Social Thinking Articles

Social Competency Model: Attend-Interpret-Problem Solve-Then Social Skills

Michelle Garcia Winner, MA CCC-SLP, Founder of Social Thinking

Social Competency

What does it mean to teach “social skills”? Ask 10 people and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. One of the interesting things about being in a field that teaches social skills is that despite how often we all use this term, there doesn’t exist a collective agreement as to how to define it. And the people who most often use the term don’t typically establish a concrete description as to what social skills are prior to or as part of their teaching process. Who are these people? I call them “interventionists” – anyone intervening to help teach social skills, including parents, family members, teachers, administrators, occupational therapists, speech language pathologist, behaviorists, cognitive behaviorists, therapists, psychologists, social workers, etc. A lot of people are teaching social skills!

It’s for this very reason that one of the first things I do when talking to people about our social selves and our social abilities is to encourage them to define what they think are key aspects of “social skills.” Most people’s definitions include some or all of the following abilities:

  • Sharing ideas, feelings, activities
  • Cooperation
  • Showing interest in others
  • Engaging in eye-contact
  • Establishing common ground
  • Give and take
  • Having a conversation

Notice that people mostly tend to define what they observe. As a result, when figuring out treatment for a child or student, they then try to teach the person who needs to “learn social skills” the behaviors tied to these and other abilities they expect the individual to demonstrate.


For instance, “having a conversation with a peer” is a primary goal of many treatment programs. So adults encourage and help students do this by putting two or more students together and expecting they can make it happen, with more or less prompting from the adult. What doesn’t happen very often is teaching students about all the different things that go on related to having a conversation that are integral to them being successful. These include things like having the student learn about how people tend to think socially by considering others’ points of view, experiences, or intentions, exploring with the student different language-based devices to use in a conversation (e.g. asking a question, adding a comment), or helping a student understand that as a partner in a conversation you notice and then interpret your conversational partner’s nonverbal cues, the behavior of others who may be observing the interaction, as well as the nonverbal cues you may be sending to your partner. All these factors are part of “having a conversation” and many of them are helpful in other aspects of our daily existence such as co-existing with others, working in a group, playing or hanging out with others.


When teaching “social skills” as the means to alter the social behaviors a person is producing, interventionists often end up writing treatment goals that sound good on paper but that are impossible for the child (or interventionist) to meet within the 12-month period typically specified for the goal. Case in point: Macy, an eight-year-old girl with autism. Macy’s language development is actively emerging but is still quite disordered and she continues to use some echolalia. She demonstrates a limited range of reasons for engaging in social communication, primarily communicating to seek a desired object or food. Macy struggles to actively attend to peers and adults in structured and unstructured situations and is quite limited in her social play and ability to interact with same age peers. She plays at the level of “parallel play,” more typical of a child in preschool.


Yet, one of Macy’s primary social skills goals seems to assume a much higher level of current social functioning. The goal reads as: “Child will initiate and maintain a conversation with another peer for 2 exchanges with 80% accuracy in 3 out of 4 trials, when given minimal prompting as measured by data.” From our point of view, this goal is not realistic for Macy to achieve in the near future (12 months) and probably not in the immediate distant future either (the coming few years). Macy simply does not have enough ability to interpret and respond to social information even at a very basic level. Social emotional learning progresses through stages of social awareness, interpretation and then responses. Typically developing children do not usually converse with each other until after they have achieved some level of complex play. Research demonstrates  that play encourages social awareness, perspective taking and problem solving, all of which facilitate the more complex face to face, reciprocal language-based interactions that are focused on sharing ideas, experiences, humor, etc. (Winner, Tarshis, Palmer & Hendrix, 2016).


The conversational goal written into Macy’s treatment plan is commonly included in school and clinic treatment plans of almost all students who attend social skill groups. Why?


Perhaps collectively most interventionists consider that having a conversation must be a basic social ability. After all, typical children seem to almost effortlessly slide into basic conversational turns with a partner without any direct teaching by the time they are about five years old, if not younger. Yet, let’s stop and consider that those same children had four to five years of actively attending to, interpreting and learning to use social problem solving skills with their peers prior to their nascent attempts at conversational language.


