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The social world is vast and filled with countless social landscapes; it becomes increasingly nuanced and complex as we age. From the time we are babies and throughout our lives we are observers and participants in what's happening around us and through different types of media. Each of us is expected to intuitively learn (to varying degrees) about the social world through movies, news, literature, history and during face-to-face and online experiences with people we know and even those we don’t.
We usually take one another’s social skills for granted because of the ease in which most of us learn to produce them—usually without direct instruction. In fact, we rarely notice each other’s socially based proficiencies or social competencies, but we are fairly quick to notice if someone’s social responses aren’t quite on point within a specific situation.
The typically developing brain learns over time to be a super-sensitive detector to what others are doing, saying, thinking, planning, and feeling in the social world. As children age, most also become adept at simultaneously trying to figure out how others may be thinking and feeling about them. Our mind is designed to actively process social information in order to figure out how the social world works and how each of us can work better within that world. We are expected to employ this social information thinking process whenever we interact or share space with others. Common scenarios include: throughout our work day when we share space with others, when working with a team, and when spending time with family or friends. We also do this to understand how and why someone is feeling and/or thinking a certain way, and to help us decipher meaning and the hidden social rules associated with any text we may be reading, people we are watching on screens, etc.
The Social-Academic Connection
Students are expected to use social information processing through the school day as they are surrounded by people, some of whom they like, some they may not like, etc. Students also use social information processing within their curriculum, although this comes as a surprise to many administrators, teachers and parents. While most think the social mind is relegated to the playground and after school activities, schools around the world depend on academic standards (educational benchmarks) to guide what they teach students of all ages. Many aspects of academic curriculum have standards/benchmarks with socially-based information processing embedded within them There are literally dozens of socially based academic standards across subjects such as language arts, social studies, history, civics, science labs, etc. Look at the standards/benchmarks used in your school district and notice that any description that encourages teachers to teach concepts such as point of view, expressing one’s self clearly, describing context, characters, traits, motivations, use of feeling words, making inferences, thinking critically about the relationships between people, encourages collaboration, team work, etc. To illustrate this, three academic standards are listed below. The bolded words demonstrate the ways in which we expect students to bring their knowledge of how the social world works into their academic learning.
Sample Academic Standards:
- Kindergarten Speaking and Listening: Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others and taking turns speaking about the topics and texts under discussion).
- 3rd Grade Reading Comprehension: Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
- 7th Grade Written Language: Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or character; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
The vast majority of people teaching social skills around the world take a narrower stance. They tend to focus on how an individual is behaving, playing, and interacting; they teach from the point of view that all social behavior occurs during social interactions. Many social skills teachers do not realize their students need to interpret social information prior to producing relevant and related social responses. Yet, our more sophisticated, highly verbal students need to be taught explicit information to help them understand how the social world works for them to better understand how to navigate to regulate in the social world. Think of these as "essential ingredients" for their deeper learning to generalize what they are learning across different landscapes in their social world and to handle expanding social expectations as they age.
The Social Thinking-Social Competency Model
The goal of the Social Thinking® Methodology is to take complicated social learning processes and teach them explicitly in a way that social learners of all ages—and interventionists—can understand.
Over the several decades since the Social Thinking Methodology was introduced in the mid-1990s, our work has been and continues to be, informed by many bodies of research and theory. These include, but are not limited to, social learning theory, social information processing, perspective taking, self-regulation, executive functioning, communication, autism, ADHD, sensory processing, reading comprehension, written expression, managing complex behavior, etc.
Ultimately, it became clear that the focus of our work is to teach students social competencies, which is much more than social skills or teaching students to “behave!” Through this process of integrating well-established research studies, including research on social information processing (Crick and Dodge, 1994; Beauchamp and Anderson, 2010) and thought into our methodology, we were inspired to develop the Social Thinking®–Social Competency Model.
What is the Social Thinking–Social Competency Model (SCM)?
