comes every week and is engaged and smiling throughout class. The other participants are very responsive and helping to motivate the person.”
What’s happening in Connecticut with the expansion of social skills training is the kind of thing that was envisioned in Aspire’s 2022 strategic plan: integration that harmonizes perspectives, practices and programs across the Aspire culture. Integration is making Aspire’s programs more effective in supporting people to build the relationships they need to thrive.