Social Thinking Articles


Social Thinking-Social Learning Tree

Social Thinking Social Learning Tree

Updated: May, 2015
© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Learning evolves. The brain’s capacity to acquire new knowledge helps determine how and what we intuitively learn. Some learning happens as a matter of cognitive, social, and emotional development, i.e., from the “inside out,” while other learning happens “from the outside in.” For those of us who are neurotypical, social learning helps us bond with our caregivers early in life then paves the way for language development, more advanced relations, and an understanding of abstract social concepts that grows through experience and maturity.

Social learning is typically a process that evolves naturally, starting from birth and continuing across the life span. Children move from primarily adult-based interactions to observational discovery of their peers as the prelude to play. Play as a developmental milestone also encourages other relevant skills to emerge, such as cooperation, perspective taking, and emotional regard for others. Not coincidentally, as children develop the ability to cooperate and play in a group they are readying themselves to learn in a classroom, when at five years old they enter school. As children grow and move from second to third grade, internationally the curriculum shifts from rote learning in a group to critical thinking in a classroom. At this point children are expected to relate well person to person on the playground, but also determine the motives of a character in a storybook as well as make predictions about how characters are thinking and feeling. Alongside this academic and cognitive shift, a similar social/emotional change occurs. Children’s goal oriented play (tag, Four Square, etc.) evolves into deeper levels of personal connection, where children playfully relate to each other through conversational initiations and maintenance. Subtle but persistent advances in social development serve as the engine for subtle but persistent social emotional development. These advancing concepts are applied not only to our social interactions and group participation but also in the ways we interpret and respond to the curriculum within our coursework. 

Given that neurotypical children advance socially and emotionally in an ever expanding snowball of social cognitive achievement, how do we – the adults who steer children’s social, emotional, and academic learning - develop and map out treatment for those who are born to social learning challenges? One answer lies in starting from our roots and understanding how social learning unfolds from the ground up.

The Social Learning Tree

Consider social learning using the analogy of a tree, which develops a strong root system and trunk before it can grow healthy branches and leaves. As we adults strive to develop a pathway for problem-solving the treatment needs and goals of our students, it is often observed that our social treatments typically start at the specific skill rather than by exploring strategies to teach students to better think socially, which ultimately fosters social skill development. More sophisticated social learning requires one to acquire a range of social thought processes that synchronize to form the core of the social mind. Using these thought processes we then determine which social skills to use based on what we know about the person(s), the situation and most importantly, how we want them to react to us in that situation if indeed we are seeking a reaction at all!

Treatment plans are often created by observing and/or assessing a student’s conversational and play weaknesses and then developing plans that attempt to remediate these (skill) challenges. We describe this process as “teaching in the leaves.” However, with regard to social learning, the ability to competently produce advanced or more progressive social thinking and related social skills grows out of a strong root system and a solid trunk, from which sturdy branches develop that produce healthy leaves. We describe this process as “teaching at the roots.” After all is said and done, effective social thinking and related social skills are those that can be applied across situations so that our students can use their social thinking while writing a paper for a class, interpreting content based instruction as well as using this knowledge within direct social interactions.

When we stop long enough to consider the learning process, we can all easily acknowledge that learning doesn’t start with a skill. Yet, that has been precisely where our focus has been in teaching “social skills.” For example, children do not learn “eye contact.” They slowly and progressively learn to think with their eyes, to look at a situation and consider what people are doing within that situation to gauge how to interact or respond. A more effective pathway toward social learning is to start by teaching our students a process that leads to not only specific skill development, but equips our students with the ability to use this social knowledge to branch out into other social directions - to functionally use social thinking and possibly related social skills as the situation requires.

To help educators and clinicians better understand how social learning grows and matures we created the Social Thinking-Social Learning Tree, a visual representation of the process. Each part of the tree corresponds to a key part of the social evolutionary journey. As such, this learning map can be used to structure social learning curriculum that makes sense from a developmental standpoint.

