Etiquette Classes Build Social Skills and Confidence for Young People with Special Needs

Baltimore's Child, August 2001

By Emily Elizabeth Giza

It's hard enough being a 14-year-old-not quite a teen and definitely not a kid. But when you are a 14-year-old with special needs, life tends to be even harder. You might look different, your speech might sound funny, and people might treat you differently because you aren't like them. All you want to do is fit in.

When Howard County resident Sheila Dwyer enrolled her son Cory in a new class in social etiquette for young adults and teens with special needs, she was looking for just that. "I just wanted him to begin to fit in more," states Dwyer about her son who has mental retardation. "People tend to be a little cruel because they don't understand; I wanted Cory to learn to be nicer to his peers and other adults, not just to me. It was a good start for him," she notes, "and it's a real confidence boost; it gives him that little bit of extra confidence he needs."

This past May, Cathy Hanson, Director of the International School of Protocol, in conjunction with Howard County Recreation and Parks, held her first social etiquette classes for young adults and teens with special needs at Rockburn Elementary. "Howard County Recreation and Parks asked if we would offer a class for teens with special needs, and we said 'Of course!'" Hanson exclaims. "They [Rec and Parks] wanted to have a class where these students could really shine on their own."

Classes met for one hour, once a week for four weeks, and during that time, students with a variety of special needs worked with Hanson and her assistant Marsha Luster on greetings, handshakes, being a good host and a polite guest, identifying oneself on the phone, and making introductions.

"We are building lifeskills," Hanson states. "I try to keep the class very structured, but definitely allow for flexibility. You never know when something just won't work," she observes.

Class typically begins with a discussion about current events or any news the students would like to share. Hanson and Luster then move to the lesson of the day, which usually involves role playing. Next comes circle time during which the students practice their bows. Then it's snack time, to help reinforce manners in serving food and being a good host. "Information, play, information, play...this way, you won't lose them," Hanson states. "And constant praise and reinforcement are essential to remembering the lessons."

Hanson's students are very proud and excited by what they learn. The love shaking hands, saying hello, and introducing themselves.

"For most of us, shaking hands is very easy," says Hanson. "However, to a child with a disability, squeezing someone's hand can be a difficult task. We practice our firm handshakes, but we also work on making good eye contact." It requires a lot more energy on the students' part to shake hands or open a door for someone. But they do it-and they do it well.

"We expect; they do it," Hanson asserts. "It makes them feel good about themselves. We treat them the same as anyone else. We have high expectations for them. There is no difference between this class and other etiquette classes." These classes allow these students to shine and make progress at their own pace. "It's a good chance to show them off," Hanson states. "These are lessons that help build confidence, and the children learn to gain the respect their deserve."

Life Lessons for All
But it isn't just the students in class who end up learning how to be a good host or how to behave in public.

"I learned a lot, too," Sheila Dwyer says. "There was so much in the handbook that I didn't know. If you want your child to treat others with respect, you need to treat your child with respect, the way you want to be treated."

For Dwyer, the classes were a good start for Cory. "He really enjoyed it, and he can't wait to go back in the fall. He's more polite to grown-ups and to me, and definitely more confident about meeting people. He's also much more conversational, very talkative!" she laughs.

And Dwyer adds, it's not just up to the children to remember what they learned in class; parents need to involve themselves in the lessons and help their children remember and practice what they've learned.

Social etiquette classes are only one of many rec and parks' programs for teens with special needs. There are numerous programs throughout Howard County schools that involve bowling, art classes, swimming, special events, teen clubs and dances. And most of the children participate in more than one program. Although the other activities are fun and social, for Dwyer, the social etiquette class was a good beginning for Cory to gain confidence and become more secure with himself and his abilities.

"I would like him to do more, and he wants to," Dwyer remarked. "He's not afraid to meet people now. In fact, he'll walk right up to anyone and want to know who he or she is!"

For Hanson, it is a joy to work with these students. "The class makes them feel good about themselves, and they like knowing they are being treated the same as anyone else. They amaze me with what they know and what they want to do. If they can do these things, they can do anything."