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Gary Siperstein Lectures on Understanding the Social Behavior of Children with Mental Retardation

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Gary Siperstein delivers the 2004 Leonard and Frances Blackman Lectures at TC.

Gary Siperstein delivers the 2004 Leonard and Frances Blackman Lectures at TC.

Gary N. Siperstein, founder and director of the Center for Social Development and Education, presented the 2004 Leonard and Frances Blackman Lecture in April. His talk, titled "A Cognitive Model for Understanding the Social Behavior of Children with Mental Retardation: A Springboard to Social Skills Instruction," was presented in a conversational but heartfelt manner, outlining research that could affect the lives of millions of children and their families.

Siperstein laid the groundwork for his lecture by taking the audience through a history of various theoretical constructs of social functioning, noting changes in both specific models and themes, such as a shift from focusing on who was too disabled to be a part of the educational system to creating models that could provide support to all children. Siperstein noted that the related fields' jargon overlapped and shifted constantly, both through time and from country to country. "If you get into the area of social behavior, be ready to be confused," he quipped.

He then discussed some of the problems facing mentally retarded children in today's system, particularly those with mild mental retardation, who are the focus of Siperstein's work. Students with mild mental retardation are important to focus on, he said, because they are often misclassified as learning disabled, and because when properly counted, mental-retardation can no longer be considered a low-incidence disorder. For instance, while only 0.14 percent of children have IQs of 55 and below, 2.68 percent, or nearly 20 times as many, have IQs of 70 or below.

The central problem for these students, to Siperstein, is that "[Mentally retarded students] in inclusive classrooms are there physically but not socially." He believes that most schools don't place enough emphasis on teaching social skills, and don't currently have the necessary structures even if they wanted to. In fact, he said, some of the basic behavioral patterns of mentally retarded children, such as frequent appeals to authority, are unwelcome in an inclusive, non-special education classroom.

Siperstein then presented the findings of a massive video study he conducted, titled "Promoting Social Success: A Curriculum for Children with Special Needs." His research team auditioned more than 400 elementary students to star in and write scripts for videos that would illustrate how mentally retarded students interpret social cues differently than other students. In particular, the videos emphasized that mentally retarded students have trouble interpreting conflicting cues, such as in a video of a student accidentally ruining another student's homework but being genuinely sorry.

An analysis of students' responses to the videos showed that mentally retarded students rely on appeals to authority far more often than other students, which Siperstein said makes teachers "mini-cognitive prosthetic devices." In a special-education classroom, this is expected and encouraged, but frequent problems arise in inclusive classrooms, he said.

Siperstein also presented the results of a worldwide poll of attitudes toward mental retardation, with widely varying results. For example, on the question of whether people with mental retardation can maintain friendships, 93 percent of Americans said yes, while only 33 percent of Egyptians believed they could.

Why does Siperstein find understanding and teaching social skills so important? He finished his lecture with an answer, showing a picture that one of his students had drawn of several children holding hands with the caption "It is fun to have friends."

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