While it is possible for interventionists to provide Macy with a conversational script and reward her for asking questions and making comments from the script, this is not a conversation. To engage in a true conversation is to constantly be able to adapt what is discussed based on the novel information shared by the different participants in the interaction, in a manner that sustains a logical and coherent discussion. Macy is not yet close to having this skill set. In fact, it’s important to note that Macy is also struggling with interpretative aspects of the fourth grade curriculum because of her challenges with social attention and social interpretation on a broader scale.


If teaching students to develop conversational skills is not always a realistic goal for students when teaching them social skills, then what should we be doing to help students with social emotional learning challenges who have emerging language and social thinking?


Teach Social Competencies, Not Just Social Skills

For the past 21 years I have focused my career almost exclusively on figuring out the most effective way to engage individuals starting at age four and across their life span in a social learning process that will help them develop deeper social competencies and related social skills. It’s not just about conversation; it extends to our students’ social informative responses such as writing an effective report, letter, text or better interpreting a novel, movie, YouTube clip, etc.

My colleague Dr. Pamela Crooke and I have read peer-reviewed research articles and books related to cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, communication science, behaviorism, and executive functioning to better understand what it takes to live as a member of society. We’ve then considered this as it relates to individuals who demonstrate social learning and sensory challenges related to ASD, ADHD, Social Communication Disorder, Speech and Language Impaired, those who are gifted with learning disabilities, etc. and the added challenges they face.

We work collaboratively with a wide range of professionals, ask our teens and mature adult clients to describe their experiences and thinking, get input from family members as well as explore the nature of their questions and confusions. For decades now we have gathered information, torn it apart and put it back together, revisited old thoughts and evolved them into new thoughts, frameworks and strategies in an ongoing effort to develop and continually evolve our Social Thinking Methodology.

Curiously, we have found that assumptions can sink the ship of socially-based teaching and learning on two fronts. First, we need to avoid assumptions about what our clients understand about the social learning process. This has to happen before we begin teaching them to improve their social thinking and related social skills. We have also learned, through experience, that we all benefit from avoiding assumptions as to what fellow interventionists know about the social learning process that includes, but is not limited to, the production of social skills.

To that end, Pam and I have recently developed a visual tool to help interventionists better understand the difference between teaching social skills and teaching social competencies as one part of a larger palate of information to help individuals improve their own social competencies. Our tool is called The Social Thinking® Social Competency Model.

Our model uses an iceberg as an analogy. The visible part of an iceberg is what we see above the water. Yet the entire iceberg is much bigger than that, having a large foundation that goes far and wide into the depth of the sea.


Social Competency


This analogy lends itself nicely to explore our Social Competency Model (see following diagram). The top of the iceberg represents things we can see people do, such as their social skills, social academic and language-based behaviors. The bottom of the iceberg represents the knowledge, experience and development we hold, the collective information we draw upon, or notice in a real-time experience, and use to interpret and respond to social information that surrounds us.

Social Thinking defines that “good social skills” result from our ability to attend to and interpret what’s going on around us, think about how each of us wants to be considered by others in that specific context. Then we adapt what we say and/or do to try and encourage people to think and feel about us or what we are trying to convey in the manner we had hoped.


Social Competency


It’s important to note that our social skills and other social responses are not simply memorized and produced based on reinforcers related to specific behaviors. Instead, our social behaviors are the result of our social problem solving. Going back to our iceberg analogy, sea level is the line where a person’s response becomes observable and is the result of using social problem solving. Using our model this will now be indicated using an orange line. Above the line are visible responses, whether they are social skills, social academic and/or vocational in nature (e.g., writing a topic sentence) and/or expressed verbal or nonverbal language.

Problem solving is required to take the information a person has interpreted to figure out his or her response, which may be an action or non-action depending on the situation. The orange line is indicative of where the problem solving process occurs in this over-simplified model.

One can’t problem solve without having information to consider. That’s what goes on below the line; this is where the person actively acquires information. It includes remembering or thinking about things already learned, such as world knowledge or personal experiences, looking for information in the current situation, such as social context, language they may be hearing, nonverbal or gestural or environmental cues, the information they’re getting through their senses, and using their social thinking to consider their own and others’ thoughts and emotions. All these information-gathering opportunities provide their mind with information.

