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Michelle Garcia Winner Shares her Thoughts on, What is Social Thinking?
Our mission is to provide practical frameworks, strategies and products to teach social problem solving, social emotional interpretation and social skills across schools, homes, communities and workplaces across the lifespan and around the globe.
Nearly two decades ago, Michelle Garcia Winner, a licensed speech language professional, embarked on a journey that would change the way educators, clinicians, parents, and individuals thought about, and taught, individuals with social learning challenges. From the spark of an idea in the early 1990s to classroom and clinic-tested lessons and curriculum developed since then, her work has grown into a teaching framework for kids as young as four and adults in their 70s, one that is now actively used across the U.S. and around the world. Through Michelle’s pioneering efforts and an uncanny ability to break down hazy and imprecise social concepts into teachable units, we’ve all gained a new perspective toward what we call “social skills.” Her work has shed new light on what it means to be social, shifting mindsets to now recognize it as a 24/7 skill that runs throughout the social universe of our daily functioning, affecting all areas of our living and learning, academic and otherwise. More importantly, we now appreciate that being a participant in this social universe involves teaching and talking about skills that go much further than “making friends.”
What started as an idea has grown into a social enterprise company whose mission is to provide practical frameworks, strategies and products to teach social problem solving, social emotional interpretation and social skills across the lifespan in schools, homes, communities and workplaces around the globe.
During Michelle Garcia Winner’s training to become a licensed speech language professional (SLP), it was impressed upon her that students are taught that language has three parts: content (semantics/words), form (sentences), and use (social pragmatics). Michelle’s interest quickly veered in the direction of social pragmatics.
Like many of her peers, she originally thought that what she did as an SLP to teach students better social skills was vastly different from the approach taken by mental health professionals when diagnosing and providing a range of treatment options to their clients. However, as Michelle developed a specialization in social cognition (social thought) as it extends beyond and at the same time is the precursor to social skills (social behavior), she also began to appreciate that in reality our mental health and social competencies go hand in hand. If individuals are not able to interpret other people’s minds and/or develop interpersonal relationships to their satisfaction, they are likely to become extremely anxious, if not depressed.
She also learned that social functioning was a cornerstone of certain diagnoses, including ADHD and autism/Asperger’s syndrome (now collectively called autism spectrum disorders (ASD)). People who were not able to sustain social attention were likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and were thought to need a different treatment than higher functioning individuals with ASD. But… did they? As Michelle learned more about the different ways professionals approached treatment she came to realize their recommendations were mainly based on how they sliced and diced a client’s presenting social problem. Bingo! The light bulb went off in her head as she realized that a more effective approach was needed, one that would assess a person’s social cognitive functioning before making decisions on the best treatment strategies to use. And, from there “Social Thinking” was borne, a term she coined in the early 1990s to describe both her treatment approach and the way we use our brains to problem solve social situations! Her logical approach to addressing her clients’ social challenges based on their social thinking/social learning abilities, rather than on a range of diagnostic labels, was new thought in the field and opened the door to what would expand into a lifelong teaching framework she would create.
|1979 through 1980s
Working in the field of autism as an SLP, Michelle specializes in adolescents with intellectual disabilities/autism with minimal to no speech. She learns the power of behaviorism as a treatment approach, but is fortunate to have this balanced by a more holistic thinking mentor, Nancy Dalrymple, who impresses upon Michelle that “communication is behavior and behavior is communication.”
|1990 - 1994
Period spent working with clients in stroke and head injury, post–acute settings. Michelle focuses her attention on people with solid to high intelligence who lost their skills on a temporary or permanent basis due to brain injury.
Pivotal year during which Michelle transitions to working in a high school district and meets many Asperger’s-type clients with social skills challenges.
Michelle debuts her ideas about social thinking and the social-academic connection at the California State Speech and Hearing Conference. Her work is seen as forward thinking and the “missing connection” to help higher functioning individuals with social challenges. Invitations start pouring in to work with other school districts and give more talks.
1999Due to public demand to have greater access to her ideas, Michelle moves into private practice, starting her first part-time Social Thinking clinic. She also starts speaking nationally about Social Thinking.
Michelle publishes her first book, Inside Out: What Makes a Person with Social Cognitive Deficits Tick? In it she introduces the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition to demonstrate the connection between academics and social understanding.
Michelle publishes her second book, Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME. Called the “bible of Social Thinking” by the public, a second edition is published in 2007.
Social Thinking goes international with Michelle giving her first talk in Asia.
Michelle publishes another core book: Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School Age Children.
Dr. Pamela Crooke, who in 2004 had started to do research on Social Thinking out of the University of Arizona, introduces her research results to Michelle. Michelle convinces Pam to move to California and join her emerging team.
