Note: The Incredible Flexible You Volume 1 has been renamed We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers due to the mass confusion caused by the use of the term "flexible" in the names of many of our products. There is no content change in Volume 1, only a name change. We thank you for being "flexible" about this change! We Thinkers! Volume 2 Social Explorers is now available and was released after this article was written.
If current trends continue, universal preschool is the next big educational initiative coming our way. And, we are thrilled about it. Study after study demonstrates the benefits of starting education early, and that education is the best way to close the income gap for disadvantaged students. It’s also the best way to provide those rich and supported collaborative learning and play experiences our children with social cognitive learning challenges need to help them close the social gap.
Social learning is a national issue; it is not only a special education issue. Many children, not just those with a diagnosis, are arriving at preschool and kindergarten without the requisite skills, social knowledge and self-regulatory control to exist in the classroom and learn in a group. We need to reorient our thinking, and shift the paradigm to incorporate Social Thinking instruction in regular education classes.
When working at the preschool level we need to avoid the assumption that children naturally learn self-regulation skills and can function as part of a group once they enter a classroom environment. In fact, alarming data about preschool activity is quite eye-opening:
- Three- and four-year-olds are more likely than teenagers to get expelled from school.
- A 2005 Yale study found that in state pre-school programs across the nation, over 10% of teachers had expelled a student in the previous two months.
- Boys were over four times more likely to be expelled than girls.
- Nearly 5,000 preschoolers were suspended once, and more than 2,500 were suspended more than once.
(Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2012))
Since the release in March 2013 of Volume 1 of our new Social Thinking curriculum for early learners, We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers we have received accolades from parents and professionals alike for the practical and deep teachings we have developed for children ages 4-7. Most recently We Thinkers! Volume 1 received its second award, a Silver 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award. Designed as a multi-sensory, social-emotional learning package for children who can learn through language, We Thinkers! Volume 1 teaches children about their thoughts and feelings, being part of a group both physically (their bodies) and mentally (their brains), thinking about others, and their own self-regulation. The package includes five colorful storybooks within which children learn a common and more child-friendly language to talk about socially abstract ideas, a curriculum book with lessons and activities aligned with each storybook plus a full research review on early social development, a charming tote bag, and a music CD. Grammy® winning artist Tom Chapin sings 12 lively songs that pair with each social concept introduced and add another dimension to learning.
We Thinkers! Volume 1 comes at a time when more and more children will be in preschool and early learning settings and can benefit from this fun and motivating way to learn about their social selves and their social thinking. The response to the curriculum has been huge; we regularly receive comments, suggestions, creative ideas for using it, and questions about the concepts and curriculum. To address some of the more frequent questions we’re hearing by email and at our We Thinkers! courses (Teaching Social Thinking to Early Learners through Stories and Play-Based Activities and What Does Play Have to Do with Classroom Learning? Exploring Social Executive Functioning and Social Emotional Learning for Early Learners), we've put together this Q&A about the package. We hope it helps you better understand how to use it most effectively in your work.
1. How is the We Thinkers! curriculum different from social emotional curricula already on the market?
Our Social Thinking curriculum is different in two ways:
- Adults struggle to teach social emotional and social learning concepts to children in large part because they don’t remember learning these concepts themselves. For most of us, social learning came as naturally as learning to walk. However, today’s children are not getting the same access to shared collaborative imaginative play and free play creativity away from technology, and more children are born to social learning disabilities (e.g., children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, etc.). All materials developed by Social Thinking provide a structured scope and sequence that guides adults in understanding and then teaching complex layered social concepts in a step-by-step manner.
- We avoid assumptions about our students’ social knowledge and play skills and begin our lessons in a very basic place—one often overlooked in other curricula–by teaching students how to recognize they are learning as part of a group with other people who also have thoughts and feelings. We then provide basic social teachings by defining a unique set of evidence-based vocabulary words. This helps adults move away from using abstract concepts with children who have less socially abstract thinking skills. Instead of teaching students to “cooperate”, “be nice” and “play well”, we teach them how to talk about the many factors that contribute to these larger processes. Our Social Thinking vocabulary concepts are easy to learn and easy to apply in teachable moments across the school, home and community.
