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20 + Tips and Strategies for Volunteer and Group Leaders: Supporting Individuals with Social Learning Challenges in Your Group

Kelly Bleckley

20  + Tips and Strategies for Volunteer and Group Leaders

Being “social” is an “everywhere” skill. Whether the setting is at home, at school, or in the community, we’re constantly using our social sense to figure out how to be around other people. Some of us do a great job of it, some of us skate by, and some of us struggle with our social abilities.


Individuals with social learning challenges tend to need support within every environment. And, so do the thousands of volunteer leaders who work with these individuals in the community programs that enrich our towns and cities across the U.S. The majority of adults who organize and lead boy/girl scouts, youth groups, student sports teams, or any other type of camp, club, or event are not trained to recognize social processing challenges or know how to deal with them.


As a coach, youth leader, volunteer, or teacher, you may have come across a child in your group who just doesn't fit in with the other kids. He might be smart, but you notice he has difficulty following the group plan or stays on the sidelines, unsure how to interact with other kids. Maybe she seems anxious in new situations or she’s eager to contribute, but her comments are out of sync given the topic or the conversation. Perhaps the child’s parents mentioned the social difficulties ahead of time. Now what do you do – how do you help?


As a volunteer leader in a youth program myself, I know it’s not easy to run the program, keep everyone motivated and engaged, and support the child with social challenges. However, it is possible to be a positive influence with your group by taking a little time to understand how these individuals think and process information. Then try incorporating some of the practical strategies that follow. They can be used by any adult who interfaces with youth or adults in a group situation, and the strategies can benefit all your students, players, or club members, not just those with social learning challenges!


The information in this article draws upon the decades of work of Michelle Garcia Winner, a speech-language professional who coined the term "Social Thinking" in the late 1990s and developed a teaching framework that is now used in schools and programs around the world.  Michelle has an uncanny ability to break down complex social concepts and explain them in ways that make sense to the average Joe or Jane. Even better, she's written or co-authored 20+ books on Social Thinking, each packed with concrete information, hands-on strategies, useful templates, and a special vocabulary that parents and professionals can use with individuals starting as young as preschool and continuing through adulthood.


What is Social Thinking and the Social Thinking® Framework?

Social thinking is what we do when we interact with people: we think about ourselves and we think about others and how we relate to each other. How we think affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects how we feel about ourselves. 


The Social Thinking framework is a language-based teaching approach, targeted to students with average to above average IQs and language abilities on par with their age. In the world of social learning, language ability is not an indicator of social know-how. There are many "little professors" around, super-bright kids with advanced technical know-how who are unable to figure out how to join a group or greet their fellow classmates each day. It's important to put preconceived notions aside about what we think our kids should be able to do, and look closely at what they can or cannot do. Social thinking challenges are neurologically based; these kids don't intuitively figure out social patterns and rules as do their typical peers. So when you find yourself thinking, "Well, all kids know this…", think again! They probably don't! 


The Social Thinking framework works at the roots of social understanding and targets foundation social concepts that apply across different settings. Winner's ILAUGH model, a key component of the larger teaching method, outlines the core areas of difficulty faced by individuals with social challenges. These become areas of focused attention when working with these children.


Initiation of language

Listening with eyes and brain

Abstracting and inferencing

Understanding perspective (of self and others)

Getting the big picture

Human relatedness & humor


How do I know if I have a student with social learning challenges in my class, group, or team?

Don’t assume that only students with a diagnosis have problems with social thinking and social learning. Many individuals struggle to figure out what we call the “social code” or the “hidden rules” in social situations.  If parents are forthcoming with sharing the student’s diagnosis, do not be afraid to ask questions and seek information about what works best for their child. Individuals are unique in their needs, even those with the same diagnosis. Find out what type of strategies or communication works best for them.


If parents have not come forward with any information, watch the child’s behavior, listen to their words (or lack of them), and monitor how they interact with others. Individuals with social challenges may exhibit one or more of many behaviors, among them:  