Social Thinking sponsors the first National Social Thinking Providers Conference.
Social Thinking clinical therapist Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle develop the idea of Superflex and the Team of Unthinkables and create the curriculum to teach Social Thinking concepts to third – fifth graders. This same year Michelle is given a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition Award in California for developing her treatment approach
2009 - Present
Michelle and her team write and publish 24 more books and products related to Social Thinking.
Twenty years since Michelle started developing Social Thinking. The work has touched the lives or parents and professionals around the world, millions of people have been positively impacted by its work. In the last 20 years Think Social Publishing, Inc. has published numerous products all based on Social Thinking, sponsored conferences throughout the USA, and Michelle and her associates have spoken in over 15 countries. Michelle and Pam continue to see clients as well speak all over the USA, Canada and world as well as develop treatment materials together.
The "Who-Who" of Social Thinking
Ever since Michelle Garcia Winner coined the term “Social Thinking” in the 1990s and started creating a treatment model by the same name, two frequently-asked questions are:
- Who is our material designed for?
- Who uses/teaches our materials?
The answers to these two questions are important, as they are key indicators to both effectively matching our treatment framework and its components to students who can benefit from it, and teaching it as it was designed to be taught.
Who is our Material For
All Social Thinking lessons are developed for individuals with solid to strong language skills
- Social Thinking is a language-based approach. Its concepts and strategies are best suited for use with persons with near normal to way above normal learning and language skills. (Students who benefit the most from our work have a verbal IQ of at least 70).
- Individuals who have very weak language and learning skills are not well-suited to this framework.
- The framework is a “differentiated instruction” model, meaning it provides adults with the opportunity to vary their instruction to meet student needs. This is done by modifying the content being taught, how the content is being delivered, and the way in which students demonstrate learning.
Social Thinking materials can be used across a range of ages
- Social Thinking’s treatment concepts and related strategies are developmental in nature and are tied strongly to the developmental literature.
- Social “rules” evolve with age (what we tend to describe as “maturity) and depend on context. A mature student is one who is on track socially with his or her peers.
- Teaching tools for early learners (4-7) include The Incredible Flexible You® Volume 1 and We Can Make It Better Stories. Both help young learners understand not just core social concepts, but the value of thinking about others and using flexible thinking in a host of different real-life situations.
- Elementary-age students are taught Social Thinking concepts through these materials: You Are A Social Detective, the Superflex® curriculum, What is a Thought?) and several other products.
- Another set of materials is geared toward middle school (Social Fortune and Social Fate) and high school (Socially Curious and Curiously Social). Many Social Thinking books cross over these older age groups (Social Thinking Thinksheets for Teens and Tweens).
- There is another body of work for the adult years (Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care?) written to appeal to the changing social conditions as individuals move out of school and into the job world.
- On the clinic side of our operations, we work with adults all the way through retirement, depending on the needs of the individual.
Social Thinking materials can be used across a range of diagnostic labels
- Asperger’s syndrome, PDD-NOS, High-functioning Autism, and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Social Communication Disorder, ADHD/ADD, Non-verbal learning disability, Specific Language Impairment, Learning disabilities, TBI- Traumatic, Brain Injury, Velocardial Facial Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Prader Willi Syndrome, Social Phobia, Social Anxiety, Anxiety, Depression and many more.
- Social Thinking materials, concepts and strategies also benefit individuals with no diagnostic labels at all!
- We do NOT apply strategies based on a student’s label or lack of diagnostic label.
- We do not group students for treatment based on a diagnostic label.
- Our philosophy is that we do not treat people’s labels. Instead we teach people at their level of social understanding about their own social learning, about social thinking, social skills, and social emotional expectations—their own and those of others.
And with individuals at differing social functioning levels
- Social learning fluctuates from individual to individual, just like any type of learning. Think about learning math. Some people do it really well and it comes easy to them; others struggle to a lesser or greater degree.
- All too often students are placed into social skills treatment groups based on their diagnostic label, even when different students in the treatment group have obvious disparities in their social skill abilities.
- A tool we developed, the Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile (ST-SCP) describes the “Different Levels of The Social Mind”, five social learning categories (phenotypes) into which individuals fall based on different aspects of social functioning:
- Significantly Challenged Social Communicator
- Challenged Social Communicator
- Emerging Social Communicator
- Nuance Challenged Social Communicator
- Neurotypical Social Communicator
The Profile goes further in also explaining challenges that may appear in different areas as well as recommending core issues to attend to in designing a treatment program, explains how treatment can evolve over time, and also provides important guidance in understanding a student’s prognosis related to their social learning as they get older.
Who Uses and Teaches Social Thinking?
