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In this episode, I got to sit down with the incredibly knowledgable Dr. Anna Vagin, an SLP with a private practice in California. She provides individual sessions and social learning groups to children, young adults, and their families, and is the author of Movie Time Social Learning (2012) and YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning (2015).

We’ve gotten so many questions about social language groups, so I was super excited when Anna agreed to this interview. I know she’ll be the perfect person to break this all down for us.

Anna’s expertise is working with students who have diagnoses ranging from ASD, ADHD, NVLD, anxiety disorder, language disorders, and social communication disorders.

She has a wealth of experience to draw from, and I learned so much about getting the most out of working with these students in mixed groups. I hope you learn a ton too!! 🤓

So grab your beverage of choice (I’ll have a green tea!), get cozy, and listen in.

Key Takeaways

– What led Anna to specialize in social language
– How to group students effectively, making sure all group members are able to “give” and “get”
– Creating groups when students display challenging behavior
– Effectively using visuals in your groups
– Behavior expectations
– Feeling trackers and fixers
– Favorite games for social language groups
– Setting up groups for behavioral management success
– Incorporating explicit teaching of social concepts
– Our favorite activities for mixed groups
– Tips + strategies for monitoring progress in social groups

Links Mentioned in the Podcast

Movie Time Social Learning
YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning
Sarah Ward: The queen of executive function
Mole Rats in Space
Ice Cool
Sushi Go
Michelle Garcia Winner’s Thinkables and Unthinkables
Story Grammar Marker
Game Changer
Soar by Alyce Tzue

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Thanks so much!!


Marisha: Hi there, and welcome to the SLP Now Podcast. We have received several questions about social language groups, and I cannot wait to dive into this topic with Dr Anna Vagin today. Anna Vagin is a licensed speech language pathologist with over 30 years of experience and in her private practice in Marin County, California, she provides individual services and social learning groups to children, young adults and their families.

Marisha: Her particular interest is in using media to support social thinking and students with diagnoses such as ASD, ADHD, NVLD, language disorder, anxiety disorder, social communication disorder, and twice exceptional. She clearly has a wealth of knowledge and experience that she is going to share with us today. If you've heard of Dr Anna Vagin, you might be familiar with her books, Movie Time Social Learning and YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning. Those are some really great resources that I've loved. Without further ado, let's dive into our conversation with Dr Vagin today.

Anna Vagin: How are you? Thanks for having me on today.

Marisha: I am so incredibly excited for this conversation. Like we were talking about before, we've gotten so many questions about social language groups and I was incredibly excited when you agree to the interview, because I know you'll be the perfect person to break this all down for us. But before we dive into all of those questions, can you tell us a little bit more about your experience and what led you to specialize in social language?

Anna Vagin: Absolutely. You know, I think we all take our path as our work career unfolds. When I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, back in the late 70s, I studied with Carol [Prutting 00:02:07]. Carol Prutting was really at the forefront in the field of speech language pathology, thinking and talking and teaching and researching the area of pragmatics, which for the younger listeners before we had really information on social cognition and social learning, it was really about pragmatics, about how to use language. What led people to use language better, and what sometimes help people back and how we could help them with that. Really from my undergraduate career on, I was very interested in pragmatics.

Anna Vagin: When I went back for my doctorate, I had two additional experiences that really helped me, I think develop where I am, especially in how I consider the importance of emotional development and feelings. Because, I studied in a very finite area called attachment theory which looked at, how do infants attach with parents? How do parents foster attachment in their children, with Mary Main over at UC Berkeley. I just learned so much from her and it really opened my eyes to looking at communication and interaction through a different lens and that was really exciting to me.

Anna Vagin: Then I also had the opportunity to work with Anne Fernald down at Stanford. Anne Fernald focused on baby talk, child directed speech, and studying it internationally and looking at very, very young interaction. And again, once I learned how to set up split screen cameras and recorders, and there were so many wires, I was way overwhelmed, I really loved looking at this interplay between two communicators and learning about how it developed. Somehow, that led me to as I was developing my practice and there were many more students being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it just unfolded in that way. I absolutely love what I do, I love the students and families with whom I work, I love talking about this topic and I really appreciate the opportunity for us to have this conversation today.

Marisha: I just love that story. That's so amazing. It's always fascinating to hear all the little pieces that lead us to where we end up. It's just super exciting. That was super helpful. Let's just dive in and talk about how we set up the social language groups, because you actually set these up in your clinic, which is really interesting. But, how do you figure out which students can be grouped together? How do you make those first decisions?

Anna Vagin: You know, I think the more you do it, the better you get at it and the more you can anticipate good groupings and more importantly, anticipate groupings that you do not want to put together. Because, a good group is magical and the growth is just ... It's a fabulous place to be. On the flip side of that, a group that is not working can really be unpleasant. I think we have to really be careful and look not just at age, or grade level, or schedules, although sometimes that will influence how we put students together because reality can sometimes be a factor as we make these decisions.