The Root System Supporting the Social Learning Tree

We start at the roots, the foundation from which all our social learning grows. Research indicates that social development appears to begin prior to birth and emerges in the early days of life as babies actively pursue social learning through their daily experiences (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003). At this level social learning is typically delivered neurologically, on a developmental trajectory. As the young brain matures it maximizes this learning through experience and incidental practice. At the root level, social thinking and social learning involve:

  1. Joint attention, which includes reading intentions of others and paying attention to others and the environment (Jones and Carr, 2004)
  2. Emotional sharing and reciprocity (Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, Laurent, & Rydell, 2006)
  3. Central coherence - getting the gist of a message, determining relevance (Plaisted, 2001; Happe & Frith, 2006; van Lang, Bouma, Sytema, Kraijer, & Minderaa, 2006)
  4. Theory of mind, which involves interpreting that you know something different from me (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Flavell, 2004; Hale & Tager-Flusberg, 2005; Frith & Frith, 2010)
  5. Executive functioning, the ability to process and respond to many stimuli simultaneously (Hill, 2004; Happe, Booth, Charlton & Hughes, 2006)
  6. Sensory integration, the ability to integrate the signals coming into our sensory systems, which keeps us aware and active at a level where we can comfortably participate as needed in the environment
  7. Cognition
  8. Language

While these components have been studied and explored in isolation as well as in contrast to other cognitive functions, it is interesting to note that only more recently is research demonstrating a mutual interdependence among these social learning components (Pelicano, 2010; Sodian & Frith, 2008).

The Trunk of the Social Learning Tree

The roots merge to form the trunk of the tree. The trunk represents an understanding of and ability to dynamically and synergistically apply the concepts of the root system in daily life. The developmental processes that occur at the root level stimulate our brain in such a way that we learn to interpret socially based information and participate in a range of ways in specific situations because we demonstrate an understanding of others' thoughts, intentions, emotions which help us relate and respond to others. The ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking (Winner, 2000) summarizes these key components of social learning; all of which are to be working fairly well in a child prior to his fifth birthday and based on his or her own intuitive social learning. However, we often see these same components lagging or lacking in development for our students born to weak intuitive social learning abilities. Many readers are already familiar with the ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking but for those unfamiliar, a brief review is included at the end of the article.

The Branches of the Social Learning Tree

Information channeled through the ILAUGH model (tree trunk) provides the necessary support for the growth of a variety of social interactions as well as other concepts that relate back to key social knowledge (the branches). Having established a strong root system and trunk, the branches support the emergence of new, more refined concepts and skills. That said, each branch, some of which are listed below, is dependent upon elements of the ILAUGH Model.

  1. Reading comprehension of literature (analyzing the protagonists and antagonists in a story, predicting their future actions, interpreting their meaning, etc.)
  2. Written and oral expression (writing to support main ideas, summarizing, being sensitive to one’s audience, taking the perspective of the teacher to better understand expectations, etc.)
  3. Self and project organization (time management, planning and preparations, managing homework assignments, etc.)
  4. Playground play/hanging out
  5. Conversation
  6. Participating as a member of the classroom or a group

The Leaves on the Branches of the Tree

The leaves relate to definable concepts and skills we use to engage in each of the larger concepts that are represented by a branch. For example, the leaves on the branch related to playground play would involve all the different concepts/skills one must use to play such as turn-taking, allowing a person to choose a game, coping with rule changes, determining if the group welcomes you, using language that keeps others having good thoughts about you to avoid being rejected or taunted, etc. Thus, it is often in the leaves that we observe the problems and write treatment goals to address the weak growth of the leaves, which may not be the most effective or efficient treatment choice. 

Treatment Based on the Social Learning Tree

As we explain the Social Learning Tree, most people can understand the developmental and cumulative trajectory of social learning from roots through the trunk, branches and then to the leaves. Yet, ironically most social skill programs are set up to address a leaf in the tree and do not work on helping students strengthen their root system and trunk. When a treatment is focused in the leaves and branches it is our experience that learning is more superficial. Students may not internalize that the information they are learning can be useful when engaged in their language arts curriculum or has anything to do with how they are interpreted as they share space in a classroom. On a related note, we see students fail to generalize their social skills to other situations because they have not first acquired core understanding of social learning concepts. Without the support the root system and trunk provide, the leaves have little chance to stay healthy and grow.

It is our belief that we should look at how social learning unfolds naturally in neurotypical students and then use this developmental pathway to teach in a more thoughtful format, one that will help our students with social learning challenges acquire a more solid foundation and depth to their knowledge rather than just master “skills.” Social Thinking and other related treatment concepts that foster a more robust root and trunk system provide valuable models upon which treatments can be based. These include Carol Gray’s Social Stories™ that have been widely used since Gray originated them in 1991, Carol Gray’s Comic Strip Conversations (Gray, 1994), Tony Attwood’s work on emotion recognition and regulation (Attwood, 2004), Kari Dunn Buron and Mimi Curtis’ 5 Point Scale (Buron and Curtis, 2003), the SCERTS model by Barry Prizant and his team (Prizant, 2006), and Stanley Greenspan’s DIR®/Floortime™(Greenspan and Weider, 2003).