The best way to think about this model is to imagine an iceberg. The swoop on the graphic represents a waterline. What we see above the waterline can be thought of as the social behaviors we notice in one another. We refer to these as social behaviors or social responses rather than “social skills.” The area below the waterline represents the building blocks of one’s social competencies (Image 1).
The SCM has four distinct parts, three of which fall below the waterline: Social Attention, Social Interpretation, and Problem Solving as illustrated in Image 2. Our social competencies continually evolve across our lifetime; they are described as “developmental.”
Social Attention requires an individual to attend to others in specific situations and contexts. Without social attention, the development of one’s social competencies is not possible. School administrators and teachers often take social attention for granted. However, without it, students would not be able to figure out what’s happening around them in the classroom or on the playground (the situation) to understand how to function as part of a group, etc. Because most children have spent years attending to and interpreting the social world prior to coming to school, their minds are prepped and ready for reading comprehension within written text. To that end, from their early school years students are expected to describe “the setting” of a novel or story book as well as naturally infer how the setting connects to what may be happening with the characters in that setting. When students enter educational programs with diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD or twice exceptional, teachers are confused how students who can score well on tests seem so “clueless” about what’s happening in the classroom and the socially-based information they are expected to comprehend in books, movies, etc. Social attention must happen for social interpretation to occur, but to date we have no reliable standardized assessment of social attention.
Social Interpretation is developmentally, socially, and neurologically miraculous. In typically developing children it occurs when an individual’s brain naturally focuses social attention to interpret socially based information. As mentioned previously, social interpretation is more than making inferences; it involves understanding self and others to make sense of people’s information, plans, intentions, even humor! To interpret well is to understand that each of us has unique thoughts and feelings while we share information, plans and goals. Research in early child development teaches us that from a very young age, children are considering what others might be thinking and feeling as part of what they are thinking and feeling (Tomasello, 2009). This is referred to as "self-otherness", "we thinking" or "we cooperation." This helps us interpret self and others as well as our self with others throughout all aspects of the social world as illustrated in Image 3. It also helps us cooperate and learn in groups, our families, and communities—including the classroom and school! Without the ability to compare one’s self to others, a person is limited in their ability to work with others as part of a group or do “what’s expected.”
Social interpretation involves many moving and shifting parts, all of which require simultaneous and synergistic interaction as illustrated in Image 4. These parts include, but are not limited to:
Aspects of Social Interpretation:
- World knowledge: incorporating information based on our learning from experience
- What is the situation? What’s going on at this particular moment?
- Who are the people? What is known about me and them; each person’s role, our social memory, etc.
- What are your and other people’s plans and intentions in this situation based on the people?
- What are you and other people thinking, wanting, etc? (basic perspective taking/theory of mind)
- What do you or other people need to consider in the moment of a social interaction or when sharing space? (advanced perspective taking/spontaneous theory of mind)
- How do you and other people feel in the situation? (basic emotions)
- How do you and other people feel in comparison to others? (self-conscious emotions)
Individuals who are actively developing their social interpretation skills are engaging in basic socially based critical thinking starting at about age three. Robust critical thinking is embedded in students' curricula (around the world) by the age of nine, if not sooner. Furthermore, we expect each person’s critical thinking and interpretive abilities to continue to progress throughout the rest of their lives!
Problem Solving—socially based problem solving to be precise--emerges from our ability to attend to and interpret relevant social information. When we problem solve, we consider many different variables (e.g., the potential problem, different points of view, our desired goal, the choices we have to accomplish the goal, the consequences of each of the choices, etc.).
One doesn’t need a large "problem" to engage in this process. Virtually every aspect of our social responses (which we refer to as Social Cognitive Self-Regulation) is determined through a problem-solving approach. Consider these examples:
- Should I say hi to that person?
- Should I raise my hand to speak in class?
- Is my topic sentence good enough?
- Is it okay for me to try to join that group?
- If I say _____ will I offend that person?
- What part of my story should I tell the group, what part can I leave out because it’s not important?