  • Difficulty asking questions when confused; asks too many questions or asks at the wrong time.
  • Often looks away and not at others’ faces, even when prompted to “look at me.”
  • Communication may be stilted or too formal. May not appreciate or understand humor or slang or “good natured” teasing from other children.
  • May take longer to process and respond to questions than his/her peers.
  • Talks more to adults than peers.
  • Has difficulty following directions unless they are specifically told what to do; may not stop doing an activity until told specifically to do so.
  • Trouble changing from one activity to another or handling changes to a schedule or routine.
  • Doesn't seem to learn from watching others; may need direct instruction or coaching to understand what to do.
  • May miss the “big picture” in a situation, i.e., the theme of an activity, the topic of conversation, the expected behaviors for a social event.
  • Emotional reaction does not match the level of intensity of the situation. For instance, a child might have a huge upset reaction to something you (or other peers) might consider “no big deal.”
  • Difficulty with win/lose situations. The child may become overly upset if s/he does not get to go first or if the team (or individually) loses a game or activity.
  • Moves away from the group when frustrated or distracted.
  • Difficulty dealing with loud noises or chaotic environments; may cover his/her ears, turn away or get overly anxious.
  • Does not respond appropriately to emotions expressed by others; seems to lack empathy.
  • May not understand “personal space” when working or communicating with others; may stand too close or be too far away from others in the group.
  • Talks mostly about his/her own interests or area of expertise; doesn't understand the back and forth, give and take nature of conversation.
  • Seems to have difficulty taking the perspective of others or accepting others’ points of view.

An important idea to keep in mind when working with these students is that their unexpected or inappropriate behavior is usually not willful disobedience. They struggle to pick up the social cues from their environment or that others are sending, clues such as when to stop talking or that they should change their behavior because those around them are getting uncomfortable. They need to be directly told how they are affecting others’ thoughts and feelings, as they do not naturally make that social connection.


A second important mental note is to always remember that individuals with social challenges fall on a continuum. Some children are mildly affected, missing the more subtle social nuances, while others often appear totally clueless to what’s going on around them. Strategies that might work for one individual with social learning challenges might not work for others. Your goal is to try to become a “social detective” to learn more about the child with whom you interact. The more you learn, the better able you will be to help that child. 


But I’m Not Qualified

Psychologists and speech-language pathologists are often the professionals who diagnose and provide therapy for this population. However, you may often find yourself in the role of “teacher” with these kids, wanting to help but not sure how to go about it. As a volunteer, director, coach, pastor, or other type of leader, you have an amazing opportunity to help these individuals learn to be part of the team or group. With many this may be the first time anyone has tried to help in any concrete way. These individuals are almost always bullied and tend to feel ostracized by their peers. Some may not have any friends outside their immediate family. Many of them are aware they are “different,” yet lack the skills and the “social smarts” to overcome those differences. Your time with them can either strengthen their mental health and teach them that they can learn and be a part of something, or it can add to the negativity, anxiety and sense of  separation that most of them already feel (even if they do not show or express it). Just by incorporating a few of these strategies you can have a positive effect in their lives. 


20+ Tips and Strategies

Before we delve into tips and strategies, please understand that helping these students think more about their social environment, how their words and actions impact others, and then learn to demonstrate expected behaviors is slow and deep learning. You can make a difference in these individuals’ lives as well as in your group dynamic, but don’t expect results over night. Social learning takes time.


The majority of the tips offered below are valuable in most situations you may find yourself and your group or class. Don’t skip those arranged by context because you think they won’t apply. In most cases the concept behind the tip will help you and you’ll adapt it in countless ways.


General Tips

Use direct and specific language

Individuals with social learning challenges can be very literal in how they think and process information. Unfortunately for them, much of the language we use is often littered with figurative meanings and abstract words. For example, if you told the group, “We are going to do it from the top,” the individual with social learning challenges might say, “From the top of where?” He’s not being sarcastic; to him “top” means “top” and not “beginning.” Likewise, directing kids to “jump to it” might result in some jumping action on the part of the child without good social thinking skills. To help them, always be direct and specific in your instructions. “We are going to start over from the beginning, so you should be standing here and getting ready to _____.” Instead of “Get your stuff and come over here when you’re done” say, “Please go get your backpacks and jackets and then line up next to me.”


Tell them what to do!

Kids with social learning challenges are not all that adept at figuring out what you mean. To help them understand what you’re saying, phrase your instructions by telling them what to do, not what not to do. “Please walk” rather than “don’t run.” Don’t run can mean skipping, hopping, or any other type of movement is an okay thing to do. That’s not exactly what you meant!


Incorporate Social Thinking Vocabulary© into your conversations with kids

Michelle Garcia Winner and her team understand that talking about complex social concepts can be downright difficult! It’s not always easy to explain what it means to “be social” in a concrete way so kids with social learning challenges understand what you mean. So Michelle and her team developed a special vocabulary that helps adults and children communicate using a common language. Some of the basic terms include:

  • Expected/unexpected as it related to thoughts and actions. Words such as “good” or “bad” or “appropriate/inappropriate” are descriptions that are largely context and culturally driven. For instance, talking to a friend may be an appropriate behavior but is unexpected while a teacher is explaining a lesson.
  • The group plan helps kids learn that when we are working together, we are expected to contribute to the overall objective. This is the opposite of following one’s own plan.
  • Body in the group/brain in the group. We show others we are thinking about them by keeping our body next to theirs while walking or standing together, and our brain focused on the conversation, instead of other distractions or our own interests. 
  • Understanding the size of the problem helps students appreciate that when our reactions does not match the situation at hand (either too big or too small), this can result in people having uncomfortable thoughts about us. One of the responsibilities we all share when interacting with others is doing our part to keep the group on an even keel.