Anna Vagin: All of the groups that I have work on social cognition, but there are subgroups underneath that. I may have a group that is more focused on anxiety, I may have a group that's a little bit more focused on regulation or on anger management, or a group that's a little bit more defiant, or a group that needs a little bit more support on narrative and language processing, or a group that is super smart academically. I think, sometimes what happens when we put children together in a group or young adults is that when they come to the group, they look around at the other members of the group and they think, "Is that who I am since I'm in this group?" We really want to support students as they go through that exploration then to do that, the more carefully we put groups together, the better.

Anna Vagin: Now, I also usually take students who are not in the same school. Sometimes I will make an exception, but it's very, very rare, and I'm able to do that because I'm in private practice. Obviously if you work in a public school setting, you cannot do that. That also can have benefits, but I find that being outside of a school system where I can't be frequently on the blacktop or in the classroom, I prefer to have the schools be separate. And again, because I am not in a school setting, I also look at parents because I want the parents to be compatible.

Anna Vagin: Oftentimes when I have a group that's meeting, I will also meet with the parents outside of the kids session. And again, I want parents who will look at each other and often feel, "That parent understands me. I know what that child is like, I can give support to that parent." I have these overarching subgroups that I think are very helpful.

Anna Vagin: I want to also say something about those defiant students that we have. The students who may not recognize their challenges, who may be more on the continuum of liking to argue, not always very kind. First of all, I don't want one of those children in each group over three hours, because then I have three hours of dealing with a child who was going to challenge me on patience, and on kindness, and on helping them move through their defiance and move through their argumentative nature.

Anna Vagin: If I put them all together, they get a taste of their own medicine, which is very, very helpful, because they'll sit there and argue, and argue, and argue with each other and they'll say, "You're a jerk," "Well, you're a jerk to," and all of a sudden it's like, huh, huh, am I looking in the mirror again? That looking at the group members and thinking, "Is that what I'm like?" For a lot of students, that can really be a breakthrough of, "I don't really want to be like that. How can we change?" And, how can we find solidarity and find shared interests, even though we may be a little bit prickly with everyone?

Anna Vagin: Because I'm in private practice, I also have ... I'm very, very lucky with my work, because I can work with the same group of kids for years and for many of our students with social cognitive challenges who don't have a lot of friends. Sometimes the friends they have in group are the only friends they have. It's very important to them, it's important for students to be able to find those who are similar to them and who understand them and who they understand. I have a couple of videos that are very powerful of students talking in group about deaths in their family.

Anna Vagin: If we think about, obviously all of these students will have death touch their family at some point, often with a grandparent or a pet. Whereas when you're a typical peers, students who have friends have other kids they can talk to about this and get some support. But these students without friends, they need to hear it from peers to, they need to be able to share it. I think that's one of the most powerful things that a group can do, is provide a family for some of these students where they can get support, they can share a sense of humor, they can share those common interests.

Anna Vagin: I had a group a while back and oftentimes I'd give them, I don't know, eight to 10 minutes of free conversation. I'm usually out of the room, I want them practicing conversation. Can you stay appropriate? Can you do what's expected when I'm not even in the room? They had this incredible conversation on, what is your favorite element in the periodic table? This was lively and they were laughing, and they were experiencing what friendship gives sauce. But, it was about a topic that many students in their schools, they don't want to talk about what is your favorite elements on the periodic table. We want students giving and we want students getting from their groups.

Anna Vagin: It is a challenge, especially with schedule limitations but, again, the other thing I think is important is if you have a group that is not working and you really feel the ship is sinking, you can try to, you know, how can you change a group? Could you change what you're doing? But you also have to know when to call it a day and say, "You know what, I think we're going to reconfigure this group," and go back to the drawing board. Often only one little change, sometimes taking a student out and putting them in another group, all of a sudden the group works. You have to be willing to experiment when experimentation is called for.

Marisha: So many amazing nuggets in that answer. I was scribbling away different notes, but I just resonated with the, a good group is magic, that is a good quote there. I love the idea of with the challenging students, giving them a taste of their own medicine because it's really powerful. It made me think back to some of my social language groups where we did some video modeling and they saw themselves on video. It was a student just like that and seeing himself in that video was like, "Oh, I do that?" I think it's even more powerful if they can see their peers and experience that emotion behind it to. That's so powerful.

Anna Vagin: I totally, totally agree with you that video taping and then having students watch video tape is an incredibly powerful tool. I have two very different examples about that. One was, I do think ... I had a student who was very argumentative, and kind of chest puffing and I had a really good clip that I had recorded of him with another student. The student's really giving him that nonverbal information that he's missing that's saying, "You're really not being very pleasant right now," and I wanted to show it to him.

Anna Vagin: But, he also was not very resilient. He had that combination of full of yourself, but also that is hiding that you're very non-resilient and very sensitive. I think with some students the review, if we can do it one-on-one can be better than doing it in front of the group. I think sometimes that video review is best done if we can find a time to just show it to the student, because we don't want to call a student out on their behavior in front of a group when they're not able to tolerate that.

Anna Vagin: Many students will look and they'll get feedback from each other and they're like, "Yeah, I was a jerk. I get that." But other students, I could just see this one. If I had done that with this student, he would just have turned red as a beak and he would just have been fighting back tears and have felt terrible. I think we have to use that clinical judgment in how we show students videotape of themselves. Some of them are not quite ready to see what they're like in real life. That's one vignette.

