Groundbreaking program at Bradley Hospital aims to help children improve social skills

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – For parents with children having difficulty making or keeping friends, avoiding interaction or missing important social cues, school can be a stressful place.

But a groundbreaking program at Bradley Hospital is trying to guide parents and kids to learn strategies to improve critical social skills.

For six years, a team of psychologists at Bradley have been helping families with an outpatient therapy program called I-Friend. Participants are taught to develop friendship making skills, converse better with their peers and cope with frustration in a manageable way.

The results have been dramatic.

Eight-year-old William Hutchinson and his father, Marc, spoke with Eyewitness News about their experience with I-Friend. Williams explained that he was getting bullied by a group of students at school. Marc said the news was disheartening.

“You just want your child to feel connected and safe, it’s a struggle sometimes,” he said.

But William has thrived in the program.

For 10 weeks, kids ages eight to 11 meet at Bradley and practice social skills together through games, team-building exercises and role playing, sometimes with the help of an IPad. Caley Arzamarksi, one of the psychologists on the team, said the kids’ discussions and conversations are recorded “and then what we do is we have feedback circles so when the videos are done, they can look back and sat ‘I did this really well’ or ‘I said hi really well.’”

William said one of the strategies he learned about listening better and then responding. He said the program helped him visualize how a healthy conversation between friends should go in school or during activities.

“It’s the 50/50 rule about a conversation,” he said. “So say the conversation is a very large bridge and it is cut in half. One half is the side you can talk in, the other side is the side the other person can talk in.”

While the kids in the I-Friend program are meeting, their parents also have their own group session. They learn strategies to help their kids integrate social skills into daily life at home and at school. They also lean on each other for support.

“What we found is that parents are equally as stressed and distressed when their kids aren’t connecting well,” Beverly Waldman Rich, an advance practice nurse at Bradley, told Eyewitness News. “Not only are they feeling devastated for their kids but they feel isolated.”

She continued: “It’s hard to drop off your kids in the morning and see kids run off to a group of friends and parents are gathered talking, you feel like an outcast when you really want to feel part of the community.”

To make sure the kids are getting help tailored to their individual needs, the team at Bradley sets goals and then does a midpoint assessment. William said now looking forward to the next school year. He and his dad have a lot more confidence and hope that there will be more “good” days.

Once the I-Friend program ends, the team at Bradley makes sure families are connected with services that help with future development to keep their children on track.

I-Friend has worked with 150 families since it started six years ago and they register new groups year round.