The answer we always give is “everyone can!” In reality, what most people are asking is this: Are Social Thinking materials specifically geared to parents/family members versus treatment and services professionals? The answer is “no” but we typically follow with “at least not yet.”*
- While it’s a commonly held assumption that professionals have better training than parents in teaching students with social learning differences, our experience shows this is not necessarily true.
- Most professional educational programs do not explicitly teach individuals how to help people with social learning challenges. The result is that degreed professionals, even those with PhD credentials in counseling or teaching, may have little practical knowledge about social learning and teaching social skills.
- Many parents and family members notice all the day-to-day nuance of their child’s abilities and behaviors and spend countless hours researching information related to teaching and helping their child, information they in turn share with their child’s teachers, counselors, and doctors.
- In creating Social Thinking materials the goal was to describe social concepts and strategies broadly enough that they could be flexibly used by both parents and professionals alike.
- By sharing the same information with parents and professionals everyone would be working off the same body of knowledge, literally “on the same page” with the child.
- Family members and professionals will find that the vast majority of our writings can be read by anyone.
* Over time we hope to produce more targeted materials. The concepts and strategies currently presented in our core books can be adapted to different populations.
Ways to Think About Social Thinking
Breaking down abstract social concepts into chunks of information that can be talked about, transformed into teaching lessons, and linked together in a meaningful way can be pretty perplexing a process to many adults. In closing, here are some points to help you “get your head around” teaching people with social learning challenges.
- Social Thinking is not a singular tool, but instead is a constellation of concepts and related strategies designed to help all people better understand the social experience and learn how to teach it through “thinking about thinking” oriented techniques.
- Parents, family members, other caregivers, professionals, clinicians, educators and teaching assistants, can all benefit from the teachings of Social Thinking because the framework provides a structure to help adult caregivers better understand the scope and sequence of teaching social information to students and adults.
- Social Thinking provides a framework and information to help teachers/mentors/family members learn more about social concepts and social problem solving. The materials and curricula help organize their thinking and provide them with the means to teach social learning concepts, promote social skills, social emotional and social academic achievement, as well as appreciate and then turn around and explain how all of these concepts are interconnected.
- Social Thinking approaches social learning from a variety of different perspectives.
- Frameworks such as the ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking reveal common challenges of folks with social learning challenges while also linking these socially-based concepts to academic learning.
- Tools such as the Social Thinking Social Learning Tree demonstrate how we need to avoid assumptions and teach our students information from the roots of social development rather than starting at the different islands of academic functioning represented by the branches.
- The Four Steps of Communication and Four Steps of Perspective Taking each provide entry level frameworks that break down and explain the multiple systems we all use to process and respond effectively to human interactions.
While Social Thinking started as a tool for use with special needs students, it is now recognized as an effective teaching framework to help all individuals develop stronger social awareness and social problem solving skills, and use better social skills at school, at home, on the job and as part of their community.
The Curriculum & Teaching Framework
Social Thinking is not a singular tool, but instead is a constellation of concepts, curricula, and related strategies that form a framework that can help all people better understand the social experience and how it can be taught through cognitive behavioral techniques. The strategies were originally created to be used by individuals who were teaching, counseling, or living with a person with social learning challenges. The relevance and effectiveness of them became quickly apparent as equally useful with typically developing students. We all can be helped by learning to be stronger social thinkers!
Social Thinking also bridges the social-academic connection, and supports social-emotional learning (SEL), Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) initiatives. Because it clearly, and through its materials visually, demonstrates the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, it’s a giant leap forward in bringing awareness to, and teaching about, the area of “social executive functioning”—the mental processing we all do on a subconscious level to participate and succeed in our social interactions.
The Social Thinking framework addresses core areas of social functioning that include but are not limited to:
- Working and learning as part of a group
- Social self-regulation and social skills
- Strategies to interpret others’ social intentions and emotions
- Strategies to identify and assess how students function socially based on the level of their social mind
- Connecting the dots between our thoughts, feelings, and our mental health
- Strategies to encourage the growth of perspective taking and socially based executive function skills
- Assessment of social competencies in real-world, real-time social situations, as opposed to carefully manicured testing settings
- Demonstrating the link between social thinking, social skills, social academic interpretation and expression (written, oral, etc.)
- Teaching about the connection between the social mind and socially-based Common Core and State Standards of Education as well as how to encourage deeper learning related to the standards
- Teaching conflict resolution and social problem solving skills
- Teachings concepts and skills for relationship development
- Providing information to better understand transition to adulthood choices
- Providing strategies for adults in the workplace
Concepts that make up Social Thinking have global appeal as they address social communication expectations that are more about our humanity than our cultural differences. People of all cultures engage in behavior that arises from core concepts related to perspective taking (theory of mind), executive functioning, and central coherence (getting the gist of a situation or a conversation). People around the world are interested in learning concrete ways to discuss and teach core social concepts such as: I have a thought, you have a thought, our thoughts are tied to our emotions and the responses we have to them; we have to read each other’s plans (intentions) and continually be aware of how people are “reading us”; what we do affects how other people feel and respond to us; this in turn affects how we feel about ourselves and our own mental health.