Show and tell

Don’t expect individuals with social learning challenges to be able to “read” your facial expressions and/or your feelings. They typically find it difficult to decipher any of the nonverbal clues and cues we all use so often. Verbalize how you are feeling (positive and negative), show and tell them why you are making a certain choice or offering a suggestion. Explain what other peers might be thinking and feeling when they exhibit an unexpected reaction or behavior. Then coach them with things they can do to keep you and others feeling good about being around them. For example, “I’m feeling uncomfortable because you keep blurting out the answers when other kids have their hands raised. I need you to hold the thought in your brain until I call on you. That will make me feel really good.”


Prepare them for what’s coming up

Individuals with social challenges are generally pretty anxious kids who don’t like “surprises” – even good ones! They prefer routines and schedules, so if a student is noticeably uncomfortable, especially upon arrival, talk him/her through the schedule for the group or activity. For instance, “We start with some time to hang out (see tips on hang out times), then we will all sit down and listen to Larry, then we’ll play some games, and we’ll end around 7:00.” Since many of these kids are visual learners, consider using visual tools as much as possible. What’s a visual tool? It’s anything except your words that you use to explain things. Gestures are a visual communication tool, so is a list or a written schedule. Name tags are visual tools, your day planner is a visual tool, and so is a calendar. Unlike words that appear and disappear in an instant, visual tools provide concrete reference for your group participants; they can refer back to them again and again. Having a visual schedule for the group’s get together can help decrease anxiety about what’s coming next and help individuals feel more comfortable.


Take a deep breath and think about the thinking not the behavior

We get it: in the heat of the moment when the group dynamic is disintegrating, you may not have a lot of patience for slowing down and teaching from a social thinking perspective when behavior is what needs managing. But that’s exactly what you need to do! Stop and take a deep breath, remembering that this student or child is not purposely trying to disrupt and derail the situation. When your focus is on the child’s behavior being “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad” you’re not helping that child understand the situation and how their actions are affecting the thoughts and feelings of others. As much as possible, talk directly to the individual away from his/her peers and point out what words or behaviors were unexpected, how it made you and others feel, and what could be done next time. Remember, talking through the thinking and helping children understand the why behind a suggested behavior change will have a much greater impact than just scolding or implementing a consequence. 


Tips for Teaching/Instruction Times

  • Before each session, announce the rules or expectations for the group. Not all kids with social learning challenges understand the “rules” in any given social situation. In most cases these need to be taught concretely to them. And, many rules in our society are what we call “hidden rules” – conventions we assume “everyone” learns by watching others or using their innate social radar. Most individuals with social learning challenges don’t have this radar or it’s not working as well as adults expect it to be. Consider having these specific rules posted in writing somewhere that’s easily visible. Review your rules and consider how clear they are. “Be respectful” may mean nothing to the child who struggles with social understanding; it’s so abstract. If an individual needs more support, use pictures of the rules as reminders or even use flash cards that you can pass to the child when unexpected behaviors start to emerge. For instance, some of the rules might be to keep one’s eyes looking at speaker, hands still, body facing the speaker, words “locked up”/no talking, and brain thinking about the person talking and the others in the group.
  • Clearly explain ahead of time to the entire group the consequences for not following the expected behaviors. These might include one verbal warning, asked to take a break apart from the group with another adult, moved away from distracting peers, sat upfront, lost game time or other privileged activities, etc.
  • If children are having difficulty sitting still, provide a fidget (small object to manipulate in their hands such as a paper clip, silly putty, etc.) or alternative ways of keeping focused on the speaker without being a distraction to others (e.g. tapping on their leg instead of the chair, allowing them to wear their jacket hood, etc.). You can also give them a specific job to do to help keep their brain focused on the group. Jobs might include running the power point presentation, passing out or collecting items, being the time keeper, being the scribe to write down what you write on the board, etc.
  • Teach the group what it means to have a “boring moment” (a talking or teaching time where students may become bored) and what is expected with their eyes, body, brain, and words during that time. Explain that we all get bored at times and that to get to the more interesting parts of their time together they must sit through the boring moments without disrupting others.
  • Be consistent about when and how you correct a student with social learning challenges. Offer lots of practice and give lots of praise for what they do right. Keep in mind that it is often very hard for these students to sustain attention, remember or figure out the social expectations, and use expected behaviors. Find reasons to give more praise and less criticism! 

