It can be difficult to find times within a preschool day to directly work on social skills. Schedules are often full of activities and setting up arbitrary situations can interrupt the natural context and decrease generalization. One already established routine that occurs in almost every preschool day is snack or lunch time. This routine is also a block of time that can work beautifully as a natural context for teachers to address communication and social skills for preschoolers.
In some classrooms, feeding times are already used to some extent, to address social and communicative goals. For example, many teachers and aides may already work on encouraging children to request specific food items or exchange utensils with other peers. Such skills can quickly and naturally be embedded into the routine without great disruption to the group. For some children, these skills are useful goals and at their current functioning level. However, for some preschoolers who still demonstrate delays yet are able to effectively request and exchange materials, emphasis on higher level social skills are needed. Such higher level social skills for preschool children may include basic conversational skills.
One method of working on conversational skills for children with varying skill levels is to use conversation placemats. Such an idea was first introduced and assessed in a research article titled “Increasing the Social Interactions of Preschool Children with Disabilities during Mealtimes: The Effects of an Interactive Placemat game” (Spohn, Timko, and Sainato, 1999). This is a wonderful article that outlines the rationale, procedures, and results from using such a visual strategy to increase social interaction within a small group in a preschool classroom.
In summary, a placemat is created for each child and they are told they are going to play “The Talking Game.” The placemat contains a collage of visual cues or pictures that could spark conversation or commenting from the targeted children. The first step is to have a child begin the game by taking a picture card to see who they will talk to in the group. They may talk to that peer about a picture on the placemat or another topic. If the child does not initiate a comment or question, the teacher or adult can then step in and prompt the child with a comment to say. Over time, the adult fades themselves out after the children are initiating to each other with greater independence.
After reading this article, I took the concept and modified the materials and procedures to address the needs of specific children I work with who I suspected would benefit from this type of intervention. As a behavior analyst working primarily in a 1:1 situation, I have used conversation placemats to initially teach commenting, asking questions, and initiating topics with myself or another adult. Once the child was able to use the skills with adults, I introduced the placemat with peers. Regardless of how you choose to use the placemats, the construction of the placemats is similar.
First begin by taking an 8x11 sheet of colored paper which will be the placemat. Using a program such as Mrs. Riley to create visuals, you then begin to select and print out pictures that are interesting and relevant to the child or group of children. These pictures are then cut out and glued to the 8x11 colored piece of paper in a collage fashion. It is helpful to laminate these placemats as they are used during feeding times and quickly get dirty otherwise! Once they are laminated, begin using them during naturally occurring routines such as snack to increase social interaction in a fun and effective way!
Spohn, J., Timko, T., Sainato, D. (1999). Increasing the Social Interactions of Preschool Children with Disabilities During Mealtimes: The Effects of an Interactive Placemat Game. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 1-18.