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What’s the point of the diagnostic process if it isn’t to better understand the needs of the individual social learner? Some would argue that assessments are solely to qualify students for special education services, while others might argue the point is to decide educational need. If the team suspects a social emotional learning challenge, then, traditionally, professionals administer standardized tests, score them, and then determine eligibility and/or diagnoses based on those scores. When it comes to understanding social abilities, most tests examine discrete aspects of expressive/receptive language, pragmatic language, reading fluency, comprehension, and written language. However, what standardized testing lacks is insight into one’s ability to weave together a constellation of social competencies in “real time” to achieve their own social goals. In fact, many students may score well or very well on standardized tests, implying real-time abilities similar to their peer group, but struggle in the moment they need to use these abilities.
Over the years, we have worked with so many students who were considered “behavior problems,” described as quirky, withdrawn, or were said to have no interest in making friends. But when spending time with these students, it became clear they were struggling with concepts tied to social cognition. Yet, when advocating to provide support through specialized services, the response was that the interpretation of the standardized test scores suggested the student exhibited “no educational need.” Some suggested that these students were so “bright” in other parts of academics that they must be choosing or refusing to learn in areas where they had socially based performance weaknesses. The bigger problem was that their behaviors were being described as “problem behaviors,” which led the team to develop behavior plans, suggesting if these students would “behave” their noted problems would be solved. This was frustrating, both personally and professionally. As professionals, how were we expected to help if the system wasn’t set up to adequately assess students’ actual needs? Personally, it was sad to see these students alone, disenfranchised, or misunderstood. This struggle to find better ways to truly understand the child or client’s social, emotional, and communicative abilities to guide what to do to help was the impetus for developing a series of Social Thinking-Informal Dynamic Assessment (ST-IDA) tasks, each designed to examine aspects of their social cognition in real-time situations.
The power of dynamic assessments to drive teaching social emotional competencies
Dynamic assessments have been used for decades and are a humane, less biased, and practical way to determine how people attend, interpret, and solve problems when given gradual support. The notion is that understanding the learner’s ability is not about a correct answer on a test. Rather, dynamic assessment tasks help to determine the learner’s current independent abilities, as well as their potential. The examiner starts by presenting a task and observes how the student approaches the task, what they easily do or solve and then provide different types of support to help the them better understand the situation and how to proceed within it on more difficult tasks. This helps the examiner determine where learning potential might be in that situation or task. Based on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1933), dynamic assessments are meant to value a person’s learning process and not just the product (scores).
Dynamic assessments simply make sense. The flexibility of how to observe and work with the individual being assessed during specific tasks honors the need to assess current abilities while also valuing potential abilities. There are several informal dynamic assessment tasks within the Social Thinking Methodology that were developed from years of working with families and clients, as well as reading about which areas of social development seemed to be most challenging. Case in point, most IEPs in the late 1990s and early 2000s (and likely to this day) had at least one “eye contact” goal. Given that eye contact was (and is) a commonly reported factor in the perception of social competence, it seemed logical to understand this more deeply. Was the struggle to use “eye contact” really about simply looking at another person (sensory?) or was it that the individual did not understand the purpose of using their eyes to gather information or to show intention? The thinking with eyes task became one of the early dynamic assessment tasks is the ST-IDA to better understand how individuals use their vision in social contexts to attend and interpret to what’s socially relevant at that moment in time.
Another task in the ST-IDA came from working with students who were considered “too bright” to qualify for services based on standardized testing. Again, it was this same group who were thought of as behavior problems because they were talking/blurting out in class, correcting peers/adults, monologuing, or commenting tangentially. They were also struggling to build and sustain peer-based relationships. There was a tendency for these students to hang out with teachers as they were delighted to share their passions with adults. Teachers would describe them as knowledgeable about certain areas, but these same students would show a lack of interest in others’ interests or thoughts/feelings commensurate with their peers.
This is another example of where the use of dynamic assessment tasks makes sense. One task, The Double Interview, uses a real-time interaction to better understand the how the social learner engages in discussions focused on their own interests versus how they handle situations where they are to query and respond to others’ interests. We have found that many students with average/above average scores on measures of vocabulary, reading fluency, and language needed lots of scaffolding during the latter part of The Double Interview task, far more than they needed assistance to share with a communicative partner their own interests. This task guided those on assessment or treatment teams to develop concrete understanding of abstract social pragmatic abilities required for relationship development, which also guided future treatment planning for that individual. Several other tasks largely designed for use with individuals 8 years old and older, each serving a different function when exploring a range of individuals’ abilities with regard to different types of social pragmatic functions, are described in the book, Thinking About You Thinking About Me, 2nd Edition. This early work led to the more recent development of the Group Collaboration, Play and Problem-Solving Scale (GPS) to guide assessment and observation of 4-7 year-olds with peers.
