From Social Skills to Social Thinking
Teaching “social skills’ had been of interest to me for the past ten years. My skills in this area have grown and changed over time. In that learning process,
I have discovered that teaching social skills is only the tip of the iceberg. Teaching social thinking has truly been the way to help those with social cognitive deficits. In addition, I have recently become aware of the fact that many children and adults who suffer from social deficits are also suffering from sensory integration challenges. The ability to integrate and interpret the messages received through the sensory system is essential to acquiring the ability to read the intentions, motives, feelings and actions of others. Without this ability, it is difficult to “be social.”
Is a social skills group the solution?
In my speech therapy practice, I receive many calls from families who are struggling with problems such as these. They are looking for social skills group, and they believe this is the simple solution to being ‘social’. Many of the children possess average to exceptional academic skills, yet they still struggle to interpret body language or to think about what other people are thinking. They are too literal-minded to understand figurative language and too rigid to understand that they need to compromise to get along with others. They often overreact in situations which most would ignore, and they invite others to victimize them by their naiivete. Many must be taught what to say to initiate and continue a conversation, how to show interest and ask questions, and how to tell when their talking partner is no longer interested in what they are saying.
Depending on the student’s strengths and weaknesses, a social group may be the solution, but for many children, learning to be social in a group setting is not recommended. Some children may need to be taught on an individual basis prior to learning in a group setting. Their ability to tolerate being with others may be affected by their physical state of being, and may cause anxiety, sensory overload and a variety of physical symptoms. If the child’s sensory system is no functioning well, just “being” in the world without being social is challenging in itself! (see Judith Bluestone, www.HANDLE.org)
Many children can learn to “be social”. Though they may come with some of the following deficits, learning to be social must be achieved through learning to “think about others” and “adapt to the situation”. (M. Winner) Some of the challenges include, but are not limited to, the following. They may be:
• focused on topics of their own interest
• have no friends
• unable to maintain friendships
• unable to carry on a conversation
• having difficulty understanding and using language appropriately
• having difficulty coping in their school environment
• dealing with serious medical problems
• being unable to be flexible in their thinking
• talking too much
• having rote social “tricks” without social understanding
• having difficulty using their visual skills (socially referencing their partners)
• hyper or hypo sensitivity in the areas of taste, touch, movement, hearing, sight
Though I have used many approaches over the years in my treatment, I am currently drawn to the work of Michelle Winner, Speech/Language Pathologist. The ILAUGH curriculum (see www.socialthinking.com) is useful in laying the groundwork for teaching social thinking. The complex process of learning “social thinking”, includes, but is not limited to, learning to:
• initiate (e.g., start a conversation, invite someone to play, ask for help etc.)
• use whole body listening (listen with eyes, ears and brain)
• identify feelings in self and others
• demonstrate perspective taking (think about what others are thinking)
• Identify “expected” versus “unexpected” behavior in self and others
• participate in with others cooperatively
• identify a problem and some solutions
• match the reaction to the size of the problem
• use flexible thinking versus rigid thinking
• watch for topic changes
• watch for nonverbal clues
• make guesses about what others think and intend
• determine what should be kept in one’s ‘thought bubble’ versus what can be said
• use abstract language (idioms, inference, etc.)
• understand the “big picture”
• use humor appropriately
Before treatment begins, it is important to remember that the treating therapist is instrumental in creating an environment for learning where there is enough structure to help students to feel safe yet flexible enough to allow the students to move at their own pace and take risks.
In some cases, therapy begins with individual sessions which involve the child and his parents and siblings. This model is chosen when the child has medical challenges that make it difficult for him to be with others or when the child would benefit more from learning social understanding with additional adult support. Since it has been reported that “stressed systems shut down” (Judith Bluestone), it is necessary for those working with the child to be flexible enough to allow that child to move forward at his/her own pace.
As the child gains skills and the ability to take the perspective of others, he may be able to manage in a more challenging situation with one same-aged peer. The size of the group is determined by his/her ability to adapt to others. It is most beneficial to add group members who share similar interests.
Activities for treatment include visual schedules, brainstorming sessions, problem solving, cognitive behavior mapping (M. Winner), social stories, cartoon conversations (C. Gray), and The Incredible 5 Point Scale to name only a few. Board games, active games (balls, bowling, jump rope, etc.), creative plays, puppet shows, music and movement, and art activities can also used.
In addition to therapy sessions, it is essential to include frequent information sharing meetings with paraprofessionals, teachers, parents OTs, PTs, and other professionals. This helps to insure that the entire team is working together to help the child to move forward most efficiently.
Is it easy?
As you can see, learning to interact socially can be a lengthy and complicated process. It is more than teaching “social skills”. Social thinking and social skills are ever-changing and require attention and thought by everyone involved in the process. It can be a long and arduous road which is not normally achieved within a short period of time. For this reason, many students attend social skills therapy for several eight week sessions. It may take years for these students to transfer their social learning to the ‘real world’ and become true “social thinkers.” For others, learning to be social is a process which must last a lifetime. In any case, it is my hope that their social understanding will continue to grow, and they will find it possible to experience a happy, productive and fulfilling life.
www.socialthinking.com, Michelle G. Winner, Social Thinking
www.rdi.com Steven Gutstein, Relationship Development Intervention
www.thegraycenter Carol Gray, The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding.
www.Handle.org Judith Bluestone, The HANDLE Institute
www.modelmekids.com DVD video modeling
www.visualschedules.com Linda Hodgdon
www.hanen.com The Hanen Centre
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