Tips for Group Activities and/or Games

People in general, but specifically children and students with social learning challenges, can have difficulty controlling their emotions. Individuals with social learning challenges often perceive problems to be larger than they truly are and thus have a reaction larger than expected. This is called having a big reaction to a small problem. So, if you have ever had a student cry, yell, hit, scream, or storm off, the following tips can help.  

  • Talk about the size of the problem. Explain that problems come in different sizes (small, medium, and big) and our goal is for our reaction size to match the problem size. Most problems like losing a game, making a mistake on a project, wearing a color you don’t like, or being on a team with someone you don’t like are small problems. Medium problems are ones you need some help with, such as someone being mean to you, scrapping up your knees or elbows, or missing practice or a game. Big problems might include going to the hospital, a car accident, or a house burning down. When the size of our reaction doesn’t match the size of the problem (e.g., having a big upset reaction to losing a game) that causes others to have uncomfortable thoughts about us. That means they may not want to be around us next time. When the size of our reaction matches the size of our problem, this keeps people around us feeling calm and good about being with us. Understanding the difference between problem sizes helps children and students better match their emotions to the situation.  However, if the student is in the middle of a big reaction, that is not the time for talking about this lesson. To understand this concept the student needs to be in a calm and regulated state of mind.
  • Our children or students have to process many different situations and problems across the course of a day. A useful strategy to keep their motivation high is to help them learn to use their “self-coach.” This simply means teaching and reminding them to use nonverbal (thinking) or verbal (speaking) words and phrases that help one stay calm and better assess the situation. “Self-coach” phrases might include “I can do this” when faced with a challenge or a new situation. If the team is losing a game or during those times when things aren’t going as we planned, our self-coach might way, “This is just for fun,” “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses,” or “I just need to try my best.” You job as the adult in this child’s life is to help provide these phrases for students as they do not often have the ability to create them independently.
  • Help children think about others and the impact of their words and behaviors on others. Remind students about being a “Just Me” versus a “Thinking of You” person (two more terms in the larger Social Thinking Vocabulary). Explain in concrete terms what they are doing that is giving others “good thoughts” or “uncomfortable thoughts.” For example, “When you shook the other team’s hands even though we lost, that gave everyone here a good thought about you.” “Last week when you yelled at Tony for getting more points than you, that gave everyone here an uncomfortable thought.” Keep in mind that individuals with social learning challenges have difficulty making the connection between their words/actions and the thoughts and feeling of others. Sometimes it’s effective to start with the child and how the child feels. “Yesterday Josh got really mad when you beat him at tennis. How did that make you feel?” Then connect how the child felt with how Josh might feel in a similar situation. “When Josh beat you today during the tennis match and you threw your racket at him, how do you think that action made Josh feel? What do you think he might have been thinking about you in that moment?” Abstract examples are not nearly as effective. Bring it down to the level of the child and use the many teachable moments that arise to explain how our words and actions affect others.
  • Pre-think! Before group games or activities think through the social components and figure out what information might be helpful for the children with social learning challenges to know. For instance, clearly state boundaries and be explicit on the social rules. Explain team rules in concrete, non-ambiguous ways. Post a visual schedule of the batting line-up or who is playing what position. Recognize how quickly we expect children to process information in the middle of a game or a match. Pre-teach as much as possible so they practice and get used to the flow of things ahead of time. The more information we feed them about what is expected and unexpected, the better they will do.
  • When working with children especially, teach them about having a “waiting turn” versus a “doing turn.” That way, when they start having problems waiting for others to have their turn, they feel like they are getting a turn too. But remember to clearly explain the expected behavior during a waiting turn (quiet mouth or saying encouraging things to others, eyes watching, body still, etc.).

Tips for Less Structured Free Time/Hangout Time

Your student or child with social thinking challenges will likely find unstructured “free time” to be the most difficult time of all. Where most kids welcome a chance to “do their own thing” these students often don’t know how to ask someone to play with them, join a group, or use a shared imagination. These tips can clue you in to how to help these kids connect with others.


Provide choices for what students can do during this down time and specifically explain the options.  For example: “Ok Johnny, so we have some time before we start. You can go play air hockey with Tyler and Mark over there, go ask Cara how her weekend was, or help Corey and Sara set up. But you need to be in a group doing one of these activities with others. Which one do you want to do?” As needed provide social coaching or encourage peer support.