From assessment to more focused treatment
While we understand the benefits of standardized assessments, in that they provide a specific standardized measure to compare all individuals, exclusively using standardized tests to determine eligibility for services regarding social communicative/social pragmatic learning needs is problematic. Our ST-IDA tasks, alongside standardized assessments, help to better inform this process, while also guiding the treatment team to explore specific treatment needs. In the past and present, most treatment teams find it easier to acknowledge a student has social emotional learning challenges than understand how to provide educational learning opportunities to address those challenges. There is a tendency for both parents and professionals to describe individuals with blunt descriptions like, “poor eye-contact,” “lack of social skills,” or “disruptive.” While these broad categories may help focus on areas of concerns, they do little to guide the treatment team in the development of IEP goal writing and then related educational activities that are both meaningful and relevant. Through a vast review of research, working with clients, families, teachers, and administrators and directly working with individuals and observing the many ways different types of social learning challenges impacted not only relationships but also engagement within aspects of academics (e.g., written expression, reading comprehension, summaries, math word problems, etc.) led to the development of what has become known as the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition (social thinking). The intention of this model was to inform interventionists of some of the key aspects of social cognition that are often harder for students with social learning challenges.
The ILAUGH Model is an acronym to describe the synergistic aspects of the social mind that, when used together, help us to relate in socially dynamic situations. The ILAUGH Model also shows the connection between socially based concepts described in the research and how a plethora of them are embedded within academic standards worldwide.
Initiate social communication or unfamiliar action
Listen with eyes and brain (not just ears)
Abstract and infer social information
Understand perspectives of self and others
Get the big picture (gestalt/main idea)
Humor and Human Relatedness
We have found that social abilities for all of us (neurotypical or neurodiverse) can be more deeply explained through the ILAUGH lens. We have also discovered that we need to avoid assumptions about how one’s ability to engage in science-based thinking correlates with socially based thinking. And vice-versa.
How does the social world work, and how do we teach that?
Using language to think about, understand, and explain different concepts and ideas related to our social experiences is something we tend to take for granted because this is more intuitive for those with neurotypical brains. In the same way, we take for granted our own and others’ abilities to understand how the social world works to help us intuitively develop concepts and skills to navigate to regulate within it. Our ability to understand information and then demonstrate specific skill sets across a range of situations is at the heart of developing all competencies. For example, learning math concepts and how to solve math equations in a classroom is a segue to applying this competency in a store, home, gas station, bank, etc. The same is true for social emotional learning. One’s social abilities are not memorized. Instead, social learning is a process whereby we acquire an understanding of our own and others’ minds, understand people’s thoughts and feelings in context, while also understanding that there are larger expectations (social norms) for one another within each social situation. Learning how the social emotional world works is one of the many competencies that neurotypical children acquire with ease and can be far more difficult for those who are neurodiverse. For these individuals, the social learning process may occur in a different manner, at different rates, through different access points, and at different speeds. The treatment arm of the Social Thinking Methodology was created for use specifically with individuals who are able to consider metacognitively their own and others’ thinking, as well as use language to talk about thinking and emotions.
Our role, as interventionists (professionals and parents), is to avoid assumptions. Some students who are described as defiant should not be treated as behavior problems. They may struggle to understand the social world (through a neurotypical lens) and then respond in a manner that seems disruptive or rude. Often these challenges relate back to weaker social cognitive flexibility and executive functions when compared to their peers. They are not willfully choosing to disobey the dynamics of the classroom, trying to hurt others’ feeling, or breaking the rules.