Yet, the information they collect will only guide their decision-making process if they can first make meaning of it. It’s a complex process to create meaning of everything we are noticing, hearing, or sensing. It involves calling up what we remember about how events may be linked, or how people have reacted previously in that situation. We have to use current observations combined with older knowledge we’ve gathered to infer, think flexibly and explore multiple options. These are just some of the many things we do cognitively to form meaning.

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, consider this: we can’t create ideas and make meaning of what’s going on around us in any given moment if we’re not able to attend to the information!

Think of attention as the fuel for our information gathering process. That means our social attention fuels our perception and thinking that helps us make meaning of socially-based information. Our folks with social learning challenges often have strong attention to detail and geometric or scientific patterns. However, this is a different form of attention than social attention. From our point of view, most, if not all individuals with social learning challenges struggle with social attention to help them find relevant information in a complex social landscape.

It is also important to note that social attention can be negatively impacted by inefficient sensory processing and anxieties, but those complications are not directly addressed in this model.

So we gather all this information through our social attention, and now we have to move through our “social iceberg” to interpret and make meaning, then problem solve (at our solid orange line) to figure out how we should adapt and respond to the information (what goes on above the orange line). If things don’t make sense in our social iceberg, then we never move to the problem solving level. This results in our producing social responses that are likely to be out of sync with related expectations, producing what we may call “unexpected” or “inappropriate” behaviors.

In short, individuals who can’t attend to and then make sense of the social information will struggle to figure out what to do or say, to produce expected social skills or other related socially-based responses. They lack the social competencies that allow them to create social responses that are in line with others’ expectations. This is what we are describing in our Social Competency Model.


How Does This Impact Our Treatment Planning?

Individuals with social learning challenges are not all alike in their social learning needs. As interventionists we need to be aware of the social thinking and perspective-taking abilities of our students or clients and use that as a starting point for treatment considerations.

Collaborating with my colleagues Dr. Pamela Crooke and Stephanie Madrigal, our team created the Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile. The Profile describes five different types of social learners based roughly on five levels of social attention and related aspects that involve developing deeper social competencies. The Profile can help you better understand your students’ starting levels for treatment.

The treatment plan needs to be written based on an individual’s ability to establish and maintain social attention at increasing levels of complexity across early childhood and beyond. We like to think of treatment as a fluid process that grows and evolves as our students learn and grow themselves in their social competencies. No matter where we are in working with our students, however, we seek to help them make meaning out of their observations, then problem solve and then produce varying social responses based on their own social goals.

At every step of the way we can introduce and use explicit socially-based teaching frameworks to help them in their journey. Within the Social Thinking Methodology these include Social Behavior Mapping, Four Steps of Perspective Taking, the Friendship Pyramid, etc. We also can teach strategies to help them grow and evolve in their social learning, such as think with your eyes, body in the group, ask a question, add a thought, brain in the group, read the group plan, etc.

Then, and only then, can we begin to teach them to create social behaviors to help them meet their own goals.

To summarize, social skills treatment programs for students with solid to strong language and academic learning abilities tend to primarily focus on students producing specific social skills. However, treatments aimed at social competencies teach within a social learning framework that begins at a more basic level. A social competency treatment pathway will therefore look like this (we admit this is overly simplistic but it’s a place to start):

  1. Social attention to situation and people
  2. Gather information to consider the social cues and connect to prior knowledge to make meaning of what’s going on (e.g. interpret)
  3. Problem solve how to respond based on one’s personal social goals
  4. Respond to information


The Social Thinking Social Competency Model

Here at Social Thinking we often say “language is the behavior of the mind.” It helps lead both the interventionist and the client to new levels of understanding about the social learning process.

As part of the Social Thinking Methodology we’ve created evidence-based conceptual teachings for interventionists (such as this article), we have treatment frameworks to use with select clients as well as interventionists (e.g., this visual tool - our Social Competency Model), and we also offer tools and strategies, which are often showcased through our Social Thinking Vocabulary (STV) some examples of which are provided above. Our STV are terms mostly created by Social Thinking that in and of themselves, foster a deeper teaching of the social learning process.

