“Welcome to Social Group!”: My Experience Teaching Nonverbal and Limited Verbal Individuals

By Anna Kuang, FCSN Voices Senior Youth Volunteer

Ding!

“Hello Kar, welcome to social group!”

A few seconds later, another ding!

“Hi Sophina! Welcome to social group! Do you want to say hi to Kar?”

Sophina is quick to raise her hand and enthusiastically wave. “HI KAR!”
Kar raises his hand back in response.

Ding! Ding!
My heart jumps as I let my final two students, June and Tony, into the social group. All my students came today! My screen fills with friends greeting each other.

It’s another Saturday afternoon, and my heart is pounding. Not from nervousness or fear, but with anticipation and excitement. I can’t wait to share the new Halloween songs that I’ve scoured from Youtube, and read my students the newest cute story about farm animals in spooky costumes. Through my computer screen, I see Sophina eagerly wave again and Kar prop his head up with his right hand, a smile already beginning to form on his face. A thrill rushes through me as I realize that today’s social group is going to be the best one yet.

In late June 2020, I was in particularly low spirits. After being a 1-on-1 buddy during the FCSN East Bay Regular Family Gatherings since freshman year, I had formed close bonds with the students that I worked with and the coordinators of the program. In particular, I loved working with Sophina, a young adult who loved to dance and was wickedly good at puzzles. When the pandemic shut down in person classes and activities, I felt lost and helpless. As a rising upperclassman during a raging pandemic, who knew when I would see my friends again? 

However, Nonverbal Social Group piqued my interest. It’s a program catering to children who are non-verbal, as well as those with minimal verbal ability but can learn to say a limited amount of words. Volunteers virtually lead 1-6 lower-functioning special needs individuals in activities such as reading picture books, counting, simple sign language, and alphabets/numbers. Parents are near their children to assist as needed. Having grown up with the teens and adults at FCSN East Bay, I thought I was up to the challenge. In the back of my mind, I also hoped Sophina would join my class so I could reconnect with her. 

Despite my confidence, I quickly realized that I had much work to do in order to become a competent social group leader. During my trial run, I was overjoyed to find Sophina as one of my students, and was tasked to read her the book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Unsure of how to read the book virtually, I forced enthusiasm into my voice and tried my best to keep her engaged by bombarding her with questions. Throughout my class, Sophina’s mom stopped me multiple times, gently pointing out when my questions were too hard or when I asked too many. After my rocky trial ended and I closed the Zoom meeting defeated, it dawned on me that I had gone into the social group with books I was interested in, with songs I wanted to hear. In order to retain the attention of my student, I had to learn what she liked. 

Over the next few weeks, I slowly took note of what seemed to interest Sophina. From volunteering with her in-person, I knew she had unbridled enthusiasm for everything dancing and music related, and “La Macarena” made her burst out dance moves that genuinely surpassed mine. Slowly, I learned that Sophina adored animal pictures, but most of all, she loved the color orange. I gradually began choosing topics and songs for the Social Group with her preferences in mind — Google Slide flashcards filled with pictures of orange dresses, orange popsicles, and more. The songs I chose turned more upbeat. Through tailoring my class to Sophina’s preferences, I saw she grew more interested, and paid attention for longer spans of time. During Social Group, I’d frequently drum up excitement by asking “Are you ready?” before showing videos or the story, and every single time, Sophina would answer with a relentlessly enthusiastic “Yes!”, blowing me away with her focus and engagement. I could see real improvement from my new strategy and it pleased me greatly. However, I will never forget the one Saturday I decided to play “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” when my attitude towards Social Group changed forever. 

“Are you ready for ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’?” I asked enthusiastically.

“Yes! I am ready! WOO!” Sophina clapped her hands in excitement. I noticed that she was more upbeat than usual, and truly looked ready with anticipation.

As soon as the music started to play, Sophina immediately began dancing in her seat and clapping her hands. I sang along with the video and tried copying her dance moves as best as I could. 

“With an oink oink here and an oink oink there—” I sang.

“Woo!” Sophina exclaimed.

“Here an oink there an oink, everywhere an oink oink—”

“Yeah!”

All of a sudden, Sophina laughed out loud. I felt like I was floating. It was the first time I had ever heard her laugh, and it moved me deeply. My song had given her such joy. From then on, I was gripped with determination. I worked even harder to customize the social group for her, not just to retain her attention anymore, but with the hope and anticipation of seeing her grin in the next class. 

(From left to right) Top: Sophina and Kar. Bottom: June, and Tony. Even on days when I’m unhappy or tired, seeing them never fails to make me excited and energized. Everyone leaves Social Group smiling!

My enthusiasm only grew stronger as June, Tony, and Kar joined my social group and I began incorporating their preferences as well. Soon, Saturday mornings became dedicated to finding the happiest and catchiest songs, and constantly brainstorming new pictures and themes to present each week for my Google Slides flashcards. Every upbeat song and cute story I found on Youtube brought a burst of excitement as I bookmarked them one by one to share for social group. 

After almost a year and a half of Social Group, I’ve fallen in love with Kar, Tony, June, and Sophina. I welcome the challenge and their smallest smiles make it all worth it. I’ve learned that all you need is consistency and a keen eye for what makes them happy. Most importantly, I’ve learned that underneath everything, they are just regular people who want to have fun and be with friends, something we all want. 

Although I teach my students every week, I realize more and more that it’s my students who really teach me the important lessons. Because of them, I’ve learned to enjoy the simple things in life. Before Social Group, I never knew how good it feels to dance my heart out to Hokey Pokey knowing that right in my Zoom meeting are others who are dancing just as passionately. I’d always compare myself to others, and never let myself have a moment’s respite for fear of falling behind my peers academically or otherwise. Now, I realize that success isn’t a strict quota that must be met, or a certain GPA that must be maintained; it’s fulfilling yourself by giving happiness to others.

“And that’s the end of social group, I hope you all enjoyed!”

Even though we’ve just finished the last dance of the day, “Halloween Stomp”, I am unwilling for my friends to leave. I stay at the Zoom meeting, a big beaming smile on my face, and relish the last few moments I have with my friends for the week. I say goodbye over and over again as I watch Kar slowly raise his hand in goodbye and June giggle as she gives a little wave. 

As the participant list on Zoom gradually dwindles to one, I think, Thank you for everything you’ve taught me. I can’t wait to see you all next week.

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