Social Thinking Articles


Social Thinking’s Social Competency Model: Attend-Interpret-Problem Solve-Respond

Michelle Garcia Winner, MA CCC-SLP, and Pamela Crooke, PhD CCC-SLP

Apr 13, 2017

Social Thinking’s Social Competency Model: Attend-Interpret-Problem Solve-Respond

Original article posted in spring 2016, updated with lots of new information in November 2017.
© 2019 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Download the visual handout of the Social Competency Model to use when discussing this concept in IEP meetings, with some of your older clients, or anywhere else you find helpful.

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 appears to be no collective agreement as to how to define it. How we define a concept influences the treatment we select to address the concept. It is for this very reason that, when talking to people about social abilities, one of the first things we do is encourage them to define key aspects of “social skills.” Most include some or all of the following abilities: 


  • Sharing ideas, feelings, activities
  • Cooperation
  • Showing interest in others
  • Engaging in eye-contact
  • Establishing common ground
  • Turning taking
  • Having a conversation
  • Staying on topic

Notice that people tend to define what they can observe. As a result, treatment tends to focus on teaching a defined social behavior that an individual is expected to demonstrate without learning to problem solve when and why to use this skill. 

The Social Thinking Methodology takes a more expansive view. We look to the research on social, language and cognitive development, social competencies as well as various other factors that impact how people feel and think about themselves and others. This vast and constantly evolving body of evidence influences the ongoing development of our methodology, which seeks to teach far beyond what is typically referred to as “social skills instruction.” 

More specifically, the focus of our work is developing interventions to help individuals who have solid to strong language skills and academic learning skills engage in deep social emotional learning so they can better interpret and form a variety of increasingly sophisticated social responses. Our methodology recognizes that language is the behavior of our thinking mind; what individuals tell us throughout their social learning process helps to inform all teaching. Having solid to strong cognitive and language skills is a game changer in how we address teaching. Through the use of language individuals think more deeply about their own and others’ thoughts and emotions in specific contexts, contributing to each person’s further development of their social competencies, which in turn propels treatment beyond focusing only on social skills. 

Our social cognition – all the things that go on in our brains that direct and influence us as social beings - is not simply a set of skills; rather it is a social learning process that drives problem-solving abilities to determine social behavioral responses, some of which include, but are not limited to, social skills

Within the Social Thinking Methodology we address many moving parts of the social emotional learning process, some of which are summarized below:

  1. Social attention: Establishing social attention to help individuals focus on relevant social cues that guide them toward social interpretation.
  2. Social problem solving: The ability to figure out people and the situation while considering our own and others’ thoughts, emotions, beliefs, intentions and knowledge; we do this to interpret and respond to the information in our mind and possibly to determine our social behavioral response(s).
  3. Social responses (e.g., social skills): In Social Thinking, we view this as an end result of deeper social interpretation and problem solving that leads us to figure out how to adapt our live* social behavior to encourage others to think and feel about us in the manner we had hoped. *Live response is defined as a social response produced in the company of others. This can be face-to-face or through a digital/device stream (email, phone, social media, texts, etc.). 
  4. Social Emotional Chain Reaction: Emotions are also part of the social problem-solving/social response process. What we express, verbally or nonverbally, impacts how others think and feel, which influences how they act or react to us, which impacts how we may feel and think about others and possibly ourselves. Social behavioral responses and our emotional interpretations and responses are co-dependent. 
  5. Social competencies involve the integration of social attention and social interpretation of self and others to socially problem solve to make decisions to guide the development of our social responses. 

The Big Picture: Social Competency has Many Key Elements

For over 20 years we have spent countless hours developing effective ways to engage individuals of all ages who have solid language and measured cognition—those with and without diagnostic labels—in a deep social emotional learning process to achieve their social goals, whatever they may be. 

What is a social goal? It can be as simple as not wanting to make people feel uncomfortable or as complicated as maintaining a friendship or engaging in more effective teamwork. While we routinely talk about academic goals, we rarely talk about an individual’s personal social goals, and we almost never discuss the process for learning social emotional concepts and skills to better meet our own socially-based goals. Social goals also overlap with academic goals! 

Whether seeking to engage in live communication or making meaning out of passages read in a book that involve people talking to or thinking about one another, a dynamic and synergistic social problem solving process is involved as social information is attended to and interpreted. This more complex process is best described as teaching social competencies, not only social skills. 

Curiously, we have found that assumptions can sink the ship of socially-based teaching and learning on multiple fronts: 

  1. Both parents and professionals need to avoid making assumptions about what an individual understands about the social world and how they interpret and respond to socially-based information.
  2. Many times we are told by a parent or a professional that the student “understands everything”—but can’t do the social skills. Yet, when we get to know the individual we find he or she has weak social attention and social interpretations, resulting in limited social problem solving and decision making, and ultimately limited social behavioral responses. 
  3. Most of us fluidly interpret and respond in the moment to aspects of the social world in which we are immersed, whether it involves live communication or making sense of people in context through reading novels, history, social studies, etc. These fluid social abilities are learned with little direct guidance, and because of this many family members and professionals assume the process of understanding our own and others’ social minds and our related social responses are less complicated and fairly easy to teach. Why else would social skills be described by members of government, leaders in education and media as “non-cognitive” or “soft skills”? There also appears to be a global presumption that if one can produce reasonable social skills, then he or she must also be able to teach others how to engage in producing culturally and developmentally sensitive social skills. In reality, no human service professional (e.g., educator, speech-language pathologist, counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.) is taught in their university program how to teach and “unpack the social experience” for individuals with weak social learning systems (e.g., ASD, ADHD, Social Communication Disorder, mental health, acquired head injury, trauma, etc.). 

Given these assumptions, social instruction is based on teaching social skills in isolation, where individuals are removed from complex social contexts and  social behaviors can be taught in isolation, memorized and easily measured for accuracy of their behavioral production. Most social skills programs rarely teach why the target social behavior (social skill) is important in the broader social context and how the social skill might be interpreted by others. 

In general, the lack of exploration into the origin and purpose of social skills has led to inaccurate social skills instruction, such as teaching students to “make eye-contact” and “maintain conversations.” People don’t simply make “eye contact” to relate. Instead, we use our eyes to understand the context, consider others’ perspectives and feelings which helps us problem solve our social responses. In a similar vein, we don’t typically “maintain topics” during spontaneous social conversation (unless involved in an agenda-based discussion). Instead, each conversational partner pays attention to the information stream from different participants and then makes a comment or asks a question about aspects of the shared information—without maintaining a singular topic. Here is an example of what we mean to help clarify. One person might kick off the interaction with others by explaining he had a bad day because his dog was sick in the middle of the night, traffic was backed up, he ended up late to the office, and then his computer crashed. These initial comments are in fact loaded with possible topics: bad day, sick pets, traffic, computer trouble, etc. Others in the group do not have to only make comments or ask questions about the topic of a bad day. Instead, another participant may be reminded of her sick pet, so she comments.  Another person may empathize with the man’s tough day and so adds that his rent has recently increased and he is struggling to make ends meet. Now the group is suddenly talking about the economy, cost of rent and rent controls until the next person mentions that he escapes from his worries by watching football. Another person says he’s more interested in watching tennis. And, on and on the conversation goes. Spontaneous conversations are made up of a series of related connected comments and questions that unfold naturally; they are not usually focused on maintaining a topic. Yet, professionals teaching social skills routinely write goals to “increase eye contact” and “maintain topics in social conversation” as though each was a distinct social skill that in and of itself could be taught in isolation of the other skills. 

To that end, we have recently developed a visual tool to help interventionists—parents, teachers, therapists, counselors, and others—better understand what it means to teach social competencies, not just social skills. 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. At its peak, it represents a variety of social responses (e.g., observable social skills, written expression, etc.). Yet the entire iceberg is much, much bigger than that, having a large base and structural foundation that extends much deeper. The section of the iceberg we don’t see represents the knowledge, experience and development we hold, the social cues we input about ourselves and others as we learn to interpret and respond through this social problem solving process, leading us toward self-regulation as part of our many possible social responses. 


Social competencies begin with attending to and then interpreting the social world, and then using this information to problem solve and make decisions from which we form our social response(s). Our social responses are the output of this process and are meant to encourage people to think and feel about us in the manner we had hoped. The four-step process defined through our Social Thinking Social Competency Model (see below) is also a four-step social emotional teaching pathway. This pathway is developmental and engages our own and others’ feelings and perspectives, while also helping us self-monitor how people think and feel about us as much as we think and feel about them. Our social responses are interpreted and judged by others; this may be our interactive partners, onlookers or audience, someone reading our written expression, watching us on YouTube, observing our posts on social media, or in face-to-face interactions. 

Our Social Competency Model is informed by the research and explained through social information processing theory (Crick and Dodge, 1994; Beauchamp et. al., 2010). 


A Deeper Explanation of this Four Step Process  

At the base of the model is social attention, the foundation of social processing. Think about it. If an individual is not attending (to what’s going on in SELF and OTHERS), then he or she is unable to begin the social problem solving process. Individuals with social learning challenges often have strong attention to details, such as geometric or scientific patterns, but this is different from social attention (Pierce, et al, 2011). From our point of view, most individuals with social learning challenges struggle with some level of attention to relevant social information. Interestingly many of us in today’s world, who should intuitively develop social competencies, are not because our attention is gobbled up by digital devices. Our “social muscles” simply lack the exercise and use needed to build competencies. If we are not attentive or aware of those around us, then we may not notice or capitalize on opportunities for foundational social learning. 

Our social attention fuels our social interpretation of people in context. People considered socially competent attend to and make meaning of the socially-based information around them. They do this whether in live social communication or through reading comprehension, watching some form of media, or even re-reading one’s own work to make sure it makes sense to potential readers. Making meaning of socially-based information requires us to consider the context, related knowledge of the world, personal memories about people or characters, their emotions and their experiences, personal memories of ourselves, our thoughts and emotions, our own/others’ past and possible future social behavioral responses in similar situations, spoken and nonverbal language (words, gestures, tone of voice, etc.), environmental cues, as well as any other information perceived through our senses (breathing patterns, smells, touch, etc.). Our social mind then filters information (inductive reasoning), notices patterns, and weaves this information together to form the base of our social problem solving. If engaging in live social communication each of us is also supposed to compare ourselves to others we are communicating with to consider how these people may be thinking about us or our possible social responses. 

Engaging in socially-based problem solving provides us with the tools to make decisions as to what to do next (the response). Social problem solving can help us make sense of characters and storyline in a novel, figure out how to explain ourselves in an essay, as well as provide a pathway for emotional and behavioral self-regulation. 

Problem solving and social decision-making involves interpreting social information from two or more points of view and/or feeling states (“SELF” and “OTHERS”) and exploring the intentions and interpretations of both self and others in context. While we almost always make sense to ourselves, this model illustrates the process whereby we consider whether the response we are considering would make just as much sense to others. Would it lead others to interpret our actions and thoughts in the manner we had hoped?  

The orange wavy line is indicative of where decisions are made to form social response(s). Sophisticated social responses, those navigated through our own internal thinking and language, are not simply memorized and produced based on reinforcement of specific behaviors, but instead are the end result of this social information processing process which we also call “thinking socially.” 

The fourth, and last, step in our model is the formation of social response(s) – the grand result of the process occurring before: attend—interpret—problem solve/make decisions. If our social attention is weak, we’re not able to gather relevant social information. If we have aspects of attention, but are overwhelmed by social information that does not make sense, then we are likely to struggle with anxiety (Herrington, 2017). A flood of anxiety can render our clients unable to effectively problem-solve to produce desired social responses. Instead they might react, which is in turn interpreted by others as impulsivity or dysregulation. The end result is a social behavioral response that is described as “unexpected” or “inappropriate” behaviors.

