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A couple of years ago I was asked to write a marketing quote for a book intended to help kids learn to self-regulate. I was eager to read it but was disappointed to discover it was mostly discussing behavior management systems teachers could use in their classrooms to encourage children to “behave”! I didn’t write the quote, but I did start thinking much more deeply about the process involved in helping students learn to self-regulate and how this is very different from encouraging students to behave.
What’s the difference between learning to control behavior and self-regulation?
Our behavior is what others observe us doing. To a limited extent, we can teach kids to behave in a specific manner, around specific people, etc. This is especially the case for adults who are controlling an individual's external reward system. However, self-regulation is more complex and internal to self. It requires us to develop social competencies that guide us to socially attend, interpret people in context, problem solve how to respond, monitor how our behavior is being perceived, and adjust as needed to meet our own personal social goal(s) and/or the collective shared goal of the people in that context. Self-regulation arises from within us; behaviorally based teaching of social skills is external to an individual's personal decision-making process.
All behavior observed by others is, in fact, social behavior, as the behavior impacts how observers feel, think, and possibly react and respond. Students on behavior plans are traditionally told (by adults) what they are expected to do, and the adult expectation is that they do it. Behavior plans are not designed to teach a student how to decide when to use a behavior or set of behaviors and how our behavioral responses likely impact others' emotions. Different types of behavior plans rely on extrinsic motivators (e.g., tokens, rewards, praise, etc.) to kick off the process of helping kids learn to modify their context-specific behavior. Behavior plans may also include visual supports and explicit verbal and visual cues to provide feedback to students about how they are performing the behavior. Desired behaviors are usually reinforced through external rewards chosen to increase student motivation to produce the behavior. Simultaneously, the student is discouraged from producing non-preferred behavior through negative reinforcement or withholding rewards. A well-trained behaviorist would avoid the use of punishment altogether within a behavior plan.
Effective use of behavior plans
There are valid reasons for utilizing behavior plans and there are valid reasons for developing social competency-based treatment plans. Interventionists need to know what approach to use with which type of individual and when. From our experience, behavioral management techniques are commonly utilized and often effective in the following situations:
- To teach students who have not yet, or may never be able to, develop social self-awareness, how to produce desired social behaviors or possibly strings of behaviors to help them better function in an individual or simple group task. This may include:
- School-age individuals with poor joint attention, who have limited language and very weak social awareness of themselves and others.
- Preschoolers who are struggling to socially attend to any direct teaching without external rewards (not all preschoolers need explicit rewards to engage in social collaborative behaviors).
- To remind typically developing preschool children of the social behavioral expectations for a specific context. For example, a classroom teacher uses external rewards (a gold star on a chart, a specific compliment to a student, etc.) for learners in her class who are quietly sitting and listening to the teacher as a way to encourage the entire group to focus on quiet sitting and listening as important and expected classroom behaviors.
- To encourage rapid learning and production of specific pro-social behaviors, with students whose behavior is deemed grossly inappropriate, destructive and/or dangerous within the setting or group.
It’s possible for behavior plans to miss the mark
When using behavior plans to promote pro-social behaviors with this latter group (students who are more socially aware), even the most experienced behavior management specialist will often run into difficulty, especially when working with students ages 9 and older. These more aware students often find the behavior plan is lacking. With its singular focus on the production of behavior, it neglects to teach students about "everything else" they need to learn that is connected to their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior as well as others’ emotions, thoughts, feelings, and behavior in a specific context. Most behavior plans don't help students understand:
- The complexity of the social situation; how the social world works in that context.
- How the student feels emotionally about the situation and what's happening.
- How to interpret what others in the situation are saying or doing.
- Areas in which the student is struggling to learn.
- Strategies the student can use to figure out a social situation.
- Deeper cognitive challenges the student may face related to weak affective and/or cognitive perspective taking, central coherence and/or executive functioning challenges.
For example, "Jess" is in middle school and is overwhelmed by the curriculum in most of his classes. It's too complex for him to handle. Jess has a history of getting agitated, shutting down in class, and refusing to work when he's overwhelmed. The interventionists who know Jess consider him to be a bright but sassy student who often acts like a “know it all.” They think the only reason Jess isn't completing his written work is that he chooses not to. So they assume it's a "behavior problem" and the solution is a behavior plan. The plan is put in place to encourage Jess to be productive (e.g., complete his assignments) by giving him a reward for writing a paragraph or asking for help.
