S.P.E.C.I.A.L.: A Deeper Dive

I was recently in a fruitful Twitter thread conversation where the use of acronyms were being discussed, and there was a comment from an individual who said that acronyms are “devices to get students through tests, not to prepare them for anything authentic.” The person furthered, “If you understand the principles, you don’t need an acronym to recall it.”

For those who know me, I have quite an affinity for acronyms, so this one kind of hit home.

I replied, “Principles are a goal of any concept, but there is nothing wrong with having strategies for encoding information in your brain. Mnemonic devices such as acronyms can serve as a strong foundation for enhancing learning toward deeper understanding.”

That Twitter conversation, though, made me think more about my use of acronyms and the importance of using them as a platform for deeper teaching and an ultimate goal of (as the Twitter user said) understanding the principles. Because yes, after deep understanding and true learning have taken place, the acronym should no longer be needed.

For many years, I have used an acronym called S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as a foundation for teaching social skills and making a positive first impression. Classrooms and schools across the country have used this acronym to teach students, and I have conducted trainings and workshops centered around this.

If you’ve ever heard me talk about S.P.E.C.I.A.L. in person, you know that I describe this concept in comparison to building a house. You don’t build a house starting with the roof. You lay the foundation first, and this is what I refer to S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as. It should be treated as the groundwork for what is a very complex set of principles that go into the art and science of social interactions.

Because after you lay that foundation, you need to take a deeper dive with students to help them understand that having conversations involves humans, not robots, and therefore, there is not an absolute way of doing it. In addition, it’s important to learn cultural competencies and human comfort levels and abilities when interacting, so you can come off as respectful, understanding, and knowledgeable.

For example, where I teach maintaining eye contact as a part of S.P.E.C.I.A.L., it is also important to teach that in some Native American cultures, looking down is actually a sign of respect. In some Asian countries such as Japan, bowing, not shaking hands, is how you might greet another person. If you meet a non-binary person, you would use a gender neutral honorific (such as Mx) to address them. And if you meet an Orthodox Jew of the opposite sex, you would not extend your hand to shake because it is forbidden for members of the opposite sex to have physical contact.

These few examples are just a sample of the many customs that we must become more aware of so that we respect other people’s beliefs, identities, and cultures. And personally, there’s more I am learning every day!

It’s also important to dive deeper into S.P.E.C.I.A.L. to learn how to correspond with others who may not have the same physical abilities as you. What would you do if you met someone who is deaf? Or blind? Or was not born with a right hand? Or was confined to a wheelchair? All of a sudden the “norms” in which S.P.E.C.I.A.L. uses must be adapted and that deeper training comes into play.

As a principal, I utilized S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as a training guide for my entire school. I had a poster in every classroom and in the hallways. We did schoolwide training and frequent role play scenarios as a school. Teachers also followed up with their own individual refreshers throughout the year and differentiated the delivery to meet their students where they were. We also taught the entire school sign language, so that any student could communicate with our deaf and hard of hearing students. I held deeper dive trainings with my Ambassadors, who were responsible for providing tours of the school and interacting with many different types of people.

So in closing, I would argue against the statement that acronyms prepare for tests, not anything authentic. I believe that S.P.E.C.I.A.L. is a training tool for something quite authentic in our life. However, I do agree that once one becomes trained and immersed enough with a principle, an acronym would no longer be needed because you now understand the precepts. In the meantime, for you educators, parents, and coaches out there working on building social skills with young students for the first time, don’t be afraid to start with a foundation. Even if it’s an acronym!

Shameless plug time: If you’re interested in having a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. poster in your classroom or school, I just released the new primary version of it, found here

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