2. If we use this curriculum in our classroom, what should be the overall goal of our teaching?
The overall goal is to introduce the concepts and ideas of Social Thinking in a fun and interactive way while teaching early learners the important skills they need to develop and maintain relationships, engage in collaborative play experiences, and learn as part of a group. In introducing this curriculum to a pilot pre-K to kindergarten program in Massachusetts, the teachers there felt it would be a great foundation to start the year in all of their classrooms, both regular education and inclusion. They felt the concepts and activities were a perfect way to bring the students together and start the process of working and learning in the classroom at large. The lessons in our curriculum can be applied in an inclusion-based setting with all students and can be used more intensively in specialized teaching/play settings.
3. How is this curriculum aligned with social emotional standards for birth to 5 years old?
This curriculum places important emphasis on self regulation and social-emotional learning as the underlying basis for the core knowledge each child needs to be successful at home, in school, in the community and/or any other place they want or need to be! In addition, stressing important abilities such as sharing an imagination and following the group plan helps our children stay connected and become better play partners. This is very important because children educated in play-based environments and who spend more time in cooperative play experiences have the added advantage of being stronger problem solvers, more flexible thinkers, and better at collaboration.
4. Does this curriculum have anything to do with the Common Core State Standards?
Researchers have shown that engagement in pretend play is significantly (and positively) correlated with text comprehension and meta-linguistic awareness. Many of the fundamental abilities early learners are required to have to meet Common Core and State Standards can be found in this curriculum. These include:
- Actively engaging in play as a means of exploration and learning
- Actively engaging in problem solving
- Recognizing him/herself as a unique individual having his/her own abilities, feeling and interests
- Regulating his/her responses to the needs and feelings of others and to the requirements of different environments and events
- Developing positive relationships with peers
- Demonstrating pro-social problem solving skills in social interactions
- Demonstrating a motivation to communicate
- Demonstrating an understanding of what he/she observes
- Demonstrating his/her ability to express ideas using a variety of methods
- With prompting and support, making connections between self, text and the surrounding world
- With guidance and support, participating in collaborative conversation with diverse partners on a range of age level topics and texts with peers and adults in small and large groups
5. Why do you suggest this curriculum is not appropriate for all kids with ASD? They all have social issues - why can’t we use this with all of them?
We Thinkers! is a language-based approach. Therefore we want to use it with children with average to strong verbal language and learning abilities. The approach is best utilized for students who are not still struggling to learn language but are already capable of using language to learn.
In preschool and the early learning years (ages 4-7) some of our children don’t yet have joint attention, the ability to stay connected, and/or the language ability to support them in this process. The We Thinkers! curriculum is not for them. For those students, we recommend using some other wonderful programs like FloortimeTM, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and Hanen Programs® to establish the underpinnings of communication and joint attention. For students who are still nonverbal or very low-verbal and who have comprehension and cognitive learning challenges, we recommend a more behavioral approach.
6. I have a very verbal student diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in my first grade class. He clearly is smart but he doesn’t seem to understand how to work by himself or as part of a group. He also doesn’t like to play with the other kids. If I use this curriculum with the whole class, will he benefit or do I need to do some special lessons with him to help him better understand the concepts?
While using the curriculum with the whole class will likely benefit other students, this particular student will need some additional individual or small group work on the concepts as he seems to have difficulty working as part of a group and will need increased and repeated exposure to the concepts before he is ready to learn in the larger sphere. That said, we believe it is important to make the concepts and the vocabulary part of the classroom culture to provide a common language and offer a common message across environments.
It is so important that our students hear the language in context and experience natural consequences to deepen and extend the learning. In a first grade class in Minnesota a teacher is using these concepts with her whole class, while a student on an IEP is getting further instruction in a small group. This will benefit the identified student, the whole class and those learners whose challenges may rise to the level of a 504 plan or those with mild issues who do not warrant any accommodations.
