Lessons in Social Skills Can Change Lives

Baltimore’s Child (Special Edition) 2004

by Mike Strzelecki


Hands on Training in Social Skills

Other Maryland programs have proven track records in teaching social skills to children with special needs. One is the International School of Protocol, tucked away in Hunt Valley, Baltimore County.

The school was founded by Cathy Hanson, who brings to the program 15 years of experience teaching communications at the University of Alaska, in Anchorage, and a temperament hardened by undertaking come of Alaska’s most challenging rock climbs. Hanson started the School of Protocol to straighten up what she felt was a society going sloppy. “Civility and social protocol is going, going, going,” she says. “And I just don’t want to see it gone.” Hanson added the special needs program to her school five years ago at the behest of concerned parents.

Hanson takes the Miss Manners approach to teaching social skills to young people with disabilities. A syllabus of her lesson on restaurant and dining etiquette reads like a cheat sheet on dinner party behavior. Students learn how to set a table, seat a guest and even how to host a party.

In another lesson, students learn proper decorum and behavior in public places, such as in theatres, on public transportation, in shops at libraries and museums and at sporting events. Hanson also instructs students on interviewing and job etiquette, including lessons on how to groom and dress for success, shake hands, make first impressions, depart form an interview and follow up after an interview. Communications etiquette lessons acquaint students with telephone skills, giving and receiving compliments, public speaking and more.

Hanson explains that seemingly involuntary tasks—making eye contact or shaking hands, for example—are particularly difficult for certain children with special needs to master. But she marvels at how quickly their lives change once the task is learned. “Windows open and entire new worlds of social interactions and communications emerge,” she says.

Teaching at the School of Protocol is done through hands-on activities a role-playing. Most classes involve small groups. Hanson strives for a student/teacher ration of 3:1 for children with autism, and 4:1 for those with other special needs.

“It has to be done with peers,” says Hanson, revealing the secret to her success. “It’s not just mom and dad telling the kid another thing to do.”