Sounds reasonable, right? In reality, Jess is overwhelmed with the complexity of the written language process. It's not that he "won't" do the work; he "can't." He struggles to come up with a topic sentence and figuring out what to do with the many different ideas in his mind: which to use/not use, how to organize them, and how to put them into words on paper in a way that makes sense. The more Jess is pushed to write, the more anxious he becomes. He demonstrates his anxiety by making mean-spirited comments and telling people he doesn’t care about getting rewards or having points taken away for his negative attitude. The adults remind him to ask for help if he's unsure of what to do, but the fact is that Jess doesn’t know what he needs help with; he's swimming in uncertainty before he even gets started. Adults tell Jess he's being rude. This makes him more frustrated and further stressed. Given his personality and developmental age, Jess often deals with his stress by cracking jokes. And, he's clever at finding holes in the behavior plan. He'll produce behaviors the behavior plan intended to eliminate but did not directly state as such. This further infuriates the teachers and assistants. Jess is ultimately directed out of the classroom for more serious disciplinary actions.
Jess clearly was struggling because he lacked basic executive functioning skills needed for written expression. But a lack of skills is not always the case with challenges faced by our more socially aware students. Another student, "Georgia", flat out says "no" when asked to participate in behavior-based treatment programs designed to teach students specific stimulus-response, memorized, pro-social behaviors to use when relating to peers or in a group setting, such as a classroom. In situations where Georgia winds up in such a treatment program, she tries to undermine the entire group. As with Jess, Georgia is viewed as a "behavior problem." It came as a surprise to the interventionists when in a meeting with Georgia to address her poor participation and refusal to do the classroom work, that she replied, “I could teach the other students how to do this; I'm way beyond this learning level. I don’t want to be in this class!” The reality is that Georgia is anxious and stressed; she thinks people perceive her as far more socially inept than she actually is. The lessons being taught to all students in the class are relevant to the more literally minded students, but they are not relevant to her given she is already fairly competent at this more basic level of social functioning.
It’s important to keep in mind that extrinsic, behaviorally based teaching can be effective for many individuals with limited learning capacities or for children too young for a language-based, cognitively based learning approach. However, more sophisticated social emotional learners find that behavior plans fail to teach them the social competencies they need. It is these competencies that steer their course and set their sails for a lifetime of coping and social problem solving. Social competencies rather than social skills, guides them through adolescence and into the adult social world of competitive employment, changing family dynamics and the expectations that come with maturation, relationship development, and figuring out how to manage themselves across familiar and unfamiliar settings. Keep in mind that in the adult world there are no behavior plans, such as those we use with school-age students. They're not part of the adult world of employment, co-existing in the community or attending a university. During the school years if a student has problematic behavior, we call a meeting to figure out how to design a treatment plan. In the adult world the police are the first to be called.
Levels of the social mind and why we need to avoid assumptions based on standardized testing
Over the years, my colleagues and I who take the lead in evolving the Social Thinking® Methodology began to notice patterns that helped define different learning levels associated with the social mind. We developed the Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile™ to describe these levels. The Profile outlines six different cohorts of social learners from Significantly Challenged Social Communicators at one end to Neurotypical Social Communicators at the other. These six levels represent the spectrum of social learners. Our purpose in mapping out these different levels of the social mind was three-fold: 1) to help interventionists understand the broad spectrum of social awareness and understanding; 2) to help interventionists get a clearer picture of where a specific student functions on the spectrum of social cognition; and 3) to bring light to the differing treatment needs, including mental health issues, that are associated with these different levels of social learning. As part of the Social Thinking Methodology we seek to sort out how different students with similar diagnostic labels (e.g., autism spectrum disorders [ASD]) learn socially based information differently and how individuals with different diagnostic labels learn social information in a similar manner (e.g., one individual diagnosed with ASD may appear very similar to another individual diagnosed with ADHD, and also behave similarly to another student considered to have oppositional defiant disorder).
Based on our clinical experience, we also observed that by adolescence there is a positive correlation between higher levels of social self-awareness, higher levels on our Profile, and a tendency toward even more compelling mental health challenges (anxiety, depression, etc.) than those with lower social self-awareness and ability to interpret socially based information.
The research has yet to define how different levels of self-reflection or social self-awareness differ across the spectrum of social learning. That said, over the last 15 years we've witnessed a flood of research about different aspects of anxiety being tied to different types of ASD (van Steensel, et. al, 2017). Without a doubt, even more subtle forms of persistent social anxiety and/or sadness related to social learning challenges impact a student’s ability to form and sustain relationships, while also impacting the treatment process. There are a number of research articles describing how persons with “higher functioning” ASD experience more compelling anxieties (Joyce, et. al, 2017).
