BLAST for Kids: Princeton HealthCare System to Offer After-School Social Skills Instruction to Children and Adolescents

Aug 18, 2011

Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) will initiate after-school social skills instruction for children and adolescents who face difficulty interacting and socializing with their peers.

Called BLAST, which stands for "Behavior, Learning and Social Training," the new program will offer classes in social cognition, pragmatic language, peer interaction skills, conflict resolution and stress management strategies to children and adolescents ages 3 to 17. BLAST Educational Services of New Jersey will provide the classes for PHCS.

"BLAST presented an opportunity to expand our already significant programming for children and adolescents," said Richard Wohl, Senior Vice President, Behavioral Health, for PHCS. "Typically our programs lie more in the behavioral health realm, whereas this program uses a social/educational model."

Students may include children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, Asperger's syndrome, pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified, attention deficit and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, speech and language delays and disorders, nonverbal learning disorders, bi-polar disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, learning disabilities, social deficits, selective mutism, semantic-pragmatic disorders and gifted children. Some children served have no diagnoses.

Allison Craigie, a Princeton mother of two, advocated for bringing BLAST to New Jersey because her 14-year-old son, Sam Gelfand, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, had thrived while participating in BLAST when the family previously lived in Florida.

BLAST helped Sam to progress from a boy who had difficulty engaging other people to an adolescent who now travels throughout the region, speaking to groups of students, teachers and parents about Asperger's, she said. When Sam first started at BLAST, he had difficulty with give-and-take conversation, talking at people, not with them, said Ms. Craigie. Through the program, Sam learned to respond, not react, and to interact with his peers instead of engaging in "parallel play."

"He bloomed in every way possible," she said. "He learned to deal with confrontation and how to handle frustration. He became more socially adept."

After moving to New Jersey, Ms. Craigie said, she couldn't find a program that she felt was the same quality. She helped connect PHCS with Margie Pedron, a former classroom teacher for children with autism spectrum disorders, who founded the BLAST Program in November 2002 in Coral Springs, Fla.

"We combine proven methodologies with effective teaching strategies to provide our students with a comfortable, reinforcing environment where they can develop social and emotional awareness, peer interaction skills, and conflict resolution strategies," said Ms. Pedron. She will be Manager of the new BLAST Program for PHCS.

Daniela Kessel will serve as Director of the new program. Ms. Kessel, who holds master's degrees in childhood education and special education, has worked in public and private schools, teaching children from preschool through high school ages.

"Our goal is to help children and adolescents develop and enjoy positive, meaningful relationships with their peers, family, and their community," Ms. Kessel said. "We believe that the goal of teaching social skills to children and adolescents should be not just to help them fit in, but to improve the quality of their lives."

Class size will average six to eight students per two professionals, with exceptions made in situations where teachers feel the students in a particular group would benefit from a different structure. Students are placed into groups with others who are age and grade appropriate and share similar cognitive levels and social or behavioral needs. Each class will meet once a week for 90 minutes.

While many social skills are addressed during each class, direct instruction will focus on a specific skill, such as: how to be a friend; dealing with teasing and bullying; initiating, maintaining and ending interactions; developing conversation skills; understanding verbal and nonverbal social cues; sharing and negotiating; showing empathy for others; and practicing appropriate manners.

Students also learn conflict resolution skills and strategies for stress management, such as understanding and communicating their feelings and dealing with disappointment.

Ms. Craigie said her son Sam also developed a sense of humor in the program.

"Children with Asperger's tend to be very literal," she said. "Staff members work with them to explain idioms and get them to understand that when someone says he has a frog in his throat, there's not really a frog. They start to see the humor. That's just one example of how the program lets them find new aspects of their personalities. They discover wonderful things about themselves. It gives them confidence."

The BLAST Program will be offered at the Montgomery Commons, 611 Executive Drive, beginning this fall. For more information, visit or contact Daniela Kessel at