Weak social problem solving and decision making impacts not only social skills, but other social responses such as language use, group work, play and social academic interpretation and related responses. Social attention, interpretation, problem solving and decision making are required for reading comprehension of literature, written expression (writing a sentence, paragraph, essay to be read by the teacher or others), classroom participation, working in a peer group, and even playing on the playground or at home with peers. It’s so much more than social skills! 

The Social Competency Model, while in the shape of a triangle, is actually more like a continuous loop. The reality is that in real time, one person’s thinking, problem solving and responses are woven into another’s with no endpoint. We remember how another person’s actions or words made us feel, even after we forget the specific details of the language or social skills. We store and use our experiences and information for future interactions as we interpret and respond in similar situations or with the same people in the future.  Social memory is part of social interpretation and the problem-solving process. 

Being socially competent is a fluid, highly synergistic social process. Competency requires us to  shift in the moment of an interaction, demanding vigilant social attention, interpretation, problem solving and decision making to produce a desired social response. As interventionists fostering social competencies in our more sophisticated learners, we need to teach this  process with the understanding that progress is measured by examining where the individual started and their change as compared to themselves, not to the peer group. 

What About Those Who Struggle to Establish or Focus Social Attention? 

As we mentioned earlier, language is the behavior of the thinking mind. It helps lead both the interventionist and the client to new levels of understanding about the social learning process. It is also a powerful tool to guide social attention in students for whom it is not self-organizing by nature, allowing us to direct our students’ social attention to relevant social information in context.  The Social Thinking treatment methodology can be found mostly below the water line in the iceberg where we offer language-based frameworks, vocabulary, strategies and tools to direct and organize one’s attention, navigate and interpret the social learning decision-making process, learn about self and others, and propel individuals on their own path toward social competency. 

A client in his forties, who sold a company he helped develop to another major technology company, struggles to speak in groups and sought help from us “to learn what to say” and also to manage his social anxiety. At our initial meeting he appeared retreated, with weak social observational skills in the group context. After explaining the basics of our Social Competency Model, he was encouraged to first spend time socially attending to people in public by simply observing them. He was encouraged to observe The Four Steps of Communication, then think with his eyes and notice if their body is in the group, how people felt, if they used social greetings, if they showed interest in others around them (brain in the group), while inferring if they had a specific relationship with the people around them (e.g., spouse, parent, individual seeking to meet new people). Through language-based explanations using Social Thinking’s Vocabulary, frameworks and strategies (in bold above), he began to observe people in his community. One day in a treatment session he explained that he didn’t love doing this, as he was more of a solitary thinker, but then he explained what he learned from the process. 

“Observing the social interactions of others is very helpful to me as I formulate how to interact myself. As I learn not everyone walks with their head down avoiding eye contact all of the time. As I learn when and how to smile. As I study what makes a stranger seem approachable. In short, you have to know the rules of the game in order to play the game.”

Greg, 45 yr. old client and Technology Executive (Diagnosis of AS and Bipolar)

Consider how you are teaching social competencies. It’s so much more than teaching social skills. 

To learn more about the Social Competency Model and the Social Thinking Methodology, check out our free webinar The Social Competency Model: Teaching Social Competencies, More Than Social Skills.

Beauchamp, M. H., & Anderson, V. (2010). SOCIAL: an integrative framework for the development of social skills. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (1), 39.

Crick, N.R. & Dodge K.A. (1994). A review and reformulation of social information-processing mechanism in children's social adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115 (1), 74-101.

Herrington, J., Maddox, B., McVey, A., Franklin, M., Yerys, B., Miller, J. & Schultz, R. (2017).
Negative valence in autism spectrum disorder: The relationship between amygdala activity, selective attention, and co-occurring anxiety. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, Archival Report retrieved from

Pierce, K., Conant, D., Hazin, R., Desmond, J., & Stone. (2011). Preference for geometric patterns early in life as a risk factor for autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68 (1):101-9.

Schaller, U. & Rauh, R. (2017). What difference does it make? Implicit, explicit and complex
social cognition in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of  Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47 (4), 961–979.

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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