Unlocking Social Skills: Exploring the Power of LEGO® Therapy with Gina Gomez de la Cuesta

Unlocking Social Skills: Exploring the Power of LEGO® Therapy with Gina Gomez de la Cuesta

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Can LEGO® therapy provide a solution for neurodivergent children seeking support in social and emotional development?

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we interview Gina Gomez de la Cuesta, a clinical psychologist and expert in LEGO® therapy. Together we discuss how, through collaborative LEGO® building, children can learn communication, problem-solving, and social skills.

Important links:

Click to view The Brick-by Brick® Website here

Click to view a short video about this approach here

Click to visit the Play Included Facebook page here

Get our FREE SEN Behaviour Handbook: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/SEN-handbook.php

Join our Inner Circle membership programme: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/inner_circle.php

Download other FREE behaviour resources for use in school: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/resources.php

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Show notes / transcription

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  0:00  

It's so important right? I think one of the most important things we want to offer in Brick Club is a safe place for children to have meaningful social interaction. So often we found autistic children and other children who have social and emotional mental health needs. They're often isolated, and excluded. So having a place just to socialise meaningfully in a way that feels okay for them is really really important.

Simon Currigan  0:23  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets. While other educational podcasts are like a complex symphonies. Exploring educational issues with nuanced themes and orchestrations, we're more like a dirty limerick with a strong emphasis on wordplay that rhymes with duck. My co host Emma Shackleton is with me as ever today. Hi, Emma.

Hi, Simon,

I've got a quick question for you. Before we get started, Emma, do you prefer to be a team player or a team leader and why? 

Oh wow, we've been working together for a long time now Simon. Maybe I should ask you what you think my preference is? Just kidding. Just kidding, I wouldn't put you on the spot. To be honest, it's probably a mixture of both actually, you know, like having your cake and eating it. I really do love working as part of a team and sharing ideas and sharing the workload. And our team is Ace, obviously. But I also enjoy being a team leader. Although with leadership, of course comes added responsibility and pressure sometimes too. Anyway, why do you want to know? 

Well, when you're leading or working within the team, you're going to need a set of pro social skills to do that successfully. And today, our guest on the podcast is Gina Gomez de la Cuesta, who has been doing some really interesting work on Lego therapy and using Lego therapy to help kids develop social skills, especially those who have a diagnosis of autism. And she's going to be talking about her approach today.

Oh, I know that that's really going to resonate with a lot of our listeners today. Because when I talk to schools, the issue of social skills comes up time and time again, particularly following the pandemic. However, before we get into your interview, I've got a quick request to make. Listeners if you're finding today's episode useful, please could you help other teachers and school leaders to find the podcast by giving us a rating and review on Apple podcast. Reviews tell Apple to recommend School Behaviour Secrets to other podcast listeners. And that means that they can also find the show and start getting the help that they need to that little act of kindness on your behalf will also help Simon with his dream of someday getting school behaviour secrets to number one in the education podcast charts. So go on. Why not do as a quick favour, leave us a review or give us a share. And now here's Simon's interview with Gina Gomez de la Cuesta.

I'm very happy today to welcome Gina Gomez de la Cuesta to the show. Gina is a clinical psychologist who studied Lego based therapy for her PhD at Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre. She has published a number of academic papers on LEGO therapy, and is the co author of the Lego based therapy manual. Gina, welcome to the podcast.

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  3:58  

Thank you so much, Simon. And it's great to be here. 

Simon Currigan  4:00  

So Gina, let's start with the basics. We're here to talk about LEGO therapy. What are the aims of a Lego therapy session?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  4:06  

A Lego therapy session is designed to support neurodivergent children or other young people who might need extra support with social and emotional and communication development. So it's designed to help them learn through play, have a natural welcoming space where they feel accepted, can have fun, meet other young people who might share similar challenges or similar interests to them. And yeah, and I guess, make friends and feel a sense of belonging and learn skills along the way.

Simon Currigan  4:32  

What does the Lego therapy session actually look like? If I put a camera in the room and look down on the room. What would I see? 

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  4:37  

You would see a group of children, there's a misconception that it's got to be just three that's not at all true. So you can have maybe one to one you can have two children. You can have maybe six or nine is my favourite size. Some teachers do the approach with a whole class. So but you'd see small teams of young people building Lego models collaboratively together. So the key thing Is that young people aren't building the Lego models by themselves, they're building with others. And through that they're developing skills, they're chatting, they're having fun. They're taking it in turns communicating to get the model built or design their own creations.

Simon Currigan  5:14  

And how do the adults structure that? Do they tell the kids what to do what they're building? Is it more open, what's the structure of the session feel like?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  5:22  

So the structure of the session is really child led. So the really important thing is that the adult isn't bossing the children around or telling them what to do. And that's why our Play Included with our brick by brick programme, which is, I guess, our latest thinking in the Lego based therapy field. So the adult will be guiding the children and coaching them rather than telling them what to do. The children are in charge, they decide what model to build, who they build with, when they take it in turns to swap jobs. So the adult is just there to support them as and when needed. At Play Included, we have been lucky enough to partner with the Lego Foundation to support us to incorporate a real strong focus of learning through play into the Brick by Brick Programme, which as I said, is like the latest updated thinking in Lego based therapy, taking into account new research. And what the Lego foundation have found in their research is that there is a spectrum of learning through play. And on one side of the spectrum, there is free play where a child's just allowed to play and do whatever they like. And on the other side of the scale, is kind of full direction where the adult is in charge and tells the children exactly what to do. And somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is a sweet spot where the most optimal learning happens for young people. And that sweet spot is guided play. So it's semi structured, you will step in and out as you need to give the children just enough to get them going and know what to do. But then allow them to follow their own path to learning and, and solve their own problems and challenges and communicate and collaborate together to build a Lego set. And that's a skill that I think you need training for. So at play included, we've developed a training pathway for adults, for professionals who are running Lego therapy or brick clubs to really support them in learning how to facilitate because it's a bit of a skill takes practice, it takes a bit of training. And I worry that there's a misconception out there that you can just print off a few things off off the internet and run a Lego therapy group successfully. And we really know from our research that the training and the role of the adult is actually really central to the children getting the best quality experiences.

Simon Currigan  7:28  

I think that's a really important point, actually, just telling kids what to do is fairly easy. And just letting them get on with no input is fairly easy. But managing that middle ground structuring and supporting but not telling and getting the right quantity support, I imagine is a real skill.

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  7:44  

Absolutely. It is a skill. And it's one that develops over time and with practice, and you're never going to get it all right all the time. And I think what we really want to encourage in our brick by brick programme facilitators is a kind of reflective approach where they'll say, Oh, I tried that it didn't quite work. I wonder why you know, and we've got for our members of play included, we offer question and answer sessions with experts in our team so that they can come with a particular question. How are you? How could I have handled that? What I've tried this it worked really well or I tried that and it didn't quite go right and so you can always have another go think reflect I guess learn through play yourself as an adult? Yeah, I guess it's about supporting the children in the best way.

Simon Currigan  8:21  

Specifically, then what kind of skills do the children learn during a Lego therapy session? We've talked about broad brush social communication skills, but But specifically, what are they learning?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  8:31  

So I think the brick by brick programme, which is what we call Lego based therapy now because of trademark issues, we're not allowed to use the term Lego based therapy any longer. The brick by brick programme is very easily tailored to to the child's individual strengths and needs. So I think depending on where the young children, young people are at, and depending on how big your club is, the goals and targets and skills might be different. The number one most important thing for us is that children feel accepted for who they are, and in all their neurodiversity, and have a sense of belonging, and fun. That is the number one most essential thing about a Brick club. And then depending on the needs and the young person, once really, you can work on different types of skills. So at Play Included, we've got three levels of kind of Brick Club, if you like, the first level is Communicate. So in that level, young people might be working on language skills, such as colour, size, shape of the brick, where positional language where the brick goes, and that can be great for speech and language development. There'll be less perhaps focus on the social interaction side of things potentially in that level. Then in the Collaborate level, that's when you're thinking more about how the children are working together as a team. So turn taking, having different jobs, communicating together, sharing ideas, and negotiating problem solving. That's the Collaborate level, and then the Connect level will perhaps be for older young people. You mustn't think that group problem is just the young children, we go right up to adulthood. So the teenagers might be taking the lead a lot more right and coming up with their own ideas for the club and generating really complicated Lego build stuff, action movies, perhaps more different jobs, more roles, I guess, to play and a peer support session where they just have a chat. And, you know, it just be a space that they can belong, be themselves and enjoy Lego building and socialising with each other, which is important. It's so important, right? I think one of the most important things we want to offer in Brick Club is a safe place for children to have meaningful social interaction. So often, we found autistic children and other children who have social and emotional mental health needs, they're often isolated, and excluded. So having a place just to socialise meaningfully on in a way that feels okay for them is really, really important.

