After the Webinar: Case Studies in Integrating Social Skills Instruction into Criminal Justice Interactions. Q&A with Dr. Wes Dotson

Webinar presenter Dr. Wes Dotson answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Integrating Social Skills into Criminal Justice Interactions. Here are just a few of his responses.


Audience Question: In my experience, a lot of clients have poor impulse control. What are ways we might address that, or bring awareness to that? And what kind of social skills can we teach to help the defendant with verbal outbursts in court? 

Wes Dotson: That is a really excellent question And I think one that a lot of people struggle with. One of the things we know about impulse control is that it is harder to have self-control, it is harder to manage your impulses when you are stressed, or you don’t know what’s going on. So, when we get back to that first recommendation, I made about making routines very clear and helping them see what’s going to happen, that’s to address one of those aspects of impulse control. If someone is surprised in court, they didn’t know that was going to happen or they didn’t expect to hear that or they didn’t know that question was coming, that’s when you’re most likely to have someone blurt something out or respond emotion. So, when I told that story about, like, I wouldn’t let my juveniles go into court without actually practicing, for example, the judge saying, “Well, you’ve had three absences from school on a truancy diversion program to graduate from this program. You had to have two or less. So, I’m putting you back in your program for six months.” I didn’t want them to hear that for the first time from the judging court because I saw it happen that then the kid will be on, “F— you judge, man. What are you doing? I did good…”, and now what happens is he’s not just back on the diversion program, he’s in juvie. That impulse burst, that burst of emotion came because he was surprised and didn’t expect it. So, if I can prepare him and I’m the one that tells him that for the first time. Because, for example, if we knew we had a pretty hard-nosed DA, the requirement was three absences, and if you have four, you were going back to the program. So, I would say, Okay, tomorrow in court, the judge is going to tell you that, we’re going to practice it now because I want to see what you do, how you react. And then I’m going to potentially teach calming strategies. So, another thing I can do for people who get really impulsive is I will teach a cue to a calming response. So, I can say, if you’re surprised, if you’re angry, if you’re overwhelmed, you feel like you don’t know what to do, what I want you to do is to stop, take a deep breath, and check in.  And in addition to saying, here’s your coping strategy, I have to teach them a signal, but I want them to use it so I can’t stop teaching it. They probably are going to recognize they need to use it. I’m also going to have a signal that I use to say, “Hey, buddy.” And often with me, I’ll just use my own deep breath. I’ll say, “If you see me, look at you and go (deep breath) I want you to do the same.” So, if I can help them have a way to respond and to help them know the environment in which they’re going to respond, they’re less likely to be surprised to have that quick emotional outbursts.


Audience Question: Some of your scenarios today felt like these tips can also apply to lower-performing employees or even folks that are new to the job board and they just wanted your thoughts on that. 

Wes Dotson: Yep. Absolutely. In fact, one of the resources in this slideshow is called Basic Social Skills for Youth. It’s a really cheap like $10 curriculum out of Boystown, which is one of the premier facilities in the country that works on teaching adjudicated youth how to function in society, and have a wonderful curriculum of social skills. And there is an eight social skill basic curriculum that is basically used, not just with juvenile offenders, but just job seekers, period. So, it’s basically, the eight skills are following instructions, accepting “no”, introducing yourself, talking with others, accepting criticism and feedback, disagreeing appropriately, showing respect, and showing sensitivity to others. Well, we all need that. These are skills that everybody needs to navigate basic relationships. And we use them in pre-employment settings, often where when people are going out into the workforce for the first time, we will actually teach all eight of these skills, whether you have a disability or not, whether you take it or not. High schools use this. But I have found, even with adults, if you check-in and ask an adult, “What do you think it means to accept criticism? How do you show someone that you accepted their criticism?” Not as many adults as you might think, have thought about how they actually do that. “Oh, I have to look at the person,” “I need to say, Okay, I need to give some verbal acceptance of that feedback. And I have to stay calm and not argue,” “I can’t say, okay, yeah, whatever, bye.” Yes, these sorts of social expectations hold everywhere. Every job I’d imagine even your job, there are those unwritten rules for how you talk to your boss or how you navigate a case management meeting. Or, in my case, how do I talk to a state agency or an insurance company to try to get something funded that I think a client needs? Well, there are social expectations for how to have that conversation that I’ve had to learn. So, I actually do all this that I’ve taught by doing clients. I also do this with my graduate students in my program when I’m teaching them how to do this work.


Audience Question:  If you have a client who isn’t willing to participate in the scenarios and role play, any tips on how to try to engage their cooperation? 