Anna Vagin: Then very recently, I was videotaping two students, and I was playing also because I use games a lot for building resilience and for managing feelings. We were playing this thing I invented called Rule Change. Rule Changes I when you have a very basic board game. We were using a game called Race to the Roof, which is basically a Candy Land type game. There's a board, you roll the dice, you move, or you get a car that takes you forward or back. That's all good and well, but it's kind of boring. It's not the most exciting game to play for an extended period of time.

Anna Vagin: So, Rule Change is every minute, you change the rule. We were playing, I might have the rule that if you roll an odd number, you go back 10 spaces. I make up a rule, we play by it for one minute, that's it, and then the next student makes up a rule, whatever rule they want. One student had if you roll an even number, you go back to start, kind of a cutthroat rule, but that lets everyone practice being uncomfortable, and worried, and happy.

Anna Vagin: One student was doing really ... Both of these guys were loving doing real change. A lot more conversation, a lot more social engagement than if you're just rolling and moving. Every time that student that had to go back, we could see it on video and I said, "How big was your mad there?" He say, "I think it was a two." We use a one to five scale. We watched again and he said, "No, that was a one. I handled that really well." He was able to see himself doing something that is incredibly difficult and even as he watched the video, he was angry that he had to go back. He was angrier watching the video that he had been actually playing the game. And so, I agree with you that video is so, so powerful with our students, letting them see their successes and take a look at some of the things that they may still need to work on.

Marisha: I love those examples, so incredibly helpful. And that Rule Change game is a game changer I think. I've never done that, but I think I want pull that out next time because that is such an amazing way to ... I imagine that there are so many opportunities that come up in that.

Anna Vagin: Yes, yes. Actually, I did a training Tuesday and I showed this video. The audience, they were just shocked at how engaged the students were, and how happy they were, and how nervous they looked, and how excited they looked, and how worried they were sometimes, but they got through it and enjoyed it at the same time. Because frankly, how long can you play Candy Land by the real rules? You could play a long time before someone wins and it has to be interesting for everybody, it has to be fresh. I'm glad you liked that. Good luck with it, it's fun.

Marisha: I'm so excited. All the opportunities for all of the social language calls with that one. Amazing, thank you. Going on to the next question, how do you set up your group? You shared so many great ideas for that embedded practice of the skills, but how do you set up your students for success before going into like playing a board game or whatever other discussions they're having? Do you have any ... Maybe starting with visuals would be a good place to discuss?

Anna Vagin: I think it's so wonderful that you're bringing up visuals because they're really critical for the students with whom work, even the students who are really smart academically. I have many, many conversations with teachers and therapists who are struggling with some of these students on the autism spectrum, who we would've referred to them as having Asperger's. They're very smart academically and they have a lot of language. I'm often saying to teachers and to therapists, "It doesn't matter if he has a lot of language and is a good processor, because he will not have good language and good processing about emotional information and about social information," and so the visuals are critical.

Anna Vagin: I'd love to go over several of them know. The first one, and this is a good starting place for new groups. Sometimes kids have worked with me individually and sometimes they haven't. They've all met me individually, and some of them may have had even two or three appointments. Particularly if they're on the anxious side, I want to really know them and have them know me and know what their strengths are so I can speak to those in group and bring those out. But, there's a ... The diva, queen of executive function for me is Sarah Ward, and I hope your listeners know her. If not, look up Sarah Ward, find Sarah Ward and run, don't walk to her workshop, because you will never be the same.

Anna Vagin: One of the things that Sarah Ward talks about in figuring out helping to support students in expected versus unexpected behavior is the OODA Loop. The OODA Loop Sarah Ward did not invent. That's a term that you can find on Wikipedia, O-O-D-A, and then the word loop. It's how fighter pilots know what to do and how to keep scanning the environment and making changes in their behavior, which is what we want our students doing, which is what we all do, hopefully all the time. Observe, orient, decide and act.

Anna Vagin: Now, Sarah's contribution to this is that when you orient, you have to orient to space, time, objects and people, because that's how you know what is expected. We can't start with, oh, what's expected in group? We have to go back to, let's figure out where we are and what's happening, because that will guide what is expected. For example, I'll do a really super fast OODA Loop right now. Marisha, I'm on line with you, I'm doing this podcast, it's going from ... We're on for about an hour, it's Friday, I'm at my office. This is all giving me information about what's expected.

Anna Vagin: It's not expected right now that I start folding my billing that is on my desk. It's not expected that I stop and put hand lotion on, even though I have hand lotion on my desk. There are many things that are unexpected. I have a brace on my hand because I had surgery, I can't undo the Velcro right now, that would be too loud and it would be disruptive. So, what am I supposed to be doing? What is expected given that I'm doing a podcast right now online? Well, I'm keeping an eye on the time to see how are we doing in our time frame. I have a little crib sheet of topics that you and I said we would talk about. I've got that here. I've got my water in case I feel I need to take sip. I'm making sure that my internet stays on, and my podkit and my little AirPods are working. That's what's expected.