Gauging students' social learning abilities is not something interventionists (e.g., speech-language pathologists, psychologists, teachers, occupational therapists, behaviorists, etc.) are taught how to do. Compounding matters is that interventionists responsible for developing treatment plans for social learners may make assumptions about their learners' social abilities that miss the mark. These treatment plans are often based on a social learner's diagnosis, measured level of academic intelligence, verbosity/use of language, IQ, etc. Assumptions that are based on diagnosis or presumed level of intelligence fail to take into account the often-pervasive social learning challenges these students face. Why? Standardized testing fails to measure social competencies (Kraper et al., 2017) and social competencies are not well defined in the behaviorally based descriptions of different mental health challenges in diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-5 or ICD-10. Even our distinction between "high functioning autism" and "Asperger’s syndrome" type functioning is just beginning to be more fully explored (de Giambattista, et al., 2019), despite these diagnoses being no longer part of the autism spectrum disorder category in the DSM-5.
Think about it: no standardized tests currently available gauge a person's level of social self-awareness or that person's ability to coordinate and carry out complex socially based goals and study plans (executive functioning). Furthermore, any existing socially based tests are largely conducted in controlled settings, outside normal social situations that shift and change within seconds.
Socially self-aware students are active social interpreters, often focused on trying to figure out how others think and feel about them. They have solid to high-level language skills and solid to strong IQ. That sounds good but, from our experience, the end result doesn't measure up. These students may be able to understand what they expect from others and understand that people have thoughts and feelings about them. However, this is typically coupled with weaker insight about their own role in the social equation. They don't really understand what it is they may be doing that is subtly off the social mark. This makes them more agitated and possibly paranoid about being with others. These individuals may be diagnosed with ASD level 1 (or previously Asperger's syndrome), ADHD, language learning challenged, and/or considered twice exceptional, etc. They may be making subtle or not so subtle social errors based on weaker-than-expected perspective taking and social problem-solving abilities, which then lead to problematic responses in dynamic social contexts. Telling socially self-aware students how they should behave and rewarding that behavior may be counterproductive toward helping these students achieve their social goals. A behavior-based treatment program can undermine our students' motivation to think deeper, dig deeper and look more closely at what's happening around them and how to navigate their own related social response(s).
What does it mean to learn to self-regulate?
An alternative to using behaviorally focused lessons to foster social learning is to teach strategies that guide our students toward their own self-regulation. What is self-regulation? In short, it’s a process internal to one’s self that involves "controlling one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals” (Cuncic, 2019).
Self-regulation is a catch-all term, what we describe as an "everything term" much like the terms "executive functioning", "perspective taking" or "social communication." Like these other terms, self-regulation encompasses many moving parts (meaning it's synergistic) and we are expected to self-regulate differently in the same environment when the context changes (meaning it's dynamic). It's a process (meaning it spans time) through which we learn to control our emotions, thoughts, physical sensations and ultimately our behavior (including social language, facial expressions, gestures, etc.) to meet whatever goal is put in front of us, whether it’s our own (individual goal) or a collective goal of others’ choosing.
To view self-regulation as "one thing" and then try and teach someone to simply “self-regulate” is like expecting an orchestra conductor to conduct a symphony with one musician who may have limited talents playing his or her instrument.
Self-regulation takes many different forms. They include but are not limited to:
- Emotional self-regulation: we learn to manage negative and/or big emotions.
- Social self-regulation: we learn social competencies to meet our own social goals. These goals can be diverse ranging from relationship development to being part of a team to sharing space effectively.
- Personal self-regulation: what we do to accomplish a specific task or assignment. It may be something we choose to do (e.g., play to win a lot of points in a computer game) or something someone else assigns to us (e.g., homework assigned by a teacher; a project assigned by a manager, etc.).
For typically developing individuals, our ability to acquire capacities toward different types of self-regulation is developmental; our brains are able to help us manage ourselves better in complex situations over time. For many of us, our core ability to self-regulate our emotions and social responses starts in early childhood, evolves intuitively and then continues to evolve across our lives. That said, most individuals encounter times in their lives where the situation challenges our ability to self-regulate. As we age, we are faced with growing self-regulatory demands that can feel absolutely overwhelming at times (e.g., college finals, complex friendships, disturbing social media comments made about us, inability to excel at a sport or game, being turned down for a promotion, breaking up with a partner, etc.). Virtually all of us benefit from learning strategies to help us through different aspects of this journey, such as how to:
- Understand how the social world works.
- Better read and interpret internal signals and sensations from our bodies that include, but are not limited, to our feelings and sensory systems.
- Better understand how our own and others' social mind works and how to navigate through expectations from our teachers, bosses, friends, or spouses across a range of contexts and dilemmas.