Simon Currigan  10:49  

I guess, when you're engaging in a Lego therapy session, and you engage in that collaboration and that communication, it is still around kind of a structured task where there are simple rules, is that one of the powers of the brick by brick approach?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  11:01  

I think so, I think it's a very safe way to interact, because children know what's expected of them. I guess, in that sort of guided play scenario, they've got enough guidance to know, okay, this is this is what I do. There's lots of flexibility within that to meet young people's needs, but the expectations in the structure of the club are really clear. And then within that they can sort of shine and bring their own ideas and their own creativity. I think one of the things that we want to emphasise is that autistic children can be really creative. And that's really important to give them the opportunity to demonstrate those amazing strengths that they have that maybe sometimes aren't shown in the traditional classroom setting. Maybe in brick club, this is a place they can shine and their skills and their strengths are highlighted. 

Simon Currigan  11:45  

What outcomes do you see the children achieving? It sounds like they come and have some fun, they're learning these social skills, what benefits are they getting from engaging in Brick by Brick therapy?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  11:54  

Yeah, so the brick by brick approach is really hoping and aiming to help children's confidence and to help them have positive experiences of social situations so that they maybe feel less anxious in those kinds of situations out in the world. And we've certainly had young people telling us that because they practised and, and used skills in a real way, in brick club, it's not hypothetical, this is they're using them in real life that's helped them know what to do outside of the brick club session. So in their day to day lives, so they might feel more confident socially, they might feel less anxious socially. And you know, in loads, there's so many skills involved in Lego building motor skills, visual spatial skills, executive function, planning, organising, there's so much going on, you think it's just playing with Lego, but it's not there's loads happening. And for us, I guess the most lovely thing is when children start to make friends in brick club, and they meet other children who are a bit like them. And that's a really powerful and important and validating experience for children and young people. So they meet someone like them, and then then they might meet up at home in their, you know, in their home life and have a go and play each other's houses or meet up and build a Lego model, you know, and develop a friendship. So that sort of sense of feeling empowered and accepted for who you are a sense of belonging and friendship is, you know, over time that can happen really beautifully. 

Simon Currigan  13:17  

Listening to you speak actually, one thing that strikes me that's powerful about this method is the children are learning the skills in contexts. So often, kids who are neurodiverse, they'll sit down with a social story, and I have nothing against social stories, they're fine. But it's very much kind of an abstract, we're sitting down and learning about something rather than using it in the real world. And that seems really powerful to me, because they're sort of picking those skills up, incidentally. I'm supported by the adult, but they're using them for real.

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  13:45  

Exactly. For me, that's just a really fantastic aspect of this programme. And of course, they can learn, you know, all these skills, now the programmes, but they can implement them and use them in a real context in brick club. So the brick by brick programme is all about thinking about what's happening now. And why do I need to use this skill now to help me build my LEGO model with my friend and learning in the moment makes it so much more meaningful and learning through play is, you know, there's five characteristics of learning through play and one of them is meaningful that play has to be learning has to be meaningful to the child and and in brickfilms, it really is. 

Simon Currigan  14:22  

We've touched on your programme, brick by brick, which is the core bricks for autism. Can you tell us more about it and how the programme works?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  14:28  

Yeah, so we've been lucky enough at play included to partner with the Lego foundation and with their support, we've developed a training pathway for professionals to learn how to run brick clubs with with children, young people. So we've really enhanced our training in Lego based therapy, which is what we were doing previously when we were bricks for autism. And we've based on I guess, the latest research on learning through play and acceptance of neurodiversity. We've created a level one training which is which is a really fun engaging elearning programme self paced programme that professionals can become one through in their own time. And we've co authored that with neurodivergent autistic adults who are who are colleagues. And then there's this sort of level two, which really is experiential hands on face to face training course where the adults can really reflect and focus on this facilitation skills, which we said was so important that the adult has to guide coach and that takes a lot of self reflection and practice and training. And then we're also about to launch some specialist courses. So for people who are using Lego therapy out there who want a bit of additional deeper knowledge and specialist knowledge on working in particular populations, or particular age groups or particular activities, we're just starting to work on creating those as well,

Simon Currigan  15:39  

I think you made a really important point earlier when we're thinking about that approach is that this isn't just printing a couple of things off the internet and sitting down with a couple of kids, which probably won't get you where you want to get to this is a proper structured approach to supporting kids. And that requires training and development.

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  15:56  

Absolutely, it's absolutely essential for us to support the children in the best possible way and make their Brick clubs, a meaningful social experience, where they're where they're using their skills that they already have, and developing new ones. So training is important and ongoing support is important for the adults running those clubs. And we've got a membership area with with sort of resources that people can download. And we've got a Facebook community where people share inspiration and ideas, and also sort of live question and answer sessions with with an expert from the play included team so you can come to us and and share your challenges and share your ideas and get some help with

Simon Currigan  16:31  

Gina If you're a teacher or a parent actually listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today to start learning more about using brick therapy to support young people?

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  16:40  

They can go to our website, we've got a great website called www.playincluded.com. And it says a little bit about the brick by brick programme on there. On our YouTube channel play included YouTube channel, there's a recorded free introductory webinar that you can watch. And for parents and families, we have some free activities, just you can download from the internet. So we focus the brick by brick programme on friendships and peers and those relationships. But obviously, we recognise parents and children have relationships too and, and building Lego together can be a really nice thing to support those relationships. But the focus is obviously little bit different. It's not about about friendships, we've got some free to download parent and family activities on our website too.

Simon Currigan  17:25  

Perfect. And I'll put direct links to those in the episode description. And finally, Gina we asked this of all our guests. Who's the key figure that's influenced you? Or what's the key book that you've read? That's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with kids.

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  17:38  

I had to think about this one because there's so many, I'm a bit of a geek and I love reading books about psychology. As a psychologist, that's probably understandable. But I was thinking that probably Dan Hughes and the PACE method is just really influential in my work because pace stands for Playfulness. And obviously we've got founded a company called Play included. Acceptance, you know, accepting the person for who they are, where they are, Curiosity, where, you know, you're curious about what's happened and why and, and you're not judgmental, and Empathy. So being really empathic with with everybody. And I think that approach, if you apply that in a brick club, you're on a winning streak.

Simon Currigan  18:19  

It's been a pleasure to have you on the show. And I'm sure everyone's learned a lot about how to structure a successful brick therapy session. Thank you for joining us today.

Gina Gomez De La Cuesta  18:26  

Thank you, Simon. Thanks for having me.

Simon Currigan  18:28  

That approach makes total sense to me, you can really see how using Lego activities in that really thoughtful, structured way can help pupils develop emotional and social skills. And although a lot of that interview talked about autistic children, actually there are many children with or without a diagnosis that could find those techniques helpful.

100% agree and I'll put links to Gina's resources in the episode description.

Great. And if you work with kids who present behaviour that can be challenging or difficult to manage, and you're not sure why they're acting in that way. If you're looking at digging into the root cause of that behaviour, we've got a brilliant download that can help. It's called the SEND handbook. And it will help you to link behaviours that you're seeing in class with possible underlying causes. Things like trauma, autism and ADHD.

The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis because we're simply not qualified to do that. But if we can link the behaviours we see in the classroom to possible underlying causes more quickly. That means we can get the right help in place and get early intervention strategies in place as quickly as possible to support the kids we work with.

And the handbook even comes with a set of printable fact sheets for conditions like Oppositional Defiant Disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and developmental language delay. This handbook is completely free so head over to our website. www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk Click on the free resources tab, and you'll see it near the top of the page. We'll also put a link in the episode description for you.

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That's all we've got time for today. Thank goodness. I hope you enjoyed today's episode and we really look forward to seeing you next week on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)