Anna Vagin: That's a great place to start with our students. We're here in social group from two to three. Does that mean it's time to be laying on the floor? No. What is expected and what is unexpected? We generate this list based on the OODA Loop. Then oftentimes we have that list available then when they come in. There is our list about what we know about group. This is what is expected when you're here and this is what's unexpected. That's a behavior oriented, social behavior oriented visual.

Anna Vagin: Another visual that I find I use all the time are these feeling trackers that I have made. A feeling tracker, very easy to make. Mine are on foam board, a little eight and a half by 11 foam board and there are four one to five scales. On one side we have a happy, and that goes from one to five. Then at the bottom it says okay. Then I have the trifecta of uncomfortable feelings, sad, mad and worried. Each of those has a little one to five scale and an okay at the bottom, and then each of these columns has little sticky notes.

Anna Vagin: What students learn to do is, for example as we're playing a game, Marisha if you and I are playing a game, we're playing Monopoly and I get all the greens, I might move my happy marker up to like a two, yeah I'm doing pretty well. But then you get all the reds and all of the railroads, and I moved my worried up a little, maybe to a one and a half. Maybe I get a bad rule and I'm in jail, I'm sad a little bit to a one. Then you get Monopoly place, I'm sorry, then you get Boardwalk and Park Place and I met at a three. You use these for students to indicate how they are feeling at any given moment because as we know, feeling this coming combination. I might not just be mad, I might be mad and worried.

Anna Vagin: In addition to that, with the feeling trackers I have posted feeling fixtures and game playing fixtures. Let's say that you just got that Boardwalk and Park Place on Monopoly and I'm mad at a two and a half. I thought I was going to win. I had all the greens, I had all the utilities, I bought the railroads, but then you go and you get Boardwalk and Park Place, which as we know are the two best. I'm at a two and a half. I look at the feeling fixtures and the feeling fixtures say things like, it's okay, it's just a game and I'm like, "Oh yeah, it's just a game."

Anna Vagin: You know what, I'm not going to be mad at a two and a half. I'm just mad at a one and a half, and so I can move that feeling tracker down. I'm not really sad anymore because I like you, you were fun to play with, I move my sad tracker down to okay. In my practice, that is a critical, very important visual support.

Anna Vagin: I think maybe the third and last and then I'd love to hear your reactions to this, is I have students do a lot of illustrating themselves, and writing and drawing up situations that they're in, feelings they've had, experiences that they're going into, worries they might have for the future. Because when we ask our students to draw, first of all even students who don't have good fine motor control ... I'm the worst artist on the team anyhow, so they're all better than I am in some instances. Their drawing, even if it may be rudimentary will show us their understanding.

Anna Vagin: It'll show us what they know about facial expression, it will show us what they know about perspective taking. Most of my students now I want to see talk bubbles, I want to see thought bubbles. That will tell me, does the student have perspective taking in place for whatever situation they're illustrating? I think having students make their own visual supports in some ways, if I want a student to tell me about what might have happened on the blacktop that didn't go so well, I'm going to first ask them to illustrate it. It may take for big marker boards, because I'm looking for a progression of events.

Anna Vagin: They may draw one scene and I might say, "Oh, wow! What happened after that? Can you draw me what was next?" Or, "Wow! That's so interesting. What was happening before? Draw me that picture." Because then we can really break it down and make it visual. If it's visual, the learning will be deeper, the conversation will be longer, students will stay with it longer, they'll be better regulated. It's just a win-win situation when we have students drawing social issues and abstract concepts. Those are my first three biggies.

Marisha: Oh, my goodness, mind blown.

Anna Vagin: Did I do too much?

Marisha: No, so good. I've heard you present and other presentations and I've heard some of these ideas before, but it's just so, I'm so excited that they're all in one nice little package now. But yeah, I love the idea of the OODA Loop. Just to recap, that's observe, orient, decide act?

Anna Vagin: Yes. Everything guys think about OODA Loop is Sarah Ward's work with the stop, orient to space, time, objects and people. That is totally Sarah Ward's work. I just worship her.

Marisha: I've heard her present a couple of times to, she's amazing.

Anna Vagin: It's a whirlwind.

Marisha: Yeah, so good. That is an ... Go ahead.

Anna Vagin: I didn't mean to interrupt, but I want to just pop something in before it leaves my social cognition. One I've learned over all these many years, you reminded me how many it is in the introduction, I think I've learned to be more patient with how quickly I want the work to go. We all want results overnight, we really do. We want results on the blacktop, we want parents to see the results when they go on vacation because we want parents happy. We really want things to happen quickly, sometimes even in our therapy session because we've made this plan. We have our lesson plan and this is what we want to cover.

Anna Vagin: But, that doesn't mean we will get through it all in a particular session. Because when we talk about having students illustrate, I'm not going to rush a student through their illustration just because I'm looking at the clock. It's really hard sometimes not to do that, especially if you have three or four kids drawing and there's always one who's a little bit slower, who takes a little bit longer, then asking others just, "Could you add more detail? Could you add more thought bubbles? That looks terrific, I wonder if you could add a little extra to it."

