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Pediatric / School Based Speech-Language Pathology Corner: Tech 4 Teens

All material Copyright © Kaufman Children’s Center and Diane Nancarrow
Written for PediaStaff courtesy of the Kaufman Children’s Center
By: Diane Nancarrow, M.A., CCC/SLP
The last thing adolescents want to do is get together and talk about Social Skills. As clinicians, you’ve seen them glaring, arms folded, waiting for the hour to be over so that they can tell their parents about what a big waste of time it was. Or perhaps, the teenagers at your table are just waiting for entertainment, and you are on center stage. Either way, getting teenagers to actively participate, problem solve, work collaboratively, and to improve their social communication skills with each other is a big order. At a recent Social Skills group, I asked how many were attending because they thought they needed to be there (no hands went up). When I asked how many were present because their mothers made them attend, all six hands went up quickly, with assorted groans and sighs. I then asked them about who had an interest in technology, and the conversation was started about which computers were best, who had a smart phone, what game systems were the best, what was the best game, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and movie making experience. No matter what the diagnosis, kids like technology, and technology can be used to help adolescents improve their social skills.
Most kids with pragmatic language delays, or social skill impairments fail to recognize nonverbal body language, and facial expressions of others. They misunderstand others intentions, actions, vocal inflection, and gestures. Kids with these challenges become targets for bullies; they are lonely, and operate on the far edge of social engagement. They crave acceptance and friendship, but may find that it is too difficult, and not worth the effort. Using a variety of methods, I wanted to explicitly teach these middle and high school students the importance of observing facial expression for social cues, and at the same time give them the chance to practice higher order social skills within a goal directed group.
Initially, the students were told that they would be helping younger students by creating a video or movie to illustrate a variety of facial expressions and emotions. The six universal facial expressions were written on sticks, and each student drew from a cup. “Anger, Sadness, Happiness, Surprise, Fear”, and “Disgust” were each claimed, with the assignment to collect at least 10 pictures per emotion. In advertising, “happy” is very easy to find, but finding the other facial expressions was difficult. Without being asked or assigned, students volunteered to collect the more difficult faces- to help each other.
The students had to present their ten pictures and ask for agreement from the others. Quickly we found that what was “happy” for some, was just “interesting” for another. “Scared” looked like “excited”, and “sad” looked “tired” to some of us. Was her face “disgusted” or “angry”? Happy smiling faces didn’t necessarily have upturned lips. So, using observation windows, we traced each other’s facial expressions on one side of the glass, while posing on the other. Our two dimensional sketches showed the importance of smaller, “micro-expressions” around the eyes, the cheeks, the nose, upper lip, and between the eyebrows. They illuminated the need for careful observation of our faces. Then we began to agree. Two dimensions just were not enough. We needed to create a three dimensional project.
Using an Apple Laptop computer, iStopMotion video software (, and a Logitech webcam, each student prepared their pictures to make a movie of the universal facial expressions. Each student chose a medium to demonstrate his or her facial expression. Play Doh, cut construction paper, chains, newspaper strips, and yarn were used to replicate the six facial expressions, including micro-expressions in the eyes, lips and cheeks. The iStopMotion software lets you move and record objects one frame at a time. By moving parts and pieces of the face and recording it, the final version looked animated. Although the video for each face was only 3 minutes long, it required preparation, focused attention, assistance by others, and collaboration to move the pieces, and activation of the stop motion program. We had to keep hands out of the picture frames, and co-regulate with the photographer to get the correct timing. iStopMotion exports files that are drag- and-drop compatible with iMovie, so adding titles, music and sound was fairly easy. A little editing to remove fallen pieces, hands and fingers, and extra frames helped to polish the look. The students then wrote a simple script about watching others for facial expression, to interpret how people were feeling, and how one could respond. Recording the voice-over and synching it with the video finished the project.
More importantly, the act of working together on the project gave real-time experience to the students to observe personal space, ask questions, communicate intent, comment, add information or validation, repair and retry statements, to give compliments, to receive compliments, to be polite and friendly to one another, resolve creative differences, to use verbal problem solving, add to conversation within the group, and to exit. Their observations about facial expressions became explicitly learned. Although our group was scheduled for an hour, I found the time extended by 15 to 20 minutes, as the group wasn’t ready to leave until “one more minute”. We even talked about the FOX television show “Lie To Me”, which repeatedly reveals micro-expressions of real people that a team of scientists uses, to determine guilt or innocence.
The use of stop motion animation offers many opportunities to younger students as well. Lego figures, Playmobile figures, play doh forms, action heroes, and movie characters allow the children to act out scenes. They can make scenes to help understand upcoming events. (Sean Has His Tonsils Removed.) They can recreate situations that happened in their real life, and change the outcome. (Jacob Gets Mad at the Math Teacher. Jacob Asks the Math Teacher for Help.) Using the old Highlights Magazine format for “Goofus and Gallant”, kids can have one figure use inappropriate behavior, and another demonstrate appropriate behavior to save the day. The children are very proud of their work, and often come to session with ideas, plans, and anticipation of creating something meaningful through speech, language, and social thinking.
With some students, the simpler use of a digital camera, webcam, or DVD recorder helps them remember positive responses, and initiations. When printed, they have a hard copy of “doing something right”, to review and share with family and friends. These ‘episodic memories” help the child relive their success, and can be used to help them plan for a transition to a similar situation. These pictures can be inserted into a Power Point Slideshow, burned onto a disc, and watched at home.
A favorite activity for younger Social Skills groups is the use of the application “Comic Life” by to make comic books. It provides templates for digital photos, speaking and thinking balloons, headlines, and fonts for narration. Photos can be downloaded from iPhoto, a digital camera, scanned picture, or captured with the Photo Booth application. After inserting your photos, you have a comic book page, with your student as the main character. Students then have the opportunity to practice identifying facial expressions with predictable emotions. They also get to practice coordinating their own expression with an emotion; a skill that often needs practice.
Technology engages students, and keeps them coming back. Using technology as an intervention method allows students to take ownership and pride in collaborative effort, whether a comic book page, a Power Point slideshow, or a video. When students can translate the meaning behind a facial expression, they can begin to understand how someone else feels. This is the beginning of empathy. At the same time, they are building a vocabulary of emotion. Using technology keeps students motivated and creative. It is a tool. Many of the students had no anxiety about editing. They took pride in their production and achieved their goals. These “Tech Teens” continue to amaze and teach me, as well. We made learning relevant, real, and reinforcing.
Now they want to put their videos on YouTube!
Featured Organization and Author: Diane Nancarrow, M.A., CCC/SLP and Kaufman Children’s Center
Diane holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education. She also has a Master’s Degree in Communication Disorders and Sciences. She received her Provisional Teaching Certificate for Grades 7 through 12. As well, she has a Special Endorsement for Speech Language Pathology. She has advanced knowledge of children between the ages of Kindergarten through grade 12. Diane has many interests including, but not limited to, the following: auditory processing disorders, childhood apraxia of speech, developmental speech and language disorders, LINKS to Language, Picture Exchange Communication Systems, extensive experience in neurological communication disorders, adolescent language disorders, language to literacy, Fast ForWord® Family of Language Training Programs, The Kaufman Speech to Language Protocol, use of technology to facilitate learning, and application of ABA/ therapy techniques. She facilitates the social language skills groups here at the Kaufman Children’s Center.
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