  • Help kids use their “people file” to start a conversation. People files are invisible folders of information we store in our heads about people we know. Our people files include things like a person’s interests, family members, how they act, and past events shared together (good or bad). For example: “Johnny, do you remember what Matt said he was going to do last weekend? You should go ask him about it.” Or, “Sheila, which one of the other group members also likes cotton candy? Maybe you could go get some together?” You can also challenge all your students to tell you, at the end of group time, one thing they learned about another student. This will help them attend to what others are talking about and take more of an interest in others. You could do this as a getting-to-know-you activity with the whole group where everyone writes down what they learned about others.
  • Empower the natural student leaders in your group to become peer mentors to help get the student involved in activities or conversations.  With a little training and preparation for the mentors, this turns into a great opportunity for the other kids in your group to learn acceptance and grow in patience and character.

Tips for Performance/Game Time

Everyone begins to feel more pressure the moment the whistle starts the game or the curtains part for the performance to start. The complexities of making decisions in the moment, controlling emotions, and thinking as part of a group can become overwhelming for individuals with social learning challenges.

  • Being part of a team adds additional layers of challenge to any social situation. Team members have to think, talk and act quickly and “in the moment” so there’s rarely extra time for processing. Plus, every play can go differently, so it’s difficult to pre-teach what to do in situation A versus situation X. As much as possible clearly list out what role or position you want players in, giving detailed explanation of expectations to all and if needed, on an individual basis with the child who needs extra support. For example, “You are the defender, which means you must stay between these lines on the field. When you see someone from the other team coming toward you with the ball, try to get it away from them by kicking it to someone on our team. Remember you are not allowed to use your hands or push the other player.”  Giving more explanation in the beginning does take more time, but will avoid frustrations and greatly help these individuals be more successful. However, keep in mind that even when you think your descriptions are clear as glass, they may not be to the child with social challenges. Team sports are fraught with opportunities for confusion. For instance, in the above description, what happens if another player on the team is also trying to get the ball? What do you do if there’s no other team player near by, or who do you choose if there are many? Think of a game like baseball and how much timing is involved in knowing what to do in any moment. Use patience and approach these concepts one piece at a time.
  • If the child’s body language indicates s/he is not interested in the game or the performance, talk to the child about what to do to look interested and be part of the group. Head up, eyes looking up, hands down, slight smile are signs of interest. Head down, eyes down, walking away, not being engaged are signs of disinterest. Kids with social learning challenges often do not think about what “message” they are sending with their body and words. Don’t be afraid to tell them; the information will only help them think about others and the impact they are having on them.
  • Many individuals with social learning challenges see the world in black and white and can experience high anxiety about being perfect. Any mistake can seem huge in their eyes, no matter how small it is. They might show this by arguing when corrected, shutting down if they make a mistake, or refusing to try something new. Remind kids that mistakes, like emotions, come in different sizes. Some are little mistakes, the “no big deal” variety, and others can bring about more major consequences. Self–coach phrases are often helpful in these situations. Remind individuals to tell themselves: “Missing a shot/note/goal is a small problem,” “I can practice and get better,” “Everyone makes mistakes,” “I have people who can help me do better,” or “It is expected to make mistakes.”
  • Problem solving is a huge component of group games, performances, and sports. Within a few split seconds, individuals are expected to take in the full situation of what is happening around them and make quick decisions on what to do. This is difficult for any child or student but especially for those with social learning challenges. Problem solve some of the more frequent situations ahead of time: who to pass the ball to, what to do if someone missed a line, or how to avoid getting out. These take thinking skills beyond what most kids can muster in the moment. Practice different scenarios including “worse case” scenarios: if this happens then do this. Remind them to “think with their eyes” to see who does not have an opposing player near them before passing the ball and provide them with some strategy of the game. For example, if playing dodge ball, teach them to move back and keep watching the person who has the ball. And always keep in mind: helping your kids become better social thinkers is a slow, deep process.

Last Tip

Don’t give up! Teaching individuals with social learning challenges can be trying at times. Most of us grow up with an innate social awareness that develops on its own as we age and go through experiences with others. It can seem foreign to have to stop and think about thinking and then even more foreign to figure out how to teach these abstract social concepts to children without that innate social brain processing. Social Thinking is a framework that can help you better understand how to work effectively with kids on your team, in your group, on the field trip, or during the outing to the planetarium. They challenge us to think about our own thinking and they can be such a blessing to those who take the time to understand and learn from them. Start slowly with changing the way you give directions. Start incorporating some of the basic Social Thinking Vocabulary words. (Remember to explain what they mean to the group!) Any little thing you do, even having more patience and understanding, will go a long way in the life of an individual with social learning challenges.

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