Anna Vagin: Because I think we really need to be patient and respect what we learned in Psych 101 about assimilation and accommodation. We can only push a brain to change so quickly. We can't make it happen any faster than it will. I think once we come to grips with that law of brain function and development, we can relax a little bit and not feel, "Oh, I've got to get through this. I've got to get through this, I've got to get through this." Because while it's true, there are only so many years before kids are out of the school system, kids are heading off to college and the job market, so every hour is precious and needs to be used in the best way possible. I think often that best way possible includes patience and a slower pace on our part, which I struggle with daily because I like to be quick.

Marisha: That is such great wisdom and I think that can ... Because, it is okay for these processes to take time. It's a big change for these students. They're big skills that we're tackling, so I totally agree and I love that you're reinforcing that, and it's okay to just take it a little bit slower. We're not going to conquer the whole social language world in one session and that okay. It might take several years, but that's okay.

Anna Vagin: It might take several decades. It can take a long time. I'm seeing more and more young adults in my practice. The first wave and a half after all of this work on social cognition has been available and there's still a lot of challenges. It takes a long time for maturation to kick in, for students to want to really change and for them to be really focused on what they want. It's a big job and it's hard to be in the trenches sometimes doing this work.

Marisha: Yeah, that's so interesting. That would be a whole other conversation, talking about navigating this with young adults. Oh my goodness, so good. But yeah, I love the three visuals that you shared. Definitely storing the OODA Loop and Sarah Ward's additions to that, and the feeling trackers. Do you have examples of those anywhere or is that something you just made on your own?

Anna Vagin: I made them. I use them when I ... Pretty much always when I present now, I show them either in slide form or in person. When I presented on Tuesday and I was presenting about games, I had three volunteers from the audience to play the game and to use the feeling trackers, and then I had to therapists play therapists. They were the ones holding the game fixtures and the stuck fixtures, all these thought bubbles that would bring feelings of discomfort down. Every time I do this, it's very funny, people really like doing it although it's hard to get those first volunteers.

Anna Vagin: The first time I think I presented this at ASHA, I had such competitive volunteers. Oh my word, they were getting mad and they were getting worried, and they were sad. They were all over the map with their emotions. It was a great example of initially when we think of games, we think, "Oh wow, they're fun." Yes, as long as you're doing well and even if you're doing well, you can be worried that someone's going to catch up to you, someone's going to pass you. I've had one student, he finally went the game and I said, "So, how was it?" He looked exhausted and he said, "I'm so happy I won, because I don't have to feel uncomfortable anymore."

Anna Vagin: I think talking with parents also, and I spoke with teachers this week also that games are great, but games for many of our students are very stressful. Some of these students are very competitive, some of them are very sensitive, some of them have no resilience and game playing for them is not always a good time. It's filled with worry, and frustration, and sadness. It's hard to even enjoy being ahead because my gosh, what if someone passes me or what if I don't end up winning? I so want to win. I think we've had this conversation, I use games a lot for a variety of things because they're so powerful and right now is a very exciting time to be using games, because the game developers have just taken off and there are amazingly fabulous games out there.

Marisha: What are some of your favorite? Can you give us like three favorites?

Anna Vagin: Only three? How can I do only three? I'll try to do only three. Often I have students play cooperative boardgames, or cooperative games. If they're really competitive, I want them all to be competitive together, although even that for some is different. So, cooperative boardgames games. I really like Mole Rats in Space, number one. It won all the ... It's an award-winning game. It's kind of like Chutes and Ladders, but much more interesting. Mole Rats in Space is fabulous.

Anna Vagin: A cooperative card game that is very interesting, is called Hanabi H-A-N-A-B-I. This is a fireworks building game played with cards. You all are building fireworks together but the trick is, you see everyone's cards but not your own. You hold your card facing out, so you cannot see them. Isn't that intriguing? And knowing how impulsive some of our kids are, they're going to want to peek.

Anna Vagin: Anyhow, moving on. Another absolute all time favorite right now, these are competitive games now. Ice Cool. Ice Cool won all the awards a couple of years ago. I mean, they swept the awards. This is a flicking game, where you flick penguins through doorways. It is a fabulous game. You may be thinking, kids we see are not going to be good flickers. Not true, they're the best wonders I've ever seen, and now there's an expansion pack for Ice Cool. Dragonwood is another really great game. A good game, third graders were like them and high school students were like, that's a good game. It's not bound by age. Dragonwood is a fabulous game.

Anna Vagin: One of my new all time favorites is called Pyramid of Pengqueen. This is made by the makers of Ice Cool. It is a fabulous game. It's kind of like Battleship because it has that vertical board. You're either playing as a treasure hunter or you're playing as the mummy and everybody ... It's a magnet moving game so if the mummy gets you, they drag you down into the sarcophagus. It's great, love it. Kids really are liking Pyramid of Pengqueen.

Anna Vagin: I guess my last go-to right now is called Sushi Go. Sushi Go is a card game. Get the first set. Don't go for the party pack immediately because the party pack is very complicated. But Sushi Go again, I'm in California, all my kids eat sushi. I like sushi, so it's a really fun game. And Yamslam, actually a dice game. That's the one I do when I do a demo. Yamslam is a dice game. There you go. I think I was down to five maybe. You said only three, but there are so many and we haven't even talked about video games. There are so many great board games right now.