Ultimately, the problem-solving process encourages us to make decisions about which social responses will result in meeting our social goals, whether the goal is to relate well with another person, share space effectively without intruding or make others feel uncomfortable, or figure out what other people may be thinking or feeling, etc. Problem solving can help us work through a small dilemma or a major crisis; it provides the information from which we can decide which actions to take to navigate and regulate toward our optimal social response.
On our graphic of the SCM (Image 2), problem solving sits just below the waterline. It's positioned here because, while problem solving to make decisions is a cognitive process and is usually invisible to the observer, people's specific active social responses are perceived by others. This leads us above the waterline to social cognitive self-regulation as illustrated in Image 5.
Social Responses refer to not just one thing (behavior) but several things working in tandem. Together this is called social cognitive self-regulation.
In Image 5 you will also notice two other terms below the circle: self-evaluation and social evaluation. Social-evaluation refers to our constant awareness of the situation and the people. Social landscapes can change quickly and may require us to rapidly alter our social response. Self-evaluation refers to our self-awareness, problem solving and social response management based on how we feel we are doing in a specific situation. Social-evaluation and self-evaluation are ongoing processes that are at the heart of developing and managing our social competencies.
What is social cognitive self-regulation?
Socially based problem solving leads us to determine our social responses and is an important part of self-regulation. It’s likely that you, the reader, are noticing that self-regulation is not only about managing our behavior when we experience large and usually negative emotions, but is engaged any time we need to consider others’ perspectives as we think socially, which is why we refer to the related responses as social cognitive self-regulation. Social cognitive self-regulation involves social responses that appear quite simple to most (e.g., walking around people as you pass them on a sidewalk, or greeting people as you pass them) as well as social responses that require layers of social competencies (e.g., engaging in a face-to-face group discussion; a phone call where you are sharing your own point of view that is dramatically different from that of your conversational partner, etc.). Social cognitive self-regulation is the process through which you figure out how to respond to another person, whether that person is a friend or stranger.
As shown in Image 5, there are different types of social behaviors, including our nonverbal social behaviors (facial expressions, gestures, touch, body stance/orientation, silence, ignoring, etc.) and our verbal responses (concrete and figurative language, tone of voice, pace of our speaking, etc.). We choose our social behavior(s) by considering how our words affect the possible way others are going to interpret our actions. We also use and/or modify our social responses differently in different contexts. (e.g., building a friendship, working in peer groups in school, working on a team as an employee, working collaboratively with people in our community/team/place of worship, etc.).
What is emotional self-regulation?
People often describe emotional self-regulation as managing their stronger social responses, usually when they are experiencing strong (negative) emotions. This process involves the same steps outlined in the SCM. During the interpretation step, we are trying to understand our own and perhaps others' feelings. Maybe we're using a treatment tool such as The Zones of Regulation to help us make sense of our emotions so we can then problem solve how to handle the situation. Ideally, individuals make decisions to utilize social responses that will help them achieve their desired social goal if it is not likely to cause additional problems for self and likely others. The bottom line is that social cognitive and emotional self-regulation are not mutually distinct. The ultimate goal is to engage in social responses that minimize developing new problems for each person involved in the situation.
Group-based social cognitive self-regulation
Social cognitive self-regulation in a classroom involves many people attempting to self-regulate simultaneously. This can include conflicting opinions about what is important to each person at any one time. For this reason, classroom management can be difficult! It can be helpful for interventionists to work with students and engage in active conversations to explore their shared goals within the class. Remarkably, most of our social goals are not those we talk about, but instead are the goals we simply expect from each other.
Building social competencies is an ongoing process
The core of the Social Thinking–Social Competency Model helps illuminate the process through which we all form social responses tied to each situation’s (often unstated) social norms. The SCM represents a continuous and persistently cyclical process as we move from situation to situation throughout our day. Even when we are not actively engaging with our environment (think about a student waiting for her ride at the end of a school day), we are still going through this social processing to figure out what to do next in the situation. This perpetual processing loop is represented by the arrows that surround the graphic in Image 5.
