Michelle's Blog

The Learning is Slow but Deeper

A practitioner recently asked me about the fact that she could get her 5 and 6 year olds to use the social thinking vocabulary, but they still weren't changing their behavior. Does this mean that they can't really learn to change their behavior?

My response went something like this:

We often expect a kid to fix his behavior quickly once we start to get him to talk about how the social brain works. What we often don't appreciate is how much time and thoughtful processing has to be spent teaching the concept of social thinking before we expect a student to effect self-regulation and change. This is not just for 5 and 6 year olds but also for teens and adults.

All behavior change that is deep and more permanent is changed not based on a simple reinforcement system, but instead is changed as our thinking about the world changes. Look at your own ability to change your behavior. If you need to slow down your driving or lessen your food intake you start by thinking about what you need to do and why you need to do it before you can get your behavior to change. The more you can internally negotiate your need to do something differently, the better chance you have to externally modifying your behavior for the long haul.

Neurotypical kids intuitively get self-regulation in a group to some extent by 3 years old at the latest. But we are treating kids with social thinking challenges who are 5 and 6 year olds that are barely getting this cognitively and never got the information intuitively. Will a program that is taught cognitively create behavioral change quickly and efficiently? I don't think so. Even with teens it is so slow! I say it in my workshops all the time: social learning is SLOW learning.

But people think, for example, that a tool like Superflex can get a child to change behavior quickly because it is so engaging. Instead, it really is a tool to entice the learner into the discussion and the observation of social processes. Instead, I think You Are a Social Detective is really the book to start with for the first years. Teach this and then add Superflex later. The steps for our kids should be, first, to spend their time observing how others affect their thinking, then how they affect others' thinking, then how they can control behavior related to thinking throughout the classroom day.

Most adults are still very behaviorally based in their teaching approach even when they think they are teaching social thinking. They focus heavily on the behavioral outcome on a daily basis rather than on teaching the thinking. Any teacher who tells a child that "I like the way you are behaving" is not actually teaching social thinking. They still use fundamentally a social skills approach focusing on the behavioral product rather than on helping a child to see how they are affecting our thinking, and how our behavior is affecting their thinking.

This past year I worked with a very high level 17 years old, and he sat in my group for one year thinking about thinking before he could affect any of his own change. After a year of treatment he summarized what he learned by saying, "I figured out that the things I was doing that I thought were helpful were actually being perceived as annoying. If I want to be really helpful, then I have to change my behaviors so that people think about me the way I want them to." That took a year for him to get to that point! He is an intellectually gifted IIPT (Impaired Interactive Perspective Taker: See article on this website entitled The Perspective Taking Spectrum). IIPTs even as teens don't have great self- awareness (if they did they would have probably fixed the problem themselves). Now he is slowly working to self-monitor in the structure of a group and at home while we continue to discuss how his behavior impacts others. He also notices how others' behaviors impact his own thinking. He does this from the safety of the Social Thinking group. He is still not able to monitor and adapt his behavior in the complexity of the school environment, but he is working on getting there. This is a reality. Too often we want our students to make a significant, huge change in the IEP term of one year. In reality, the brain just doesn't work under those conditions!

Always remember how slow it is to teacher our students to think differently about the social world. If you are lucky enough to be able to teach our students in a classroom environment, emphasize teaching an awareness to a group: how you are making someone think in a group and how people feel based on those thoughts. Focus on when your students do things that are "expected" and not just when they do things that are "unexpected". This literally takes years! As I have followed the same kids for years, they have taught me they are far better off 10 years later, but it took a long time, as they are also dealing with their own struggles with the growing complexities of curriculum demands, stages of development, related mental health challenges and the fact that they are not just "blank slates", but individuals with their own personalities and preferences.

Finally, keep in mind that your students' social learning problems are deep and very real. They truly do not have the same cognitive information as their peers. Through social thinking, our goal is to help a child develop more awareness and use of appropriate skills when compared to him or her self. This does not mean a child will become "appropriate" when compared to others; but instead they will begin to develop more insight then they had and will slowly evolve into a better social skills set when compared to how they were coping before.

©2012 Social Thinking Publishing - Michelle Garcia Winner  www.socialthinking.com
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