Marisha: That's a great place for us to start looking to maybe refresh the games that we're using in therapy with these groups. I so appreciate those different suggestions.

Anna Vagin: A tip about games, because I don't like having to figure out a game. I don't like having to read the instructions. For me they're not always clear, I'd start trying to play the game. If you go on YouTube, now you can always find a four minute, a 10 minute YouTube video that tells you how to play the game. So, no more of this trying to read the directions in a 30-page direction thing. Watch the YouTube on how to play the game, it's a shortcut.

Marisha: Oh, I love that, that's good. That in and of itself as a whole activity, is getting the students to understand and agree on the rules of the game.

Anna Vagin: Yes. Often when I have a high school or a college group, I just give them the box. I give them Mole Rats in Space because it's a group that likes to play games, and I say, "Okay guys, have fun," and they have to, I mean, sometimes it takes a minute just to open the box. Well, let's open the box. It's an executive function task, it's an incredible social task. Who's going to be the leader in this? Is it always the guy who's the really good game player? Sometimes he ays, "You know, I just don't want to do it this time. Someone else ... I always have to teach you guys. I don't want to do it this time. Someone else has to pick up the ball." There's a lot of room for ... What we're looking for is social engagement, figuring out how to make life work, so I love just giving it to them and just say, "I'm out."

Marisha: Yeah, that's so great. And then in terms of, because you talked a little bit about some of the visuals for behavior management and the expectations of the group. But, are there any tips or tricks that you have in terms of setting the group up for success when it comes to behavior management and those expectations?

Anna Vagin: You know, my groups generally have a framework. Pretty much every group starts with, tell me a comfortable and an uncomfortable feeling you've had today. It doesn't take very long. We just go around, tell me an uncomfortable feeling, and no, hungry is a body feeling, not a heart feeling. We were wanting to talk about sadness, anger, anxiety, those types of feelings, but we also want to say, tell me a time that you felt good today, do you recognize that?

Anna Vagin: We'll go around and do that, and sometimes I'll ask other students for suggestions. Has that ever happened to you? What tips could you give him? How could he handle that next time? Because, there's often patterns of somebody did this to me in PE or something like that. We can have some peer support happening there. Sometimes there will be newcomers to group who will say, "I don't feel ... I never get angry. I never get sad. I had a great day, felt good the whole time," and I'll say, "Well, we all feel uncomfortable sometimes. Every day we'll feel uncomfortable."

Anna Vagin: That's okay, because for that student just to hear other students sharing their discomfort is moving them forward and usually after a couple of weeks, "Well yeah, I did get just a little bit angry today," they'll start coming out of the background on that and start recognizing their feelings. We always start with that. Then usually there's a "lesson" period. That might be working on structured conversation practice, we might be watching a YouTube and doing something with the YouTube, we might be ...

Anna Vagin: I've been playing around a lot with Michelle Winner's Thinkables and Unthinkables lately, really emphasizing the Thinkables, which came out much later than the Unthinkable but I think are incredibly powerful. I'm finding that many of the students have seen the Thinkables and Unthinkables but are only doing a one to one correspondence, so that Rex Flexinator, the flexible one only matches up with [inaudible 00:41:41]. I'm trying to break that apart and say, "These can come in teams so if we're feeling you know worried, there are multiple Thinkables who can be on the team that helps us."

Anna Vagin: Really we're watching YouTube's thinking about the Thinkables and Unthinkables. We might be working on texting with my older students. e might have a formal lesson on texting, we might have a more formal lesson looking at perspective taking. And then because my sessions are an hour, there's a lot of time, we'll always do some kind of a practice in action situation. That might be about playing a game, or it might be doing a building project. I have a lot of interesting materials that are like tracks, and trains, and ramps and elevators, called Rokenbok. That's a fabulous system, takes up half a room. Working on sharing, cooperation, sharing imagination together, or playing a video game.

Anna Vagin: When we're going into that unstructured time, we will usually preview the activity. For example, let's say that four guys are going to go into play with the Rokenbok which has remotely trolls, and cars, and trucks and elevators, balls and all this huge system. What challenges might we face when you're going off to do that? Well, last week we noticed that some of you went off and were doing your own thing. Remember, being in group is not being together. You can go off if you need to take a little break, but then how are you going to get yourself back in group. You're going to remember you need to get fresh gum if you need gum.

Anna Vagin: I remember we had this thing last week where people were kind of taking over each other's trucks that really was not very cool last week. Do you think that might happen again this week? You never know. How are you going to handle that? Remember, you're going to stop and notice that other people have thoughts. You're going to remember it's a time when you have to say sorry, you might've done that inadvertently. If you're making a plan together and you're arguing, that might happen. What are you going to do when that happens? How are you going to keep control of your feelings and stay regulated and remember to work it through?

Anna Vagin: We'll always preview the activity and what could go wrong and how you're going to fix it, and then preview, what do you want to be doing? What are we focusing on? Because one thing to remember again, many of our students are so good at telling us whether they're not supposed to do. If you say, "Well, when you're playing the Rokenbok, what are you supposed to do?" "Well, we're not supposed to fight< we're not supposed to argue, we're not supposed to do this." When we say, "What are you supposed to do," they're like, "Get along?" "Well, what does that mean?" "I don't know."