Most importantly, we want interventionists to understand that each part of the Social Competency Model—attend, interpret, and problem solve to decide the social responses to produce—represents social competencies for our students to learn, use, and build on throughout their lives. These four competencies therefore provide a sequenced treatment pathway, one that is the foundation for all information taught through the Social Thinking Methodology.
The SCM is developmental over the course of one’s life
A five-year-old's social competencies are not as sophisticated as those of an eight-year-old, and a 21-year-old is expected to be more socially competent than a 14-year-old. The general expectation, across cultures, is that our social competencies will continue to evolve through our own personal, social emotional learning processes throughout our lives. This idea is demonstrated by the fact that as people become senior members within societies around the world, we refer to them as “wise.” We attribute this evolved sense of social know-how to age and the assumption that, as we age, we go through many more experiences that build our social competency. (On a related note, 21st century CEOs are now recognizing the importance of social competencies in the workforce and are recommending that high schools and universities incorporate courses that talk about and teach these skills.)
Not everyone follows the same social learning trajectories
Not everyone develops social competencies in the same manner, on the same timeframe, or to the same level over time. Social learning is based on the neurology we were born with and/or changes to our neurology from trauma, illness, addiction, etc. Just as people experience learning disabilities in math, reading or science, some people also experience learning disabilities in social emotional learning. Those who experience this type of neurological disability will also experience weaker development of their social competencies.
There is a wide spectrum of social emotional functioning. Some individuals are diagnosed with conditions best described with labels such as ASD, language learning impairment, ADHD. Others are not diagnosed but still have compelling social learning needs. Whatever the level of challenge, most individuals with solid to high verbal intelligence and solid to strong measured intelligence can learn to improve their social competencies over time. The Social Thinking Methodology takes into account these individual differences and has components to teach individuals of varying abilities: those born with social learning challenges, those with neurotypical development, as well as those who acquire challenges in their social emotional learning due to traumatic experiences. Unlike programs that "teach to mastery" or assume an "end" to a social skills program, interventionists use the Social Thinking Methodology to encourage individuals’ improvement in social competencies compared to their unique baseline learning abilities. Social learning should be a constant throughout each of our lives.
Managing our social mind requires a systematic approach
Our ability to engage in social learning on our pathway toward social cognitive self-regulation can be hampered by factors that overwhelm our ability to stay present, focused and able to process relevant social information. Using our social competencies also involves regulating at least three other major factors that are internal and external to our being:
- Sensory processing
- Anxiety, sadness, emotional trauma, etc.
- Screen Time Overload on Portable devices (STOP)
Each of these three variables is recognized on the extended SCM with a unique line that surrounds the SCM as shown in Image 6. Sensory processing is noted by the solid light blue line. The dotted blue line represents emotional experiences related to anxiety, sadness, trauma, etc. and the solid green line signifies the challenges students have paying attention in their face-to-face social world when their attention is swallowed up by screen time on their portable digital devices.
Sensory processing and social competencies
A person whose sensory system is flooded by physical sensations (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) that overwhelm will find it difficult to learn about and/or engage their social competencies. Ultimately, a goal is for individuals to manage their own sensory processing challenges as part of engaging their social competencies. For individuals who are not yet able to do this, interventionists should be aware that sensory overwhelm impacts one’s social learning capabilities. Sensory issues vary from individual to individual; what may be overwhelming to one student may not even affect another.
Occupational therapists are highly skilled in assessing and helping students learn strategies to manage their sensory processing while simultaneously learning to manage other demands, whether they be social, academic, leisure, etc.
The light blue line, as shown in Image 7, that surrounds the SCM calls attention to sensory issues that may be an additional factor influencing a student's social capabilities and ability to learn social competencies.
Learning to manage stressors
Stressors such as anxiety, sadness, depression, prior or current trauma also influence our students' abilities to attend, interpret, problem solve to decide how to respond to meet their social goals. For some the stress of not fitting in and being excluded by their peers may cause anxiety or sadness. Some individuals may develop social anxiety for unknown reasons. Others find they are hypersensitive to how people treat them, as a result of a personal history of trauma, including bullying. Stressors dull one’s ability to focus on social information processing; for some, especially tweens and teens, this may result in an "I don't care" attitude toward being with peers or cooperating with authority.
