Have you ever tried to make yourself do something that took a little extra energy to remember or required self-coaching to make it happen? You know, things like exercising more often or keeping your cool in traffic or eating more greens. We all “know” what we should do. We read, we pick up tips and strategies, we use post-it notes as reminders and put actions into our daily planners, yet despite our best intentions and desires, the reality is that we simply don’t always do what we say we will do. Why? Most of us would attribute it to just being human. Some of us would carry the weight of self-blame and procrastination. Few, if any, of us would call our inability to follow through a “behavior problem.” Nor would we say that we have issues with “generalization” because we know what needs to be done and we just don’t do it. Ironically, this is exactly what we do with our students when they know what to do, but don’t always follow through.
Generalization is part of social learning!
Generalization is a term used across fields to indicate when an individual’s response or behavior is produced in contexts where it was not directly taught. Curiously, in education when students carry over behaviors they have learned in school (e.g., math, reading) to other contexts (e.g., home, community), we don’t refer to it as generalization – we call it learning!
Social learning is really no different. Our task is to engage individuals in the social learning process by teaching social thinking concepts and related social skills. In doing so we give them the tools to discover deeper ways of personally participating in the social world, both inside and outside the treatment setting. How? Using frameworks and strategies from the Social Thinking methodology, we work with our students and clients to develop stronger abilities to interpret social information, what we refer to as social input. We also focus on teaching individuals to adapt their social skills and improve self-regulation of emotion and behaviors, or social output. Most people unknowingly use the terms generalization in reference to social output and learning to refer to social input! Hence, it is not uncommon for us to hear from educators and parents that their students have learned Social Thinking Vocabulary terms, are able to recite the powers of the Superflex™ characters, and/or can talk through Social Behavior Mapping™, but may not be generalizing across contexts.
If this scenario if familiar to you, please take a moment to re-read the opening paragraph.
We, as adults with intact social abilities, still struggle to achieve and generalize our desired behavior change—even though we can explain its importance and articulate a plan of action. So, why do we think the leap from explaining to using the behavior should simply happen for students with social challenges? After all, if they can talk about what to do and show mastery in one environment, why not “just do it” elsewhere? The fact is that we routinely take for granted our own intuitive abilities to use social skills across people and places. We make assumptions about the linear progression of skills without looking closely at the depth and complexity of what it takes to gain a level of social competency. In fact, acquiring new social skills is only part of the social equation and social competency as a whole requires far more than memorizing social behaviors and applying them across contexts. Instead, social learning is a vast and intricate web of learning about thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions, attention, interpretation, and awareness of self and others. Social competency requires us to access this social learning knowledge and fluidly transform our actions differently based on situations and people. It does not unfold in a linear manner; rather consideration of the myriad moving parts must be a part of our teaching, because being social is just plain messy.
In this article we would like to propose another way of looking at the social learning process as one that ultimately teaches about social input and social output across time, people and a variety of situations. And while we will suggest some ways to encourage the learning process, keep in mind that—from our perspective—teaching social skills is not simply introducing and reinforcing a desired behavior for generalization. Rather, the Social Thinking methodology and its related frameworks, concepts and strategies encourage the social learning process through observation, instruction, practice, feedback and coaching, and self-awareness, self-monitoring, and self-regulation.
Foundations: Language and Perspective Taking
Acquiring the ability to understand and use social skills with increased fluidity across different contexts is a tall order for many of our students. Our methodology is based on using language-based explanations to encourage transitioning toward behavioral practice, while also teaching self-monitoring and regulation using language. This means that individuals should have language abilities on par with their age and/or grade level peers. Why? Using a complex language-loaded curriculum with individuals in the process of learning basic language skills is simply unfair to the individual. Instead, practitioners and parents should consider other methods or approaches that tap into visual, auditory, or tactile strengths of the individual.
Also, a basic understanding of perspective taking is suggested given that our expectations are for the individual to utilize the information across time, people, and space and engage in social self-awareness (i.e., the ability to recognize when one’s behaviors are in sync with the surroundings and people AND realize when one is doing/saying something that others do not appreciate). Those who lack this social self-awareness will likely struggle with generalization across any and all treatment programs without significant prompts and support. Therefore, please note that the information that follows is geared to those with solid language and traditionally measured academic abilities, paired with basic perspective-taking skills and solid social self-awareness.
Generalization Right From the Start
For parents and professionals who are less familiar with the Social Thinking methodology we always begin by talking about “why” our students are embarking on this learning pathway. In this manner, we create a foundation for understanding the social world that is not intended simply to increase one’s social skills, but to also fuel their interpretation of social information presented in academics (e.g., comprehension of characters in literature, history, social studies, written expression). As students increase their sophistication in understanding the perspectives of others, they are also becoming more aware of why their social behavior matters to others. At that point, we begin to work on adapting social skills.