The Social Thinking framework contains materials that break down these larger social concepts into pieces and processing sequences that can, in turn, be taught in a cohesive and meaningful way to individuals. Teaching tools such as The Four Steps of Communication and The Four Steps of Perspective Taking help individuals appreciate that language is just the last step of communicating with others and that for communication to be “effective” we are constantly monitoring our own and others’ thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Since so much of “social” can be subjective or interpretive and is context/situation dependent, a common vocabulary, the Social Thinking Vocabulary, was developed to promote shared understanding of social concepts. It has universal appeal, as does the tiered-system that helps treatment providers figure out the different levels of the social mind (the Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile). Culturally different social codes are not ignored but addressed when teaching students who have more “nuance challenged” difficulties about the subtleties of language and nonverbal communication as part of the total communication experience.
Embedded in Social Thinking is a system for organizing the scope and sequence of teaching Social Thinking and related social skills to students with different social abilities. This inherent structure makes sense for any culture. So too does the way we explain how social learning abilities impact classroom and social-academic learning experiences. Specialists in countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, Spain, Argentina, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Denmark, the UK, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, and the Philippines are implementing Social Thinking concepts as well as adapting the lessons for the individual needs of their clients and the situation.
Social Thinking was not started from a research question or funded through a hospital or university. It emerged from Michelle’s desire to help her high school students and their teachers and parents develop a deeper understanding of what it means to use “social skills” by studying our social learning processes. Today Social Thinking encompasses an evidence-based philosophy, teaching frameworks and related strategies which can be used with persons of all ages who use language to learn and explore how we all think about the social thinking process.
The company grew around Michelle’s efforts to meet ever-increasing public demand for access to her ideas and materials. One book, self-published to share her concepts and teaching methods with others, expanded into a publishing company. Repeated requests for her to speak and share her philosophy with educators, SLPs and other professionals resulted in the company beginning to sponsor Social Thinking conferences. This year (2015) the company will offer 14 different conference topic days, all centered on different aspects of the framework. Michelle’s initial part-time clinic expanded to full-time and then became two clinics in San Jose. In 2014 the company opened their first licensed sister clinic in Boston.
In addition to creating new materials, speaking nationally and internationally, and maintaining their own roster of clients, Michelle and her colleague, Dr. Pam Crooke, now head up the Social Thinking Training and Speakers Collaborative (STTSC) to meet the mountain of requests from groups and schools around the world to learn about Social Thinking. Collaborative members were all hand-selected and personally mentored to provide cutting-edge training on Social Thinking. Ten of the members (Michelle and Pam included) are based in the USA and are trained to given most of Social Thinking’s core workshop days. Three additional speakers specialize: a clinical psychologist who specializes in mental health, a teacher who specializes in working with educational administrators, and a psychologist who specializes in working with those who visual impairments. Given the demand for Social Thinking information and materials in Asia, one Collaborative member, an SLP, lives in Singapore.
Members of the Collaborative provide over 300 training days each year in the US, Canada and abroad. Engagements range from full day conferences to smaller more intensive, sequenced trainings for schools and community groups, all based off the core Social Thinking information developed by Michelle and her colleagues.
Michelle and Pam also hold small-group sessions each year under the banner of the Social Thinking Clinical Training Program, personally mentoring educators and professionals in correctly using and implementing the Social Thinking teaching framework. Since the program started hundreds of professionals have participated.
Social Thinking, the company, echoes the foundations of the concepts and the curriculum that share its name. The company is team-oriented, group-focused, with everyone working together to continue to expand our knowledge base of how we think and relate socially, and translate that into teachable materials for others to use. Both the company and the teaching frameworks are a work-in-progress. Flexible thinking, making a smart guess, expected/unexpected behavior, thinking with your eyes, body and brain in the group—these core Social Thinking concepts are infused into the daily operations of the company and its employees. Staff talk the talk and try their best to walk the walk of Social Thinking… more or less depending on the day. (We’re all human!)
The concepts and materials offered by Social Thinking apply across a wide landscape of diagnostic labels and professionals who work with these individuals, including but not limited to psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, therapists, social workers, educators, family members, assistants, occupational therapist, behaviorists, physical therapists, and even people who head up HR departments! The work has touched the lives of parents and professionals around the world, and millions of people have been positively impacted by it.