My colleagues and I have spent years trying to explain to interventionists that our social learning process requires more than only teaching eye-contact, auditory processing and social skills if the goal for our students is for them to be socially competent. The STV in general, and the terms that follow specifically, are used to better explain social competencies to the individuals with whom we work and are also incorporated into our Social Competency Model (SCM), as illustrated below.


  1. Think With Your Eyes. This core Social Thinking Vocabulary concept sits at the base of our SCM visual (see diagram that follows). One of the many things individuals need to do as part of the social process is to actively attend to social information. Social attention fuels their overall success in this process, yet many of our students struggle with social attention. As therapists we build social attention by teaching our students strategies to try and encourage their joint attention and related awareness of what’s happening in time and space around them. From there we teach our verbal students to “think with their eyes” and ears to gather information. This information gathering process is the first step in helping our students achieve their social goals.
  2. Social Input. To represent the foundational part of our SCM, Pam and I created the term “Social Input.” Social Input refers to all information gathered of any type (sensory, auditory, visual spatial, memories, prior learning) that contributes to our students’ ability to make meaning of what’s happening around them. Social Input is a very large part of the overall SCM, as it involves huge aspects of cognitive processing, memory, etc. In this diagram we have simplified what goes into Social Input, but consider this a vast landscape summarized as “thinking” or “cognition” or “private events”, depending on your field of study.
  3. Socially-Based Problem Solving. The line that divides Social Input and Social Output is what we describe as socially-based problem solving. Why not just call it problem solving? Here’s why. Many of our students have terrific scientific problem solving skills. Yet they struggle when it comes to noticing social information, taking it in, and then using all this Social Input to figure out how to problem solve a situation and figure out their social response. To exhibit expected or appropriate social responses, we have to consider the specific context of the situation, other people’s thoughts and feelings, social expectations and our clients’ own personal goals related to the response. Given that many of our students demonstrate a clear ability to scientifically problem solve and a clear weakness in socially-based problem solving, we refer to problem solving that involves considering others’ thoughts and feelings as socially-based problem solving.
  4. Social Output. Social Output is everything we do as a result of our socially-based problem solving. In our diagram it’s the area above the orange line and it has at least three distinct but overlapping parts:
    1. Social Skills: Any behavior exhibited by a person that other people perceive as “social skills”
    2. Language Use: Our ability to use language to convey our specific message in the manner we want it to be interpreted
    3. Social-Academic Responses*: Anything a student does as a response related to their goal to participate in the classroom and curriculum. Social academic responses can include but are not limited to:
      • Writing an essay, long term project, etc.
      • Peer-based team work (science lab, project based learning, etc.)
      • Anything the teacher requests to demonstrate the individual’s ability in reading comprehension of literature, motives in history, social studies, etc.
      • Explaining oneself or answering questions as part of a classroom discussion, etc.
        * When working with adults with social learning challenges who are no longer immersed in academia, this part of Social Output might be called Personal/Professional Competencies

 Social Competency



Developmental Considerations

People mature across their childhood and life. The SCM is developmental, meaning that what children attend to, make meaning of, how they engage in socially-based problem solving and their different outputs evolve as the brain matures. An interventionist should be highly aware of an individual’s developmental abilities, which are not always represented by their age. People with different types of learning challenges may process and respond to information in a manner that is more typical of expected behavior for a younger age group.

Back to Having a Conversation with a Peer

Now that we’ve presented this new model and you’ve gained an understanding of Social Input and Social Output, can you figure out where teaching students to have a conversation with a peer fits on our SCM visual? At the very top of Social Output, of course! A lot happens “below the line” before one of our students utters the first word of language in a conversation. It first requires a lot of social attention, meaning making, and problem solving, followed by being able to exhibit basic social skills and language to move toward such a goal. Successful conversation involves social processing, initiating with a peer and then ongoing attention and thinking to maintain conversational language! There is so much to work on with our students before they are ready for us to help them with Social Output. Our goal is to help them develop the basic social competencies in all areas that make up such a socially complex goal!

Social Competency  


Winner, Tarshis, Palmer, Hendrix (2016). We Thinkers! Volume 2 GPS: Group Collaboration, Play & Problem Solving. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

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