Anna Vagin: We might have something like, "What are you supposed to do if you're sharing imagination?" "Well, it means that we're being flexible. It means that we're putting our ideas together. It means that we're stopping to listen to each other." We want that also to preview, what are you working on? What are you practicing? Maybe you're practicing being a good sport, maybe you're practicing not bragging when you get ahead in a board game so that kids know what they're working on both in problem areas and tools, triggers and tools we call them or, "This is what you want to focus on, because I know you're working on it. You did really well last week, keep it up this week." So, always previewing I think is super important. That's how my sessions generally go, kind of the framework.

Marisha: That is incredibly helpful. That was such a good framework. I feel like I can picture what you're doing in the session, which is always amazing. So yeah, I love that. Can we dive in a little bit more in terms of the explicit teaching component? Because you shared a lot of different ideas. I don't know if we maybe just want to pick one to dive into a little bit more, but you talked about, like the second, you have your where each group members shares a comfortable and uncomfortable feeling and you have discussion around that, and then you transition into that lesson period.

Marisha: Some of the examples you gave were like that structured conversation, YouTube, you gave the example of Michelle Garcia Winner's Thinkables and Unthinkables. You also gave the example of texting and perspective taking. I know that we could be targeting ... There's so much we could target in that lesson period, but do you have any general tips for success when you're doing that explicit teaching, or if it's easier to dive into one specific example?

Anna Vagin: What if we dive into narrative and Story Grammar Marker?

Marisha: Yeah, let's do it.

Anna Vagin: Okay, because I think ... I love Maryellen Rooney Moreau. She's another person I just worship because she's given us so many amazing tools. Even though Story Grammar Marker at its foundation is for narrative, it's so important also for social understanding and for conversation. Although you may not initially think that, because what do we need for conversation? We need to be interesting, we need to be able to tell a story. We need to be able to put our words together.

Anna Vagin: If I'm focusing on using Story Grammar Marker, we might watch a video and then every student has to ... Let's pretend that these are, I don't know, fourth and fifth graders. Every student with their marker board has to maybe think of a critical thinking triangle, which is a kickoff. Something exciting happened, there was a feeling and then there was a plan made. Maybe everyone has to think of one that they noticed in that video and draw it, or illustrate it or fill it out, or write it down and then we share those.

Anna Vagin: The largest groups I have of school age kids is four. I don't have groups that ... I might have a group of five and middle school if I think I can make it work, because part of the process of a group is juggling that many students. When I do the structured work, that's why the drawing can be so helpful, because everyone then can make their own product. If we're doing something that is more freeform and verbal, it can be trickier to manage what happens with all the dialogue of four students trying to get their ideas out. I think sometimes it's good to try and even structure that a little bit with more ...

Anna Vagin: I had this example with, we watched this video called Game Changer, which has a girl character and a muscle man doll character. We were working on perspective taking and what I wanted the students to do was to one time, talk through the story in the character of the girl, which I was surprised to find the boys were very willing to do. Then, talk through the whole story from the perspective of the muscle man doll, because they were two very different perspectives.

Anna Vagin: We just were able to ... I don't have a rain stick, you know that conversation rain stick like if you've got the stick, you can talk. I don't have anything that formal, but we kind of like one student would talk, I say "Great, now you pick it up from there." We were able to contain the conversation, because I think in groups that's part of the challenge, how do I make it freeform but still not have it be chaotic? Because what we want is, we want students engaging with each other, but we also need to know when to step in and reorganize it and be the social cognition Butler who comes in and brings everyone up to speed on what everyone has agreed on, and then takes it forward more.

Anna Vagin: Because, I think that is a challenge. We have to go into the sessions ready to think, "How are we going to do that? Am I going to have every ..." With the Thinkables and Unthinkables, every student might've picked an Unthinkable, and then collected which Thinkable cards they think would be on the team to battle them. Part of it is I think having enough materials also that every kid has access to enough that they can do with. Does that make sense? Am I answering your question?

Marisha: Yeah, that doesn't make sense. That helps. I think just having, because you're like ... We're playing the role as the facilitator and the different things that we talked about in terms of ... Because you would do a lot of ... And we would come back to the framework like you said, of the OODA Loop. Like if we're getting off track or whatnot, we would just reference that and use that to manage. Just continuing to incorporate all of those different tactics makes a lot of sense.

Anna Vagin: And again, I think part of it is, the creativity part of what we do and the thinking on our feet. I have this one group they actually met last night, and one of the kids in this group is working on not ranting. He will say, "I go on Google Rants, and he does, where he just takes off like a rocket ship. He doesn't have eye contact anymore, he's just staring off into space and he is talking at 20 miles a minute and it's very hard to stop him. But he knows he's doing it, he's he's working on it, he kind of has a sense of humor about it.

Anna Vagin: And so, somehow somebody in this group around my office found this buzzer, this orange buzzer. I had ordered them all, they didn't do what I wanted and he said, "Buzz me," and so the buzzer is on the table in this group and anybody can hit the buzzer when they think he starts ranting and it works for him. He likes the buzzer whereas I would usually not think that the buzzer would be a good idea. But for this group, it worked.

