With the extended closure of schools and most children’s services in Connecticut,  Meghan Cave and Justyna Balzar, Co-Founders and CEOs of The Hangout Spot, recognized a secondary crisis evolving with the spread of coronavirus – the direct impact of the pandemic on children’s social development and wellbeing.  Committed to finding an at-home solution for social success that children could access from the comfort and safety of their own residences, these Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) pivoted their small business to provide specialized play and social skills instruction remotely.

The Hangout Spot, Connecticut’s first behavior analytic social skills development center, has transformed its summer social learning experience to meet the particular needs of Connecticut’s children growing up during this time of social distancing.

In addition to providing virtual social skills group instruction, The Hangout Spot is excited to have opened its doors to families for on-site socially distanced groups for learners that require the additional support of in-person learning.

Everything children know about play and socialization has changed in mere months. At a minimum, the pandemic has required children to learn to interact in new, different ways.

Children are not the face of this worldwide pandemic. From a health perspective, they have been largely spared from the devastating effect COVID-19 can have on the body. However, the impact of this pandemic on children’s social development and wellbeing has the potential to be a lifelong crisis.

The global closure of schools is unprecedented in our society. According to the United Nations’ Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Children, “188 countries have imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth as a result of this pandemic.” The only comparable event in our country’s recent history is Hurricane Katrina, which was noted to have devastating effects on the children of New Orleans’ education.

Over the past several months, Connecticut communities have focused on the potential loss of learning, and schools are doing everything possible to minimize regression by providing online education. But, the impact on social development has presented unique challenges.

Everything children know about play and socialization has changed in mere months. At a minimum, the pandemic has required children to learn to interact in new, different ways. For children on the journey to learning practical social skills in the first place, this unexpected pivot in the way we interact with other people has created an additional barrier.

In some cases, the gap in social skills instruction that resulted from a distance learning experience in which children did not have access to either social learning experiences or a peer group has resulted in either skill regression or a plateau in social development. Parents have noted that previous challenges, such as cyberbullying and technology addiction, have been exacerbated. And perhaps most saddening, some children have learned to be fearful of interactions with other people. A new type of social anxiety has been introduced to our society.

Justyna Balzar, notes, “You hear it in the stories of our families. Some children haven’t seen peers since March, teenagers who are demonstrating signs of depression because of prolonged isolation, and kids who are showing severe behavioral regression correlating with the introduction of our world’s new rules.  These stories are heartbreaking.”

In response to these unprecedented challenges and the addition of on-site services for the fall, The Hangout Spot has leveraged the opportunity technology presents to keep children together, apart.  For families who aren’t quite ready to get together with friends in real life, the company provides opportunities for safe socialization through its remote developmental playgroups, social groups, family coaching, and long-distance play date facilitation.

Both on-site and remote sessions are incredibly engaging, building upon each child’s passions and interests, and focusing on play as the basis for learning. Careful thought is given to grouping children based on complementary strengths and learning needs to maximize the effectiveness of instruction. Lessons are intentionally crafted to provide ample practice opportunities through play and games.

Children learn by having fun, therefore transforming programming into something children want to be a part of.  To a passerby, these programs may look like just fun and games, but in actuality, they are structured to allow for meaningful learning to occur.

“The results have been unbelievably inspiring,” says Meghan Cave.  “Children who used to engage in behaviors during group instruction are now asking for staff to come over and play, and they keep talking about our playtime for days on end. Kids are not only accessing their peers but also learning how to develop meaningful, reciprocal relationships with other people, and that is the greatest accomplishment to bear witness to.”

In a period inundated with fear and uncertainty, The Hangout Spot recognizes that children are social beings by nature. The value of providing carefully crafted social skills instruction to all children who have encountered social barriers in today’s new norm cannot be emphasized enough.

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