Updated: March, 2018
It’s always been curious to me that people think children with serious social learning challenges will improve their social skills if they are provided with plenty of opportunities to watch typically developing kids use appropriate social skills. With just a little study of normal development, one finds that children with typically developing social minds spend a lot of time observing their peers before they even begin to attempt to interact with them in their late toddler/early preschool years. Students with social learning challenges are born with weak social observational skills to begin with. Thinking they will observe their mainstream peers to learn social behavior is too much of a leap.
Over the years as our thinking about how to teach social competencies has evolved, our focus has shifted to where it is today: teaching our students to be better social observers to help them become better social participants in activities and in their own relationship development. It has not been our experience that by instructing students to simply watch their peers more closely they will actively figure out how to socialize effectively. Social learning for those with social learning challenges is a bit more complicated than that! It requires a larger toolbox of detective skills than just to “watch.”
All of our clients/students with social learning challenges have limitations in their ability to socially observe situations and figure out how to adapt their behavior effectively. Some may be very, very weak. Others (often “higher functioning” students) may think they are observing others when actually they are overwhelmed with the social complexity of the interaction. They may be looking at the people they are sharing space or interacting with, but they are not seeing or hearing the little nuances that keep most social relationships moving forward.
This is one of the many reasons we developed Social Thinking Vocabulary and social concepts such as think with your eyes, body in the group/out of the group, being a Just Me or a Thinking About You person, and others (see Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students.) By using specific language-based concepts we can help our students learn to be better observers of the subtle physical, language, and thought-based behaviors that we consider simultaneously to produce what are considered “good social skills.”
As we taught the Social Thinking Vocabulary to mainstream teachers so they could help specific students in their classes who needed more concrete help, an interesting thing developed. These mainstream teachers found that this same language was useful with all of their students – providing explicit instruction that helped everyone. Yet, as may be expected, learning occurred at very different rates. Our students with social learning challenges needed more time and more guidance to learn these social concepts than did their typically developing peers. Our students also needed to be encouraged to use their social competency skills across a wide range of situations, from school to home, from the playground to after-school activities, from the classroom to community outings, etc. Social learning challenges are ever present and exist wherever a student finds himself. Therefore, an important goal of treatment is to help our students carry their social learning to new situations or to use them consistently in familiar situations.
How does this discussion tie in to the distinction between mentors and modeling?
Modeling is artificially setting up a social scenario to demonstrate appropriate behavior. The activity assumes students will be able to understand and socially process what they are seeing. Mentoring is an in-the-moment social process that mimics more of the qualities of a real-life social encounter and prompts social thinking as well as giving attention to the social behavior. Why is this important? For our school-age students, adults are usually situation-based and our students move across situations. Parents are home, teachers are at school, the choir leader is part of the after-school program, yet the student moves among them all. For this reason it makes good sense that the best teachers for our students are select peers who have helpful attitudes and a desire to watch their peers succeed. We want to identify and guide these socially successful and helpful students to become peer mentors to our students with social learning challenges.
In the late 1980s, Pamela Wolfberg, PhD., launched Integrated Play Groups®, a peer-mediated intervention model in which she paired children with social learning challenges (novice players) with typical peers (expert players) to promote socialization, communication, play, and imagination. Learn more at www.autisminstitute.com. Research has demonstrated her model to be helpful and effective for both the challenged child and neurotypical peers (National Autism Center, 2009; Disalvo & Oswald, 2002; Lovannone, Dunlap, Huber & Kincaid, 2003). As inclusion and mainstreaming have taken hold for students across school campuses, we have a choice. We can stand by and let students with social challenges feel more excluded by being left out of the core activities of their peer groups, or we can seek to develop mentor programs and encourage empathetic peers (i.e., expert players) to guide these students through the social landscape. Giving these empathetic peers the tools and knowledge they need is vital, and a perfect way to help guide them is through using the same Social Thinking Vocabulary concepts the mainstream teacher may be using with all students on campus.
When encouraging peers to be mentors we not only give them a constructive role in helping their peers with social learning challenges, but we also help build empathy and support as a culture within the classroom and on campus. By teaching peers the Social Thinking Vocabulary concepts, students can also help themselves as all students traverse from situation to situation across a school day. Ruby Hsu, who presents at our Social Thinking Providers Conferences, reports she taught these concepts to all students in her fourth- and fifth-grade class and the entire class benefitted. They became better at conflict resolution with typically developing peers, and were able to provide more explicit instruction to their peer with social challenges.
This win-win use of Social Thinking lessons, where students become natural social mentors to their peers, needs to be further explored and researched. As with many things related to the teaching of Social Thinking, it is also common sense. The next step will be to encourage peer mentors to become “upstanders” and take a united stand against students they observe attempting to bully one of their peers. Dr. Frank Sacco talks about the bully-victim-bystander power dynamics in his book Why School Anti-Bullying Programs Don't Work. Dr. Sacco's work makes us think about the many ways we can help peers take a more proactive role to build a positive culture and community for all our students.
For those of you who are just getting started with our Social Thinking materials or are introducing them to counselors or volunteer leaders in camps, churches, or community groups, we have several resources that can help explain more about this language and vocabulary: