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Social Thinking Articles

Introduction to Social Thinking

Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner

Social Thinking is what we do when we share space with others and when sending an email, sitting in a classroom, lining up at the grocery store, reading a work of fiction, watching a funny video clip, participating in a business meeting, driving in traffic, and a host of other daily activities that involve our social interpretation and related reactions.  We consider the context; take in the thoughts, emotions and intentions of the people with whom we are interacting and use that information to determine how we respond. How we think about people affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects our own emotional internal and external responses. It's an incredibly complex process that most of us take for granted.


Our social thinking develops naturally and becomes intuitive for most of us. 


Yet, for many individuals this process is anything but natural. Individuals with social learning challenges may find the process of thinking about what others are thinking and then using social skills in the exact moment they are needed incredibly complicated. And, one's social thinking has little to relationship with conventional measures of intelligence. In fact, many people score high on IQ and standardized tests but do not intuitively learn the basics or the nuances of social communication and interaction.


Social Thinking is a treatment framework and curriculum developed by Michelle Garcia Winner that targets how to enhance and improve social thinking abilities, regardless of diagnostic label (often there isn't a diagnosis). Professionals and parents alike are using these methods to build social thinking and related social skills. Social Thinking concepts and strategies are designed for people with social learning challenges with near average to way above average language skills and IQ. The teachings of Social Thinking also are widely used to help educate parents and professionals as to how to systemize and teach about information that we traditionally have never taught before. Given the explicit nature of these social emotional teachings, they are also being adopted for use with all students to encourage improved social problem solving. 


Social Thinking Fact Sheet


Social Thinking is the user-friendly term for “social cognition.”

  1. Social thinking develops from birth, much like walking. Figuring out how the social world works is intuitively hard wired into most of us.
  2. A milestone of infancy is called joint attention. This occurs when babies naturally follow the gaze of another person. Others follow a baby's gaze too when attempting to figure out wants or needs. This is the building block for many parts of social communication, including play, cooperation, sharing an imagination, and working as part of a group. Once this milestone is reached, complex communication develops rapidly.
  3. Being able to play effectively with peers in the early years provides the foundation for sitting/learning in a classroom as well as having back-and-forth conversations. Play is really important!
  4. Students with social learning challenges do not intuitively learn social information the way other children do. Instead, they have to be cognitively taught how to think socially and understand the use of related social skills.
  5. Individuals learning about social thinking concepts do so via strategies to think about thinking in play, classrooms, social relationships, work settings, and community.
  6. Social Thinking® strategies are designed to be use with those individuals with average to above average verbal IQ. This is a language-based learning approach.
  7. Core philosophies of Social Thinking:
    1. We think with our eyes to figure out other others thoughts, intentions, emotions, plans, etc.
    2. Our thoughts and emotions are strongly connected. How we think affects how we feel and how we behave affects how others think and feel. We learn to make people comfortable around us by using our actions and our language.
    3. We think about people all the time, even when we have no plans to interact with them. We adjust our own behavior based on what we think the people around us are thinking (This is how we drive our cars!).
    4. As part of our humanity, we are all on a daily quest to avoid another’s weird or uncomfortable thoughts. We constantly consider people around us and adjust our behavior to help people have okay or good thoughts about our behavior.
    5. Most of the core Social Thinking lessons operate BELOW the level of culture, meaning that all people engage in thoughts and social behavioral adjustments.
    6. How we adapt our behavior changes as we age and across different situations and cultures. The nuance and sophistication of our behaviors (which we refine greatly by 3rd grade) is constantly evolving across our lives.
    7. Social Thinking is something all of us do every day, all day, even when we are alone in our homes. To understand a movie, web clip, TV drama or comedy, one has to think about the character’s emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc. Even reading novels requires Social Thinking.
    8. Social Thinking is at the root of our academic world - requiring us to think about the motives and intentions of people we read about in literature and history.
    9. Social Thinking is just as critical in adulthood. To hold a job, most of us have to adapt our own social behavior based on the perceived thoughts of the people with whom we work and live.
  8. Social Thinking is abstract and difficult to discuss since it is something we usually learn intuitively. To help us all to think about and teach these abstract concepts, we have a set of scaffolds upon which social thinking lessons are constructed:
    1. Four steps of perspective taking
    2. Four steps of communication
    3. ILAUGH model (illustrates the social-academic connection)
  9. Students with social challenges often have mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and other issues.
    1. Treatment for many of our clients/students must also focus on managing anxiety and depression and the link to Social Thinking.
    2. Cognitive behavioral teaching strategies, such as Social Behavior Mapping, inform as to how people think about each other.
  10. By learning how other people think, our students can understand others points of view and why specific social and communication skills are required in different situations.
  11. When people learn how to think differently and flexibly they can think anywhere. This is different from just teaching a social skill. Individuals taught only the “skill” often will only perform that skill in the environment in which they learned it. If a person learns to THINK, then they can carry the concept (some would say generalize) to any environment.      

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