The Social Thinking methodology focuses on ways to increase social awareness to over-arching social frameworks (Four Steps of Perspective Taking, etc.) as well as the subtler social behaviors that contribute to our social competencies (thinking with eyes, body in the group, expected and unexpected behaviors, etc.). Our goal within treatment is to increase overall social competencies, and not to address, per se, a list of specific skills for specific situations (e.g., sharing toys at home or asking questions during an outing). By focusing on social competency, we are teaching individuals that their own understanding travels with them from place to place. We use language-based strategies to help individuals think about how to observe, notice, reflect, process, and practice.
What is realistic progress? Our focus is always on helping students improve social interpretations (input) and social behavioral adaptations (output) relative to themselves rather than comparing to neurotypically developing peers. Social learning is always slow and deep. It is filled with nuance and changes with age. The following is an outline of how to engage in a social learning process that includes and naturally fosters “generalization” across people, time and space. Remember: Each of us struggles to meet our own behavior change generalization expectations many times throughout our lives. Generalization is not an endpoint; it is simply part of the journey.
9 Ideas for Promoting Generalization
1. Make it Personal; Me First! As humans, we are the most motivated to learn information that we think can help our own lives. Too often social skills programs start by wanting students to change their behavior to meet others’ expectations. We encourage students to figure out that they have expectations (often very high) of others. We start by having them figure out the hidden social rules they expect from others. If they feel they are part of the social process, they are more likely to engage in social learning.
2. Build a Foundation. Teach how the social world works by providing general frameworks to structure and create a foundation of social awareness and social expectations. These include: Four Steps of Perspective Taking, Four Steps of Communication, and Social Emotional Chain Reaction (another way of talking about Social Behavior Mapping).
3. Make Observation the MVP. We refer to observation as one of the most valuable skills needed for the process of social learning. Terms like social detective or social spy are used in activities as a way to infuse foundational social knowledge. We then encourage students to begin to observe others, especially their peers, across different situations. It’s important not to start by asking individuals to take note and observe their own unexpected behaviors. Instead, have the individual view others from his or her vantage point or perspective first. Then, you can begin to encourage attention to situations in which your students may have their own challenges in social competencies, such as working together in a peer-based work group, sharing space together in a classroom, playing a specific game on the playground, etc. Once the individual becomes a better observer, consider the following process:
a. In each situation, help the individual figure out what behaviors the peers are doing that are expected and/or unexpected.
b. Then, guide him or her in exploring the Social Emotional Chain Reaction:
i. what people do in a situation (expected or unexpected behavior)
ii. impacts how others think and feel,
iii. which impacts how they treat the person who did the behavior,
iv. which usually impacts how the person who did the behavior feels about others and himself or herself.
c. Encourage individuals to notice that they have clear expectations for others and that expectations flow both ways. Our students routinely think that others have high expectations toward them, not realizing that they have high expectations of others too! Teach that the behaviors they notice in their peers likely has an impact on how they think and feel. Help them to become aware of their strong expectations for others and appreciate that this is a good thing. Understanding expectations helps all of us figure out our role in social situations, even if we are not actively interacting with the people around us.
d. Make time for processing and integration. Being able to notice and think about observations is a big step in gaining social competencies. This learning can take time and requires lots of practice. Don’t stop there! Actively encourage and stimulate discussions and processing about their observations. You can also use a variety of materials and situations to observe and discuss social interpretations (e.g., movies, YouTube clips, storybooks, playground experiences, etc.). Keep your eye on helping students form social concepts, rather than focusing attention on one specific skill to the exclusion of others that are undoubtedly connected.
e. Explore emotions. Create a foundation for understanding one’s own feelings prior to studying others’ emotions. Given that social interpretations end up impacting how people feel, we always study the social-emotional connection.
4. Observe then Do. Teach that observation is a very normal and expected part of the social experience always (not just in treatment) and that we do this to help us figure out what to do. Socially competent people are strong social observers. Consider the following:
a. Teach observation combined with thinking about the situation and the people in the situation. This drives what we do.
b. Encourage students to identify situations where they are most likely able to observe and then adapt their behavior effectively (produce mostly expected behavior). Set them up for success.
c. If and when students are able, encourage students to identify situations where they are using some unexpected behaviors. Note: Up until this point you have been engaging students in learning about the social world and their expectations for others without asking them to do anything differently. Now you begin to work with individuals on recognizing and/or setting their own treatment goals.
