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The Learning is Slow but Deeper

Michelle Garcia Winner

The Learning Is Slow but Deeper

A practitioner recently asked me, "Why can my 5 and 6 year olds use the social thinking vocabulary, but still not change their behavior? Does this mean that they can't really learn to change?"


My response went something like this:


All behavior change that is deep and more permanent doesn't happen overnight (sometimes not until months or years later). Why? Complex behavior change is not based on a simple reinforcement system, but instead a combination of several forces, including thinking change. Just take a look at your ability to change your behavior in your own life. When you decide to make a behavior change (e.g., eat more healthy foods, drive slower, stop smoking), you first have to start by thinking about what you need to do and why you need to do. The more you can internally negotiate your need to do something differently, the better chance you have to externally modifying your behavior for the long haul. See our blog about the complexity of behavior change (Change Your Ways!).


We often expect a kid to show what they've learned quickly but may not appreciate how much time and thoughtful processing has to be spent teaching the concept of social thinking before we expect a student to effect self-regulation and change. This is not just for 5 and 6 year olds but also for teens and adults.


Kids on a neurotypical developmental path (normal developmental milestones) intuitively understand how to self-regulate in a group, to some extent, by 3 years old at the latest. But we are working with 5 -6 year olds who are struggling to learn this cognitively because they never got the information intuitively. Will a program that is taught cognitively create behavioral change quickly and efficiently? We don't think so - even with teens it is so slow! I say it in my workshops all the time: social learning is SLOW learning.


The problem is that people think, for example, that a tool like Superflex® can get a child to change behavior quickly because it can be really engaging for the child - and the teacher. We find this is not the case because kids need to have pretty good observational skills to benefit from the concepts in the Superflex series. Instead, we encourage people to start with You Are a Social Detective (kinder-5th grade) and then add Superflex later (3rd-5th grade+).


The sequence should be that students:

  • Observe how others affect their thinking,
  • Understand how they affect others' thinking,
  • Monitor their behavior with around others,
  • Control or regulate their behavior related to thinking throughout the classroom day.

Most adults are still very behaviorally based in their teaching approach even when they think they are teaching social thinking. They focus heavily on the behavioral outcome on a daily basis rather than on teaching the thinking. Any teacher who says, "I like the way you are behaving" is not actually teaching social thinking - they are teaching via social skills model to focus on the behavioral output rather than on helping a child to see how they are affecting other's thinking, and how others' behaviors affect their thinking.


This past year I worked with a very high-level 17 year old and he sat in my group for one year literally "thinking about thinking" before he could affect any of his own change. After a year he said, "I figured out that the things I was doing that I thought were helpful were actually being perceived as annoying. If I want to be really helpful, then I have to change my behaviors so that people think about me the way I want them to." That took a year for him to get to that point! He is an intellectually gifted young man who has characteristics of a NCSC (Nuance Challenged Social Communicator (See article related to Levels of the Social Mind). NCSCs, even as teens, don't always have great self- awareness. If they did, they would have probably figured things out and fixed the problem themselves. Now he is slowly working to self-monitor in the structure of a group and at home while we continue to discuss how his behavior impacts others. He also notices how others' behaviors impact his own thinking. He does this from the safety of the Social Thinking group. He is still not able to monitor and adapt his behavior in the complexity of the school environment, but he is working on getting there. This is a reality. Too often we want our students to make a significant, huge changes on IEP goals/objectives over the course of one year. In reality, the brain just doesn't work under those conditions!


If you are lucky enough to be able to teach our students in a classroom environment, emphasize teaching social awareness within a group. This means teaching how he or she is making someone think in a group and how other people feel based on those thoughts. Focus on when your students do things that are "expected" and not just when they do things that are "unexpected." This learning process can literally take years! I have followed some of the same kids and it can be up to 10 years later for concepts to truly sink in, which makes sense given the complexities of increasing curriculum demands, stages of development, related mental health challenges and the fact that they are not just "blank slates."


Finally, keep in mind that your students' social learning problems are deep and very real. They truly do not have the same social cognitive information as their peers. Our goal in Social Thinking is to help a child develop more awareness and better use of social skills when compared to where he or she started - not compared to everyone else in their peer or age group.  It's a slow process, but worth it!

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