- Regulate our feelings and behaviors to be able to work in the social world and accomplish our social goals.
All aspects of self-regulation require us to have meta-awareness and meta-cognition. Meta-awareness is our ability to be actively aware of what we are thinking and feeling about what we are experiencing. Meta-cognition is our ability to think explicitly about our choices, how others may have a different point of view or expectations, and how to problem solve to decide how to manage ourselves and others to achieve our goals and help others meet their goals. Meta-awareness and meta-cognition rely on internal language (using self-talk) to imagine different options for our future, as well as learn from our past errors and triumphs. Self-talk is a powerful language-based tool our brain uses to think about our own and others’ thoughts and feelings, imagine choices and possibilities, and reframe or reformat certain experiences inside our own mind so they make sense and we learn from them. This internal thinking and problem-solving process is a huge part of self-regulation.
Expressive and receptive language abilities (in addition to interoception, which is the ability to feel and understand what's happening inside your body), are pre-requisite to navigating through how our social mind works and our body feels in different situations. Teachers need these abilities to teach about social self-regulation, and social learners need these abilities to learn about themselves and others. Students with augmentative communication devices who can express complex ideas, thoughts, and emotions through these devices are considered to have solid expressive and receptive language, right alongside their peers who express themselves to others verbally. Students who are not able to use language to learn and who are unable or have limited ability to express their ideas through language are not strong candidates for self-regulation curriculums. Behavior programs built on extrinsic motivators and rote repetition of social skills are more suited for this population, who will have less sophisticated but still meaningful outcomes. The goal in any treatment program is to help individuals make meaningful progress when compared to their own baseline abilities.
Ultimately, learning strategies to understand hidden social expectations and problem solve to self-regulate involves being socially aware of the situation and what is known about the people in that context. It also depends on developing self-awareness of our own behavior and how it impacts others. It involves learning to self-monitor and manage our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors no matter where we are to achieve one or more goals. Over time and with experience we exhibit self-control with greater efficiency and predictability, and we achieve our goals with greater ease. Continuous self-regulation across all aspects of our lives is a holy grail most of us never fully achieve. Our abilities ebb and flow across time, situations, and the people we encounter.
Social Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: helping individuals navigate to regulate in the social world
Cognitive behavioral approaches help individuals learn about their thoughts and feelings and this, in turn, can directly impact their behavior and foster their ability to self-regulate. Often referred to as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), its origins are in helping individuals with mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression learn to think differently about their experiences as a means to change aspects of their behavior. More recent research supports the use of CBT with persons with ASD (Luxford, et al., 2017).
Being socially competent requires more than simply having social self-awareness. It also means we have to decipher unspoken social expectations to understand how best to respond. This dynamic process of social interpretation and problem solving involves spontaneous theory of mind—that split-second processing we do to figure out our own and others’ intentions, feelings, and thoughts, and then formulate a social response.
Interventionists who are helping individuals develop their social competencies may benefit from utilizing a CBT framework. Its focus on helping individuals better understand themselves is a natural segue for helping learners figure out not only how the social world works but how we each can work in the social world. A CBT framework opens up conversations and learning about situations, people's roles in different situations (e.g., teacher, friend, boss, etc.), people's intentions, and any shared goals that exist among participants in the situation. Shared goals may be to hang out together, work on a team project, learn in a classroom, or host a birthday party. Since the social world is both dynamic and synergistic, students benefit from learning strategies to be flexible thinkers. Flexible thinking allows them to consider different options and evolve in their choices as they gain a deeper and more mature understanding of the ever-shifting social dynamics around them.
The Social Thinking Methodology is grounded in SCBT
Attempting to explicitly teach some if not many of these social dynamics requires an extended CBT approach that we refer to as Social Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (SCBT). SCBT provides layers of social learning about how the social world works as well as how to work (navigate to regulate) in the social world. Many parts of the Social Thinking Methodology explore and explain aspects of the social world and reiterate the necessity to slow down to study it. This is accomplished through many different treatment frameworks included in our books and materials:
- Four Steps of Perspective Taking and Four Steps of Communication (Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME, 2nd Edition, 2007).
- Social Emotional Chain Reaction (Social Behavior Mapping Revised Edition, 2019).
- The Friendship Pyramid (Socially Curious and Curiously Social, 2011).
Interventionists and social learners are also encouraged to explore the social world through our four-step social learning framework, the Social Thinking-Social Competency Model. In this model students are taught to attend, interpret, problem solve and respond to figure out any social situation and how to respond and interact within it. The Model is explained in more detail in our free article and webinar.