5. Investigate Motivation for Social Learning. Motivation is a building block for social engagement. Start listening closely to your students to find things they would be possibly willing to work on based on their own social desires. Not everyone wants to focus on having conversations or making friends in the initial stages of treatment. Keep in mind, social skills are needed any time we are in the presence of others, but making a friend is not a prerequisite to working on other parts of social learning and social skills. Students may express they want to learn to be friendly, approachable, help others, be a good member of the group, or they may want others to stop having weird or uncomfortable thoughts. Be open to their desires and personal goals. As you find small areas of the social world that your students are willing to work on, you are naturally increasing their social motivation. Most of us like to feel we are competent, so work on building understanding that social learning is like everything else in school: it takes time, practice, and patience. The learning may be slower than in some of their other academic subjects, but working toward new social competencies applies to all areas of their lives. When using social lessons, discussion, curricula, or games, help to connect to the individual’s life and real world. And, make sure there is balance in discussing their social abilities as well as challenges. Be conscious of shining a spotlight on areas where your students are doing well and continue to show them you are aware of their many talents. The treatment setting should not be all about challenges. Nothing stalls motivation quicker than therapeutic nagging. Not to mention that it is punitive and humiliating.
6. Practice Social Behavior and Problem Solve in the Safety of the Treatment Room.
The treatment room is about creating a safe zone to explore social thinking and social learning and allow students a place to practice and problem solve the production of social skills.
a. Avoid assuming that students who state they “know what to do” actually do. Many students say it, but they have never demonstrated their abilities, even in a highly structured, protected zone. Have students practice the most basic of skills, even if you think they are “too bright” to need such practice. While practicing in the treatment room, have them imagine they are using the social behaviors in the classroom, lunchroom, playground, home, etc. Have them talk about who and where and when they might be able to use both their understanding and production of social skills.
b. Avoid teaching students to simply memorize social behaviors and produce them any time they are with others! For example, let’s say a student wants to join one or more peers at lunch rather than sit alone each day. You will need to teach a series of concepts and strategies through lessons over a period of time to help that student think through and act upon the following:
- What type of students do you enjoy being with?
- Think with your eyes to figure what group of students you want to sit with at lunch.
- What do you know about the students you want to join?
- Who has seemed friendly to you in the past?
- Once you pick a student(s) you want to join at lunch, how do you approach them?
- What will you say to them?
- How does your face and body language show that you want to join them (friendly look)?
- How can you determine if they want you to join them? If they don’t, what is your next move?
Provide plenty of opportunity for practice of each social behavior tied to the above desired outcome, and embed practice in role playing and video modelling.
c. Provide language-based feedback utilizing the same Social Thinking Vocabulary and concepts across environments. When the student is able to socially adapt his or her behavior based on the situation with some degree of success in the treatment room, provide constructive video feedback and encourage honest constructive peer feedback from people in the group. In the real world, the perception of social competency is a judgment from others, so it is good practice to get constructive feedback not only from adults, but also from peers in the group. Important note: Please use careful judgment and do not allow peers to give feedback if they have a tendency to spin negative or try to make others feel bad. Peer feedback is meant to support and guide, not demean. This means you may need to help students learn how to give feedback as well as learn to refine their judgments about their own social behaviors. Are students aware when they are doing pretty well or when making more obvious errors? Self-reflection and self-evaluation is a critical piece of social learning.
In general, avoid having a student focus on learning an isolated social concept, practice it a couple of times, and then send the student off to “just do it.” That is most often a recipe for disaster.
7. Build a Coaching/Support Team Outside of the Treatment Room. Teach parents, professionals and peer mentors the same frameworks, strategies and vocabulary to coach in teachable moments at home, in class, on the playground, when hanging out, etc. Hearing and using similar language across different contexts helps point out the continuity of social information and related social skills at different times and places.
8. Branch Out! Once students have made steady and ongoing progress compared to their personal starting point, move your sessions to other situations and people. Walk the halls, talk to others, encourage practice with familiar peers or teachers. Continue to work on thinking and talking about how to engage with the same level of self-monitoring and social behavioral adaptation during these non-treatment times (classroom, home, community, etc.). Have students make a plan for when, where and possibly with whom they are going to push themselves to use this level of social thinking and related social skills in unstructured, non-treatment based situations. Remember, everything we do socially is interpreted and responded to by others. Avoid giving rewards for simply doing skills. As students hone abilities to understand and use different concepts and skills (e.g., joining other students at lunch), help them to understand the link to other settings (e.g., joining a peer-based work group, or approaching a group of people you don’t know well).
9. Celebrate Small Steps of Success! Social learning takes time and we all like to feel we are making progress and moving forward. Celebrate the smallest of gains both inside and outside the treatment room! Have your students talk about what they are proud of rather than simply telling them you are proud of them (that’s nice too, but not enough!). If they can encourage and congratulate themselves, they are developing a stronger inner coach!
Learning concepts and strategies related to social thinking and the production of related social skills for better social competency IS part of the generalization process. We need to focus on teaching our students and clients to LEARN key social information in the beginning, middle, and end of the treatment journey.
Note: If you are new to Social Thinking, please see many free articles on our website that offer an introduction to our methodology, the core research upon which it is based, and the conceptual and treatment frameworks, strategies, and motivational/developmental tools that it includes.