By Sophia Spiegel
The COVID-19 pandemic has been overwhelming for many children, perhaps even more so for those challenged socially.
Frances Hernandez’s 13-year-old son struggles with self-esteem and anxiety. However, after enrolling in Build 4 Life’s new Social Skills Program, she has seen tremendous growth in his physical and mental well-being.
“This program has made him believe in himself and showed him he can do things he didn’t think he could do, or want to do, because he was uncomfortable,” Hernandez said.
Build 4 Life’s innovative program is Westchester’s first children’s social skills classes that combines physical activity, social interaction and peer counseling to combat problems children are facing, some of which have intensified during the past year.
Two classes are currently being offered: Introduction to the Building Blocks of Socialization, for ages 4-7, and Building Blocks to Utilize Effective Communication for children 8 to 13 years old. The program also includes one-on-one sessions, centered around each child’s interests, for students who could benefit from individualized attention.
Alex-Jamal Burton, CEO and founder of Build 4 Life, a health and wellness company dedicated to helping children and adults reach their full potential, has observed a change in many children’s behavior since the onset of the pandemic.
“It is for any child, not just for kids with disabilities,” Burton said of his program. “It is also for kids that are lacking confidence or lacking the ability to make friends, especially during COVID, since kids are in a tough situation where their prime optimal years of socialization are now being spent over computers where they are isolated from their friends.”
He joined forces with Claudine Gebhard, a social skills counselor with more than 15 years of working with children with learning disabilities as a service coordinator and evaluator, and REP Athletics founder Geoff Rose to design one-hour, weekly in-person classes that are designed to a child’s specific needs. Classes are held at REP Athletics in Larchmont.
“There are so many social skills programs out there, but we wanted to come up with something a little more unique that is not a one-fit-for-all,” Gebhard said.
The team meets with each student and their parents to create a game plan to guide each child toward reaching their goals. The program runs in four-week intervals. At the end of each cycle, progress reports and evaluations are provided to parents to keep them updated on their child’s progress.
While the program is individualized for each child, the students also gather in group settings to form a team. Gebhard, Burton and Rose lead the classes, which are supplemented by peer mentors and specialists, including speech therapists and special education teachers when needed.
During classes, kids participate in activities that are designed to incorporate movement and teach appropriate social behaviors. Gebhard and Burton work to include simple social nuances, such as saying hello to someone when they enter the room and maintaining eye contact when speaking to others.
Burton and Gebhard have found that one of the biggest challenges for children is reading facial expressions and taking social cues from people wearing masks. They have been emphasizing the importance of speaking louder, especially for younger students whose voices are often softer. They work on raising the tone of their voices and using hand gestures to help overcome the barriers of communicating with masks.
Burton said he has seen great strides.
“The sense of community is tremendous because the kids interact more with each other as opposed to in the beginning, when everybody was super shy and wanted to do their own thing,” he said. “Now there is a sense of inclusivity and helping others.”
The Build 4 Life social skills curriculum will support children even after the pandemic comes to an end.
“I think the pandemic is highlighting a lot of shortcomings, but these problems and issues will still be there, and there needs to be a foundation laid for prospering even when we come out of the pandemic,” Burton said.
In the future, there are plans for new classes, such as a girls’ group dedicated to promoting positive body image.
“We want them to be able to work on social skills but also how to face the world and problems that are coming up,” Gebhard said. “We want to provide a place where they feel safe enough to talk about these issues.”
Parent Rebecca Blank, who enrolled her son in the program, said with the year of isolation, Build 4 Life provides an outlet for physical activity for children while improving their communication skills.
“It’s the one time each week that he leaves feeling like he really accomplished a physical challenge,” Blank said. “He has rosy cheeks and a great sense of achievement.”
Health protocols are followed at REP Athletics with mandatory mask wearing and temperatures taken upon entry. Windows are kept open and equipment is sanitized after each use. A filtration system ensures the safety of students and staff.
There is a maximum of 10 children per class. Outdoor sessions are planned once the weather turns warmer.
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