Wes Dotson: Excellent question. I think one of the compromises I had to make in designing this webinar, just for time’s sake, was to assume a willing participant. It’s almost entirely its own webinar. How do we get people to be motivated to participate? But I think it fundamentally comes down to one thing. Is it about you, or is it about them? Most often, when I find resistance to participating in therapeutic activities or resistance to practicing or learning skills, it is directly, and primarily because that person does not see the relevance of that skill to their life. They do not see the connection. So, they don’t want to practice interacting with the judge, because they do not understand how that interaction influences what happens to them. They don’t see that interaction can determine whether or not they go back to jail or in the community, or maybe they don’t care. The thing is, no one’s going to engage in this sort of interaction with you if they don’t see throughout. The power of the approach, of talking about routines and expectations, and using their friction. So, using the places where you see them, being afraid and stressed because often fear and stress indicates that they do care. If they’re afraid of what’s going to happen with the judge, they care about what’s going to happen with the judge. They’re likely to engage with you to try to deal with it. The hardest client to work with is the one who really doesn’t care, who isn’t motivated to successfully, complete a diversion program, or whatever. And the reality is, that is usually an issue beyond one person’s control. A parole officer or a counselor gets one hour every two months or an hour every two weeks. You’re not going to solve that kind of motivation issue. But on a moment-by-moment basis, what you can do is try to get to know that person well enough to know what they do care about. So, maybe that person who’s like, “Ah, stupid, I’m not going to role play.” “You’ve said that you want to be able to move back into the community. You’re tired of living in a halfway house, right? Here’s the best way I know to get out of that halfway house.” I can tie it to what I know they care about in a way that if they give me the rationale, why do you think it’s important to use them? Why do you think it’s important to do this? If they say, it’s not, I’m not ready to teach until they can tell me why it’s important to learn. That’s a dialog piece of like, how are you talking to somebody about what matters? And again, because I wanted to model the teaching, I kind of presume that already done that in the cases for today. But in most of this, I’ve got to make sure, like, “Okay, I’m going to talk to you about how you talk in front of a judge, and that’s important because of this. How do you feel about that?” Normally, they’ll show you pretty quickly, But if they’re not motivated to do any of that, I’ve got to put my attention at first. And it’s normally about finding what they care about. What do they actually want, and can I put what I need them to do in the context of that? Because you’re never going to make someone do something they don’t want to do. They won’t even try. I try to understand what they want to achieve and help them see that by taking advantage of what I offer, I can help get them. And if I can’t, I probably shouldn’t be working with me. We help them find someone who can get them the help.


Audience Question: At a high level, can you model a scenario where your client has been confronted as having poor hygiene? How would you just generally talk through that situation?

Wes Dotson: That is one of the most difficult conversations, but here are the things that I always think about. I don’t think I can model that dialog, but I can model the questions that I ask myself and that I might ask them. The very first thing I’m going to do, about a case that involves hygiene is to learn as much as I can about the broader context. Is this person homeless? Where are they living? Do they have access to a washing machine or have they used a laundry mat? I’m looking for a bigger context because that’s often a driving factor that’s not considered. Not everyone with poor hygiene actually doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, sometimes they don’t have the means. So, I’m going to try first to identify if this is a motivation thing or if this is a circumstance. If it’s a circumstance thing, I’m not going to address it really directly beyond helping them get into a circumstance where they can get clean clothes or they wash themselves. So, rather than saying, “You stink,” I might say, “Let’s get you a membership at the —” Rather than saying, “You need to wear clean clothes to the meetings,” I might say, “Let’s get you a washing machine to your apartment.” If it’s a circumstance, I’m going to try to come in that circumstance because if they’re aware that they stink and they don’t like it, all it’s going to do is embarrass them. If you think they’re just not noticing it, and as someone who spent his career working with college students, you would be amazed how many college students really don’t notice the —-. Then what I’m going to try to do is essentially, again, look at where this might be. So, I’m going to ask a question like, “Okay, look, where going to court, you’re meeting with me. It is an expectation in those environments that you be clean and presentable. What do you think that means?” An adult client with autism once looked me in the eye and say, “Well I put shampoo on my hair and soap on my body and I wash it off. I take a shower. I was told to take a shower, to get in the shower, you put shampoo in your hair, put soap on your body, you rinse it off. And that’s what I do. So, I shower, I don’t know if you ——
Well, it turned out that he had just taken the bottle of shampoo and put a drop on the top of his head, then rinse it off. And he took the bar of soap and then rinsed it off because he was very literal. And that’s when he was told was showering so that’s what he’s doing. And he was stunned frankly, when we talk about, “Okay, well, shampooing your hair means that you do this and lather it up.” He was perfectly compliant with that once he actually does —-. And I can tell you, from 20 years’ experience, there are a lot more people that don’t know hygiene when they realize. I want everyone who’s still on this to think, who showed you how to scrub yourself in the shower? Who showed you how to shave? Who showed you how to wipe your butt? Well, a lot of people don’t have an answer to that, just figure it out. And a lot of people, ask any nurse or doctor, have much worse hygiene and I think they do. So, when I have that conversation, I’m going to come from a place of assuming that they don’t know. I might say, “You know when you’re clean, what that means is you need to have a shower, you need to have lathered up shampoo in your hair. You need to soak your body and rinse those off. Put on clothes that are clean. Put on deodorant.” I’m going to break it down. And then if they’re confused or don’t understand any point of that, I am in a line of work, or I have literally used pictures to show people what to scrub and I have practiced those bodily functions. If you’re a parole officer, you’re probably not doing that, you may need to be a little bit more explicit than you think you should.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Integrating Social Skills into Criminal Justice Interactions



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