Not all children are able to access play in similar ways. In our work we have found there are many factors such as social attention, object use, and engagement with peers that impact a child's ability to play. In the next volume of the curriculum, we will be addressing this in our brand new Social Thinking GPS™ (Group Play and Problem-Solving Scale). We have delineated five distinct levels of play and differentiated teaching strategies that coordinate with each of these different levels. Our Social Thinking GPS scale and related checklist will guide parents and professionals to better observe how their students move from exploring the Social Thinking Vocabulary concepts to their ability to use these concepts in complex ways with others, which we refer to as “Shared Collaborative Imaginative Play.“
7. I have a class of students with ASD. Some are nonverbal, some are minimally verbal – very few have a lot of language. My principal has suggested that my students be included with the kindergarten class when all the students in the class are using the We Thinkers! Volume 1 curriculum. I reviewed the curriculum and I am worried my students won’t understand it. My administrator thinks that if they need to do social learning this is something they can do with all kids. Can you give me the language to help explain to my administrator why including my students during this time will not be helpful? Can you also suggest other ways to help my students learn social information because your curriculum looks too advanced for them? Most of them don’t even have joint attention!
As we noted above, this curriculum is designed for use with students who already have good language abilities and joint attention. It is not suitable for students who are not learning through language (and we distinguish here children who are nonverbal or low verbal with significant comprehension difficulties from those with speech disorders and age level comprehension) and those who do not yet have joint attention and other important interactive precursors. These children are NOT good candidates for this curriculum. Your administrator may assume that social learning happens in children by watching others or that the same innate social processing abilities exist in all students. This is simply not true and some students come into this world with brain-based differences that prevent them from learning by being around others with more advanced abilities. These children need more structured teaching of social concepts in a more concrete teaching context.
There may come a time in the future when your students’ language and cognitive abilities will support them in this learning, but while they are still struggling to learn language and stay connected, this is not the right curriculum for them. See question 5 for suggestions of other tools and learning programs that would be more appropriate.
8. Many of the parents I work with ask for ideas and concepts they can work on at home with their children. Does the curriculum provide any information about carry over at home?
As children learn new Social Thinking vocabulary, it’s very helpful for parents and family members to begin using the same vocabulary at home. The curriculum includes a general family letter that introduces Social Thinking and separate family letters that align with each lesson. These include some suggested activities that will give children and families additional opportunities to explore the concepts outside the classroom. In addition, the music CD is a wonderful tool to continue the learning in the car and at home as families go about their day. We encourage educators and therapists to share the letters with families and encourage them to use the music and complete the activities at home. The storybook set is also sold separately so parents can carry over the learning from school to home. Parents who home school or who enjoy learning about our deeper teachings are also welcome to read and use our full curriculum. All materials developed by Social Thinking can be used by parents and professionals alike!
9. Is this curriculum appropriate for other settings besides a school system?
Yes! The curriculum was piloted in a private clinic in California, a school system in Minnesota and a busy, diverse publicly-funded urban clinic in New York City. It was utilized in a general education classroom, as well as individual and small group sessions. Home schooling parents will also find they can teach these concepts as part of their children’s home-based experience and then use the concepts during teachable moments in their home and out in the community.
10. Is a whole hour needed to present a lesson?
Definitely not; the curriculum is designed to be very, very flexible. It can be used in increments as small as 20 minutes, such as those available in school settings, and in longer hour-long segments more common in private clinics and classrooms. It is up to the individual teacher or therapist to decide the best model for his or her population and the attention spans of the group or individual child.
11. When will Volume 2 of the curriculum be available?
We Thinkers! Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers is now available! Volume 2 builds upon Volume 1 and guide adults and children through exploring more complex concepts related to social emotional regulation (socially-based executive functioning). The We Thinkers! Volume 2 includes five storybooks, an expanded curriculum, and an additional book that introduces our groundbreaking GPS (Group Collaboration, Play and Problem Solving) Play Scale, observation/scoring tools and related differentiated play activities.