Why I recommend trying something outside of your comfort zone

By Tamara Albaja


How did I discover my inner passion for working with children? Two words, Social Detectives.

What is Social Detectives?

Social Detectives is a structured yet flexible curriculum and teaching process that focuses on social skills development using applied behaviour analysis; specifically teaching interactions. It is delivered by the team at the TLC (www.thetlc.org) and has been running as an after-school and holiday scheme in Brighton for 5 years. It is designed for pupils aged between 6 – 10 that are diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are in mainstream placements (with or without additional support), supporting families who feel their children could benefit from gaining social competence. It was also open to siblings and friends of the target pupils. Sessions went from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm. They consisted of dozens of activities from play and leisure time, to teaching interactions, to self-assessment activities. Each session had different, specific themes ranging from ‘being a good friend’, ‘thinking of others’ and ‘going with the flow’.

What is Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD)? 

ASD is a life-long developmental disability, for which the causes are unknown. Diagnosed children typically find it challenging to interact, communicate and relate with others. No cure has been established but there are several interventions that are available to help children and parents, for example, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, ABA, educational support, and a brilliant curriculum that aims to implement all these interventions into one, such as Social Detectives.

How did I start, and what were my roles as a volunteer?

At the beginning of my Easter break (2017), I volunteered to help with the TLC team that delivers Social Detectives. Volunteering is something I really enjoyed doing, and not just because it now looks great on my CV, but also because the experience I gained was completely worthwhile. My job was to collect data about student or staff (with the supervision and guidance of the team), to help setting up games and activities, as well as to  prepare snacks and drinks, and  assist students with completing self-assessment documents and detective games.

How has Social Detectives been a life changing experience for me?

Back before I started studying Psychology at Sussex, I was extremely passionate about understanding individuals and groups, and studying the unconscious mind, as well as concerned about enduring patterns of behaviour, thought and emotion that make up an individual’s personality. From reading articles, to watching endless Ted Talk videos, to volunteering at hospitals, nothing really stood out to me as much as Social Detectives has. The reason behind this is that the curriculum showed me what schools all around the world are missing. The Oxford Dictionary defines school as an ‘institution for educating children’, and an “institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline.” They sometimes forget that humans are curious beings with imagination and with the ability to critically think beyond what the syllabus tells them. Why is that we hear the phrase ‘I hate school’ more frequently than “I love it”? Mark Twain stated that “college is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight into student’s lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.” Schools emphasis on numeracy and literacy is important, but it often leaves little time to teach students real life skills, such as critical social competencies: how to be a good friend, how to rely on one’s self, learning from and embracing mistakes, understanding our emotions – the list goes on!

Seeing a social skills program like Detectives in action showed me how applicable and important these skills are. As one of the younger ‘detectives’ stated “I enjoy social detectives more than school because we are given more points and more breaks!”

What ideas could schools take from Social Detectives?

The Motivation system

Many studies have shown that effective classroom management systems involve positive reinforcement. This keeps students motivated to complete tasks demanded from them, to follow the rules and to learn new skills. Social Detectives focuses on giving pupils points for any positive and appropriate behaviour they carried out. At the start of each session, detectives predicted how many points they would get, they would 500, 1000 and 5000 point challenges- and ‘hero points’.  Each detective had their own points boxes where they kept their points in. I found that this technique kept most pupils motivated and wanting to join in activities. At the end of the day, ‘detectives’ sat together and counted their points, then at the end of week all the points were counted up and each Detective was given a certificate displaying their points, and were given a rank (e.g becoming an Inspector or Sheriff!)

Relax time

In other words, meditation. It was not until last year when I discovered the art of meditation, and even after a year there is so much to learn. I have read many articles, blog posts, and watched endless discussions and talks about the benefits of meditation on young children, but I had never seen it being used anywhere! here the staff (or lieutenants as they are called!) make sure the children sit down after lunch time and before home time, and one of the team leaders gives them breathing instructions. Although some of the children might not understand the benefit of this, the advantages are clear after a few minutes of being still and breathing. I observed that a few students had mixed feelings towards sitting down in total silence at the beginning, but as the days went on they slowly eased into it.

Life & Social skills

The topics that Social Detectives touch upon are ones that should not only be taught in schools, but everywhere; from universities to homes and work places. We are often too busy focusing on the materialistic side of life and we forget how important it is to be true to our emotions and beliefs. We forget that we have certain feelings and because talking about our mental health is not fashionable, we tend to avoid, numb or suppress them. Not only does this scheme tries to teach children how to express their emotions, it also looks at how to self-regulate them. Most of us will never be taught what to do when we feel a desired or non-desired emotion arise. Social Detectives teaches children what to do when they feel overwhelmingly sad, anxious or angry. I remember one of the children once said ‘I know someone … I will not say any names, but when he is sad he tends to force a smile, and pretend that he is happy so other people do not know.’ Having this mind-set at such an early age, I believe, is a gift. It will surely help instil the compassion and understanding that there is more than one way to look at someone who is in need of emotional support. Social competence is a critical ability to help navigate our increasingly social world- whether that is at home, at school, at work or online. Academic competence will only take you so far, the ability to connect, communicate and collaborate with others is a core skill set for the 21st century.

Last words

You are not your mind, to realise that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually Eckhart Tolle

Volunteering with ‘Social Detectives’ has made me raise some tough questions about the way we should approach our children. If we focus and invest our energy and time into guiding them to become the best versions of themselves, we will undoubtedly see a brighter future. One ‘detective’ that generated a number of questions in my mind was this child who was completely attached to the idea that he was autistic. He would find it uncomfortable to say people’s names, and when asked why, he would blame it on being autistic. Could it be that most of the things that scare us are just in our heads? Is it possible to feel content with ourselves through eliminating these thoughts? Would we think differently about ourselves if we were not to be labelled?

Lets raise children who wont have to recover from their childhoods. Pam Leo.



You Are a Social Detective: Explaining Social Thinking to Kids (2010) by Michelle Garcia Winner, Pamela Crooke, Kelly Knopp

Crafting Connections: Contemporary Applied Behavior Analysis for Enriching the Social Lives of Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder (2011) Mitchell Taubman, Ron Leaf, John McEachin et al.

National Autism Center (2009). National Standards Project – Addressing the Need for Evidence-based Practice Guidelines for Autism Spectrum Disorders. National Autism Center Report.

Iovannone, R. Dunlop, G, Huber, H. & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with ASD. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18 (3), 150–165.

DiSalvo, C. A., & Oswald, D. P. (2002). Peer-mediated interventions to increase the social interaction of children with autism: Consideration of peer expectancies. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17, 198–207.

Reichow B, Volkmar F.R.  (2010) Social skills interventions for individuals with autism: evaluation for evidence-based practices within a best evidence synthesis framework. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder,,40(2): 149-166.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk, S., et al. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z (see also, National Professional Development Center on ASD)



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