The social world can induce many stressors. Developing social competencies requires each of us to compare ourselves to others and try to understand the world from another’s point of view. This includes how we process and interpret information and possibly how we think about others' and our own abilities, feelings, actions, etc. Learning to manage stressors such as anxiety and depression associated with complex social experiences and confusing feelings is a key step in developing and utilizing social competencies. The dotted blue line shown in Image 8 surrounding the SCM represents our ongoing work to help individuals develop strategies to manage stressors (current or prior) while they are learning social competencies.
Screen Time Overload on Portable devices (STOP)
Another no less compelling factor that negatively influences the development of social competencies is the emergence and popularity of portable digital devices. In today's digital world, babies through the elderly are surrounded by digital devices that are in constant competition for our social attention. These devices often become a replacement for the face-to-face social interactions we would otherwise be engaging in—such as hanging out with friends, asking others for help or advice, or developing new face-to-face relationships. It is the face-to-face interactions that foster the development of social competencies
People born before 2006 know what it’s like to engage in the social world without a portable device. Individuals born since the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 may have had a different experience, one where digital screens were and are part of their daily social environments. As a result, more and more people find it difficult to figure out when to socially attend to the broader social landscapes in their world versus when to attend to what appears on their portable digital screen. Compounding matters, many school districts have adopted academic instruction that incorporates digital devices into classroom learning. While at face value this may seem positive, mainstream teachers share with us their growing personal challenges in getting their students to pay attention to them when they are in competition with digital information delivered through these portable screens. Students with digital devices often find their way to websites that are more fun, more interesting, more engaging than doing what’s assigned or listening to the teacher talk, or when needing to manage themselves during group interactions. Yet, without this live interaction, with its twists and turns that require students to think quickly and flexibly, they are missing out on opportunities to engage in social information processing and practice core social competencies.
The outer green line on the SCM shown in Image 9 represents what we refer to as Screen Time Overload on Portable devices (STOP).
While this should come as no surprise to any of us who work with students, it’s important to recognize that the brain does not multi-task well. This digital competition for attention clearly has an impact on the social learner as it blocks engagement beginning with the most basic social competency: social attention. As we mentioned earlier, if students can't (or won't) attend socially, they won't learn to interpret a situation, problem solve it, or figure out an appropriate response. Eyes focused on a screen are eyes missing social clues and cues from the environment. Brains focused on a two-dimensional, pre-decided image on a screen are brains that are missing out on opportunities to engage in the constantly changing world around us.
Over thousands of years, the social mind has evolved to allow us to process and respond to complex emotions and to consider and interpret the thoughts of self and others on a life-long journey toward problem solving and social cognitive self-regulation to reach our social goals—as individuals, as groups, as cultures and societies. The social world provides endless opportunities for interpreting and responding to social information through both face-to-face and digital experiences, through books, movies, television, and the internet.
The social mind also requires us to manage factors that compete for our face to face social attention (sensory processing, mental health related stressors, and screen time overload). To foster social learning and group engagement is to help individuals learn to manage many factors within their internal and external worlds.
Yet, not all individuals can access this universe of opportunities in the same way and through the same learning methods. Our goal, as interventionists, is to help our students learn not just academics, but the thinking and doing skills—social competencies—that will aid them in becoming increasingly successful in the social world throughout their lives. The Social Thinking Methodology continues to evolve so that as our world changes, so do the frameworks, strategies, and materials we produce to help students learn explicitly how to engage in social information processing, how to attend, interpret, problem solve and respond in any situation.
Explore our many free articles and webinars, in addition to our core information for interventionists and developmentally based teaching concepts and strategies for individuals of different ages. Just as each of our social minds continues to expand over our lifetime, so too does the Social Thinking Methodology expand to meet your changing needs.
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.
Kuypers, L. (2011). The zones of regulation. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.