The Parish School Blog

Developing Social Skills for More Than a Decade in Children Who Have Learning Difficulties

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What began as passion and determination for supporting students who struggle socially, has turned into a program turning a decade old with clients from across the Houston area.

In the early 2000’s, Parish Speech-Language Pathologist Renee Attaway discovered that despite the quality and effective language intervention being provided in the classroom, students were still struggling socially. In fact, studies show 70 percent of children with learning disabilities have major difficulties socially when dealing with their peers. In contrast, only 15 percent of kids without learning disabilities struggle socially.

Renee decided to embark on a journey of studies and research to find an approach that goes beyond teaching social skills and can be applied outside the class and therapy rooms. Eventually, she discovered the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, founder of Social Thinking®. Renee found exactly what she set out to learn about the social mind in Michelle’s work, and dove deeper to absorb the Social Thinking® framework. She will admittedly tell anyone who asks that she was on a mission to learn all she could about the program, even if that meant unashamedly attending every Social Thinking® conference and training across
the U.S.

After attending as many conferences as possible, Renee finally introduced herself to Winner and eventually completed the clinical training program in San Jose, Calif., home to Social Thinking®.

Social Thinking® at Parish is Born

Excited and with a passion to bring her knowledge home to The Parish School, Renee set out to convince then Head of School, Margaret Noecker, and Principal, Nancy Bewley, that the school would greatly benefit from using a Social Thinking® approach to teaching social concepts to children. They realized the value of teaching direct social concepts to children who have communication delays and learning differences, and gave Renee the green light to incorporate some Social Thinking into Parish classrooms and in social groups. But Renee’s dream was about to grow larger.

In 2008, Margaret Noecker asked Renee a question over lunch one afternoon, “What is your dream?” Renee shared her passion with the longtime educator, and Margaret gave her the go-ahead to dream big and establish a full Social Thinking® program at The Parish School.

The program officially had a name, a vision and a long list of clients waiting to be served.

social thinking at the parish school

Social Learning at The Parish School

Ten years later and armed with a new name, “Social Learning” is a thriving program that has exceedingly grown year over year. Expanding from only one clinician to four, Social Learning runs 16 groups throughout a regular school year with mini-groups held during the summer. Sitting at its maximum enrollment, the program served 70 clients in its groups during the 2016-17 school year. Half of all clients are students currently enrolled at The Parish School and the other half are community clients from throughout the Houston area.

Over the past 10 years, the following clinicians have run groups under Renee’s direction: Hayley Boasman, Emily Calhoun, Courtney Dahl, Krysta Gorman, Katie Griffith, Stefanie Heintz, Meredith Krimmel, Sarah Martin, Molly Weisselberg and Jill Wood.

Social Learning not only serves students in group therapy, but a major facet of the program is the school-based program that serves The Parish School. Renee trains and supports staff throughout the school year on the most up-to-date research in social intervention. Additionally, Parish infuses social thinking into its social-emotional program across campus. All classrooms from Early Childhood to Upper Elementary are using the Social Thinking® methodology to increase social competencies in our students.

Social Learning Expansion

As part of the vision Renee and Margaret discussed many years ago, a week-long overnight summer camp to practice social thinking was dreamed up. Camp Social Superheroes was created in 2010 for students ages 8-12 to learn lessons to help them understand social concepts used in everyday life situations. This six-day, overnight camp at Camp For All in Burton, TX, features zip lining, kayaking, swimming and more, all while embedding a social learning curriculum throughout the week’s activities. Additionally, Camp Connect was founded in 2017, to give teenagers a weekend Social Learning retreat.

social learning at the parish school students read superflex

Social Learning Today

As the program grew and the dreams became a reality, Renee decided to pass the program director role on to me (Stefanie Heintz) this school year. She continues to remain part of the program and is mentor for our team. Additionally, she supports staff in the classroom and gives professional development trainings each week to teachers and speech-language pathologists.

From my very first day at The Parish School, Renee has been my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and the shoes I have to fill are big. Happy 10th Birthday, Social Learning! What once was a dream has turned into a program that not only has grown, but it thrives!

For more information on Social Thinking and the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, visit, or continue to follow The Parish School blog for more Social Learning articles.


Sources: Lavoie, Richard. The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child. New York: Touchstone, 2008.