Marisha: I love that. I think that's where like you were saying, it's that clinical judgment piece, especially with social language. It's definitely not like articulation where we can have a little bit more a manual and you all in terms of first this, than this and then this. That's where that clinical judgment comes in. We get to be problem solvers and we get to think on our feet and there's like that buzzer like you said, it works for that one student, but it might not work for just another student in the group, or maybe even that same student next month or last month.

Anna Vagin: Exactly, exactly. We have to be flexible.

Marisha: Oh, is that a social language concept to?

Anna Vagin: I think it is. It's one of those tough ones.

Marisha: Our world is full of it. We can never escape it.

Anna Vagin: Well, my students often say to me, "Don't you have to be flexible? We think you should be flexible on this and let us play the video game first." It's like, "Well okay, maybe you're right. I should be flexible." It's hard to be flexible and I can say, "It's really hard to be flexible, but okay, fine."

Marisha: That's so interesting when they turn on you to and use it for their goals.

Anna Vagin: That's what social communication is about. We all want to get what we want in a way that works for everybody and they were absolutely right.

Marisha: Yeah, I love that. That's so smart. The other question, because we talked about some of your favorite activities for those groups already, but I know you do a ton of work with YouTube and I ... You have another podcast. I will add this into the show notes if people want to find out more about how to use YouTube videos for these sessions, but can you give us just a quick overview, or maybe like one favorite example, just as a little teaser?

Anna Vagin: Sure. Well, the idea behind the YouTube ... First of all, a lot of research has been telling us that students on the autism spectrum, one of their big deficits is in processing social movement and if we know that from a number of studies, why are we working with pictures that don't move? That's the research support for using YouTube. There are fabulous, short, incredibly beautifully crafted stories on YouTube that are between two and four minutes in length that we can use to build emotional vocabulary, we can use them to talk with students about very abstract concepts like cooperation, like not getting along, like misunderstandings.

Anna Vagin: Many of the social cognitive ideas that we are working with are very abstract and they're very hard to explain. And so if we can show examples, or show examples of uncomfortable feelings, first of all, it's building their understanding of the concept. But, it's also building their comfort in talking about these important concepts as they relate to engaging characters, not themselves. It can be very hard for the students to have to face their own challenges right off the bat, but if we want to talk about, if we want to watch a super cute video, I'm trying to think of one of my new favorites.

Anna Vagin: Let's go back to Game Changer, the one with the little girl who's trying to win the muscle man doll. There's a lot we could just ... We can talk about how she's frustrated, she gets really frustrated. We could talk about how the muscle man changes his mind because he realizes something about her. She's very resilient. It's all these things that we can talk about. Talk with the students, and then often students will say, "Oh, that happened to me," or they'll say, "Yeah, my brother does that all the time. Sesame Street, Ernie accounts fruit. Ernie's just not listening to his friend. Kids will say, "My brother does that," or, "Someone did that to me yesterday in PE."

Anna Vagin: Then you're off to the races because now they're sharing of themselves. It can be very organic in how you start with the characters and the next thing you know, the group is talking about themselves and their own experiences, and helping each other or relating to each other. What we really want ... I've been doing a lot of work on annoyance. Being annoying and getting annoyed, because I think it's a huge thing for our students. The way that after watching some videos kids are able to say not only through the top three things that annoy me, but things that I do that annoy others.

Anna Vagin: Then we were able to talk about, "Okay, so you do these things," and some kids were saying, "I like doing them. I like annoying other people." "Okay, if you're telling me that you like annoying other people, we've got to work on that feeling first before you're going to change, because I can talk till I'm blue in the face about how you should change but if at your core you is still like nudging people, we got to deal with that first." I just think that YouTube is really engaging and engaged students learn deeper, and better, and more easily. It makes the learning more fun. As students get older and they've been in therapy for a long time, they've seen a lot of these materials and they're like, "Oh man, this again. I already know that, I've already done that." We have to excite them about this social learning, and I have yet to find a student who doesn't want to watch a YouTube video.

Marisha: That makes so much sense. Like I said, I got to take some of your courses in the past and I've been able to implement some of it, but they're just so incredibly powerful. I especially resonate with the idea that it's easier to talk about other characters, because sometimes students can be resistant initially. It's just so helpful in this super engaging format, because I love literacy based therapy too, but the fact that it's a movement just like the social world is also incredibly powerful.

Anna Vagin: And the stories are so lovely. There are lovely, beautiful ... Some of them are fun, but like Soar by Alyce Tzue, it is a beautiful story. She just tells a great story in just a few minutes.

Marisha: Yeah, and they're so short to, you get so much bang for your buck. The students love it and it's like, how can we not do this? I will definitely share the link in the show notes, or lots of links in the show notes to all of the different things that we talked about. I'll also share the link to the podcast where you dive into all things YouTube, as well as your books which have amazing resources for using these books as well, or YouTube and other movies.

Marisha: That can be found at, but Anna thank you so much for your time. This was incredibly helpful. I know that the listeners are walking away with tons of practical tips and strategies that they can use with their social language groups, so thank you so much for sharing all of that with us.

Anna Vagin: Thank you for having me on. I've really enjoyed our conversation today.



Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

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