We also offer the unique Social Thinking Vocabulary—a user-friendly way to teach and talk about complex social concepts. The vocabulary includes terms such as people have thoughts and feelings, reading the group plan, thinking with your eyes, body in the group, brain in the group, making a smart guess, size of the problem, etc. These and other vocabulary are explored and talked about in our books, We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers (2013), We Thinkers! Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers (2016), Think Social! (2008), Social Thinking and Me (2016), and our free webinar series, 10 Core Concepts, which is part of our webinar library.
When learning to navigate to regulate within the social world, the Social Thinking Methodology helps all students learn anxiety management strategies that include, but are not limited to, emotion regulation strategies that are a part of The Zones of Regulation (Kuypers, 2011) and social self-regulation strategies that are explored in our Superflex®…A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum (2008). Other regulation strategies and frameworks include the Spirals of Social Success and Spirals of Social Failure discussed in our book, Socially Curious and Curiously Social (2011), understanding the relationship between the size of our problem and reaction size, and building our perspective taking skills. These are all building blocks to acquiring stronger social competencies. Ultimately, individuals are learning to “be comfortable with discomfort” as they not only develop strategies to navigate in the social world but also strategies to navigate their emotions, anxiety, and possible sadness or depression.
Alongside what we are teaching our students, interventionists need tools that help them help their students. The Social Thinking Methodology provides qualitative Informal Dynamic Social Thinking Assessment tasks (Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME, 2nd edition) that help interventionists gauge students' current level of social understanding and social functioning and their ability to socially self-regulate. The methodology also includes materials with explicit instruction on helping students self-manage their organizational goals. This requires working with students on related abilities in executive functioning, perspective taking, central coherence, etc.
Emotional self-regulation, social self-regulation, and personal self-regulation all require different layers of teaching over time. Each layer must be sensitive to the developmental age, academic learning abilities, social learning abilities, and personality of students. Social norms and expectations change as we grow and evolve as human beings. There is nothing quick about teaching students core knowledge and strategies they can use to navigate themselves in the social world. We are giving them tools they can use not just today, but in all situations across their lifetimes.
Teaching social learners about any and all aspects of self-regulation is a journey, not a sprint. Keep that in mind as you explore this journey not only with the individuals you are teaching, other interventionists on their team and also within yourself!
Cuncic, A. How to Practice Self-Regulation. verywellmind. March 15, 2019; https://www.verywellmind.com/how-you-can-practice-self-regulation-4163536.
de Giambattista, C., Ventura, P., Trerotoli, P., Margari, M., Palumbi, R. & Margari, L. (2019). Subtyping the Autism Spectrum Disorder: Comparison of children with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49(1),138–150. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3689-4.
Hendrix, R., Palmer, K. Z., Tarshis, N., & Winner, M. G. (2013). We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers: A Social Thinking Curriculum for the Preschool and Early Elementary Years. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Hendrix, R., Palmer, K. Z., Tarshis, N., & Winner, M. G. (2016). We Thinkers! Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers: A Social Thinking Curriculum for the Preschool and Early Elementary Years. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Joyce, C., Honey, E., Leekam, S., Barrett, S. & Rodgers, J. (2017). Anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty and restricted and repetitive behaviour: Insights directly from young people with ASD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(12), 3789-3802.
Kraper, CK., Kenworthy, L., Popal, H., Martin, A. & Wallace, GL. (2017). The gap between adaptive behavior and intelligence in autism persists into young adulthood and is linked to psychiatric co-morbidities. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(10), 3007-3017.
Kuypers, L. (2011). The Zones of Regulation. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
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Madrigal, S., & Winner, M. G. (2008). Superflex… A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
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Van Steensel, F. & Heeman, E. (2017). Anxiety levels in children with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis. Journal of Child and Family Studies 26(7), 1753-1767.
Winner, M. G. (2007). Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME: Teaching Perspective Taking and Social Thinking to Persons With Social Cognitive Learning Challenges (2nd ed.). San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Winner, M. G. (2008). Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Winner, M.G. (2018). Strategies for Executive Functioning: Teaching Organizational Concepts & Skills. [eLearning 4-part course]. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.socialthinking.com/eLearning/ExecutiveFunctioningModule1.
Winner, M.G. (2019). Social Behavior Mapping, Revised Edition. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Winner, M.G., & Crooke, P. (2011). Socially Curious and Curiously Social: A Social Thinking Guidebook for Bright Teens and Young Adults. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Winner, M.G. and Murphy, L. (2016). Social Thinking and Me: Kids’ Guidebook for Social Emotional Learning. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.