Next steps: using Social Thinking Vocabulary and treatment frameworks
Our role is to build a better link between social learners’ current and potential abilities, help them identify their own social goals and desires, their strengths and struggles, to develop meaningful treatment pathways. To do this, we need to be clear but compassionate. We need to recognize different types of social emotional learners and give each person the opportunity to learn to the best of their abilities. We need to be explicit about the social norms (hidden rules), teach individuals how to discover these as they navigate through the social world as we help them understand the context. We also provide social learners with practice using their social thinking and social behavioral responses. Overall, we guide them to astutely socially attend, interpret, problem solve, and respond within specific social contexts. Let’s avoid blame. Let’s move away from the concept of “you must behave” and move toward helping individuals develop motivation to engage as needed for them to accomplish their own goals in a social emotional learning process that ultimately makes sense to them.
How do we begin? Through clear and descriptive language via the Social Thinking Vocabulary. This vocabulary is a way to explain abstract social concepts in a concrete manner. The vocabulary, developed with input from clients/families, also helps teach that we all have the power to think about our own and others’ thoughts and emotions. Other concepts addressed through the Social Thinking Vocabulary include:
- Thinking with our eyes teaches social learners about “eye contact” to help them understand that eyes help us to gather information, read others’ intentions, and gather clues to figure out hidden rules.
- Understanding thoughts and feelings defines the power of both our own and others’ thoughts and feelings.
- Noticing the group plan makes it clear that there are times where we get to follow our own plan and times to follow group-based activities.
- Being aware of body in the group and brain in the group guides students to think about whether their body position conveys to others that they are part of the group, while also keeping their thoughts focused on what is happening within the group.
As students begin to learn about the Social Thinking Vocabulary, they often use it to talk about their expectations for others (social awareness), as well as slowly developing their own self-awareness. Like all aspects of the Social Thinking Methodology, the Social Thinking Vocabulary has evolved and expanded over time.
While the explicit social vocabulary can be very helpful for all ages, including younger social learners, middle and high schoolers tend to have questions, confusions, and frustrations about specific complexities within the social world that are not explored using specific vocabulary. Questions from students led to our creation of treatment frameworks paired with the vocabulary to help address student confusion, such as: How do people enter groups? How do people make friends? Why can’t I just speak when I want to speak in a classroom? Why is my mom mad at me after I get upset about something not related to my mom? People are stressful, I’d rather ignore them, but I really want a friend! Treatment frameworks provide explanation through pairing visual teaching with language-based explanations, and have resulted in the creation of frameworks such as the 5 Steps of Being with Others, 4 Steps of Communication, the Social Emotional Chain Reaction, 6 Levels of the Friendship Pyramid, Boring Moments: We All Have Them!, and exploring how to understand and manage social anxiety with The Spiral of Failure and The Spiral of Success. All frameworks and vocabulary shared with the public were developed through our direct work with individuals with social learning differences, and their feedback led to the information we share and teach today.
Evidence as the foundation
While both neurodivergent and neurotypical students and their families have been instrumental in helping to shape and develop core vocabulary and treatment frameworks, evidence and research remain at the foundation. The ongoing evolution of our work over the past 25 years has led to more recent advancements in the methodology to include ways to guide learners on a social emotional learning journey. We realized our most successful experiences helping individuals are the result of first helping them explore how the social world works and then helping them find ways to navigate to regulate in it that are relevant specifically to their needs, including their desire to be part of a group. We have defined a way to explain what is meant by the term social competency through the Social Thinking-Social Competency Model. We have refined how we talk about teaching metacognitive thinking and strategies through the lens of developing social attention, social interpretation, and problem solving to decide how to socially respond as individuals travel on their journey of developing social and emotional competencies across their lifetimes. Over the past 25 years, the Social Thinking Methodology has been informed by and adopted throughout countries and cultures, and we will continue to modify articles, books, products, and trainings based on this learning.
Just like us, the Social Thinking Methodology grows and evolves
The Social Thinking Methodology is solutions oriented. And to that end, we continue to learn the significance of dynamic informal assessment tasks and the power of using conceptual models to understand and better define the complexities within social cognition. Informed by others’ research and our own development of treatment concepts and strategies, we continually develop and adapt our metacognitive approach to empower individuals to engage in learning social competencies, thereby helping them achieve their goals.
Haywood, H. C., & Lidz, C. S. (2007). Dynamic assessment in practice: Clinical and educational applications. Cambridge University Press.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1932-34/1997). “The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD (zona blizhaishego razvitiia, in original Russian), is best understood as the zone of the closest, most immediate psychological development of the children that includes a wide range of their emotional, cognitive, and volitional psychological processes.” The Problem of Age in The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Volume 5, 1998, pp. 187-205.