Our goal in developing the Social Thinking-Social Learning Tree, as well as the myriad Social Thinking materials, worksheets, books, and presentations is to demystify the process of social engagement and social interpretation. By doing so, we help adult educators, caregivers, and policy makers better understand how we can get to the root of the social learning challenges our students and clients face, and teach more efficiently and effectively from there.

Brief review of the ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking

I = Initiation of Language. Initiation of language is the ability to use one’s language skills to seek assistance or information. A student’s ability to talk about his own topics of interest can be in sharp contrast to how that student communicates when he needs help. Students with social cognitive deficits often have difficulty asking for help, seeking clarification, and initiating appropriate social entrance and exit with other people.

L= Listening With Eyes and Brain. Most persons with social cognitive deficits have difficulty with auditory comprehension. Listening, however, requires more than just taking in auditory information. It also requires individuals to integrate information they see and hear around them, such as the context of the situation and nonverbal cues from others, to fully interpret the spoken or unspoken message. Teachers depend heavily on the notion that all students are able to attend nonverbally to the expectations in the classroom. Being a “good listener” includes not just paying attention to what is being said, but more importantly, attending to the verbal and nonverbal cues that surround the words.

A = Abstract and Inferential Language/Communication. Communicative comprehension requires both literal and figurative interpretations. To be successful in interpreting abstract communication, an individual needs to pay attention to four aspects of communication:

  1. what the listener knows about the speaker and his/her motive for communicating
  2. in what context the message is being shared
  3. the literal words used
  4. the nonverbal ways the message is coded along with related physical gestures

Abstract and inferential meaning is often conveyed subtly, through verbal and nonverbal communication coupled with social knowledge of the people and situation. This skill begins to develop in the preschool years and continues across our school years as the messages we are to interpret, both socially and academically, become more abstract. Interpretation depends in part on one’s ability to “make a smart guess.” It also depends on one’s ability to take the perspective of another. Abstract and inferential language interpretation is heavily woven into our language arts, social studies, and science curriculums. It is also a skill set heavily applied in play and conversation.

U = Understanding Perspective. This is the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, experiences, motives, intentions, and personality of yourself as well as others. Students intuitively begin to acquire this skill in early childhood development. Neurotypical students acquire a solid foundation of perspective taking between the ages of four to six as they discover how to manipulate and understand other people’s minds. Children continue to refine their knowledge of others’ minds across their lives. The ability to take perspective is key to being part of any type of group (social or academic). It is integral to academic subjects that require understanding other people’s minds, such as reading comprehension, history, social studies, etc. It is also key for formulating clear written expression. Weakness in perspective taking is a significant part of the diagnosis of social cognitive deficits.

G=Gestalt Processing/Getting the Big Picture. Information is conveyed through concepts and not just facts. Being able to relate the little bits of information to a whole is gestalt processing in a nutshell. When individuals participate in a conversation they intuitively understand the underlying concept being discussed. This knowledge helps them stay on track, make relevant comments, know when they’re veering off topic. When reading, one has to follow the overall meaning (concept) rather than just collect a series of facts. Like the other elements mentioned above, conceptual processing is another key component to understanding social and academic information. Furthermore, conceptual processing and organizational strategies (as well as other executive function tasks) go hand in hand. Weakness in one area is usually accompanied by weakness in the other. Children who struggle to relate parts of a project to each other, or manage their time to get assignments done by the deadline are typically weak in gestalt processing. Challenges in this skill can greatly impact one’s ability to formulate written expression, summarize reading passages, and manage one’s homework load.

H= Humor and Human Relatedness. Most of our clients have a very good sense of humor, but they feel anxious since they miss many of the subtle cues that help them understand how to participate successfully with others. It is important for educators and parents to work compassionately and with humor to help minimize the anxiety these children are experiencing. At the same time, many of our clients use humor inappropriately; direct lessons about this topic are often required.

Human relatedness is at the heart of social interaction. While virtually all of our clients desire some form of social interaction, they have difficulty relating to others’ minds, emotions and needs. Establishing the concept of human relatedness and what it means to be part of the flowing give and take of human relationships is essential before trying to make headway in any of the above lessons. First we must establish a connection of our own with our students.

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