Social Thinking Articles


Research to Frameworks to Practice

The Social Thinking Methodology - Layers of Evidence

Where is the evidence?

Written by: Dr. Pamela Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP, and Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP

© 2019 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

I'm Doing Social Thinking® - But Where Is the Evidence? To answer the question about evidence and Social Thinking, we need to first begin with a common language and a shared understanding of terms. Right out of the gate, it’s confusing when people say they are "doing" Social Thinking because Social Thinking is not a single entity. It is not a set of behaviors that you teach. It is not a step-by-step “cookbook”, nor is it one single program or approach. Social Thinking is a language and cognitive-based methodology that focuses on the dynamic and synergistic nature of social observation, social interpretation, social problem solving, and social communication skills, all of which require self-regulation. The methodology is developmental, utilizing aspects of cognitive behavioral and behavioral principles, as well as stakeholder input as a way to translate evidence-based concepts into conceptual frameworks, strategy-based frameworks, curricula, activities, and motivational tools. (Note: a more detailed explanation of this very long sentence and a table to illustrate will follow).

Many of the components of the Social Thinking Methodology were originally developed to serve as an intervention and assessment framework for individuals with social learning challenges or what we will refer to as social learners. At its inception 25 years ago, there were relatively few treatment-based research studies available to guide interventionists in how to teach individuals about their own social learning process. The underlying motivation for the creation of the Social Thinking Methodology was, and is, that social learners with unique challenges should have access to interventions and strategies based on both individual learning abilities and the demands of the community within which they participate. Clearly, none of us would deny that individuals have varied social learning abilities and part of our mission is to create intervention strategies that span this diversity. This includes assessment of real-time social competencies, understanding different levels of the social mind, targeting social competencies over simply teaching social skills, creating holistic treatments for understanding perspective taking, social communication, self-regulation, and social anxiety, just to name a few.

A Methodology to Infuse Evidence-Based Practices

The Social Thinking Methodology embraces what the literature tells us about working directly with individuals who have social learning challenges (e.g., ASD, Social Communication Disorder, ADHD, Learning Disabilities, Twice Exceptional, etc.) and promotes the use of visual supports, modeling, naturalistic teaching, and self-management. Also, the methodology anchors to the research in fields that study how individuals evolve and develop to function in society: anthropology, cultural linguistics, social psychology, and child development. Many components fit well into the multi-tiered research-based implementation framework of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS). And while PBIS is not an approach, it is a framework that encourages schools to consider the uptake of a variety of practices where the "mutually beneficial relationship between academic and social behavior student success is highlighted (Chard, Harn, Sugai, & Horner, 2008; Sugai, Horner, & Gresham, 2002). In the same vein, CASEL's five Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Core Competencies are reflected within and throughout the Social Thinking Methodology.

"...A methodology does not set out to provide solutions—it is, therefore, not the same as a method. Instead, a methodology offers the theoretical underpinning for understanding, which method, set of methods, or so-called “best practices” can be applied to a specific case..." (


If we aren't doing Social Thinking, then how do we talk about it?

As you can see by the diverse components of the methodology, it's not enough to say that you are "doing” Social Thinking. The reality is that most of us are implementing one (or many) components of the larger methodology. As a community, we need to articulate WHICH component we are implementing and how that component connects to the deeper layer of evidence supports.

For instance, consider stating the following rather than saying, “I’m doing social thinking”:

  • Our school is implementing Superflex® or Zones of Regulation® as part of our PBIS adoption.
  • We are using the We-Thinkers® curriculum within the SEL framework. It addresses joint attention, self-regulation, and perspective taking through stories and play.
  • I'm teaching Social Thinking Vocabulary™ as a way to connect to the social and academic components of the Common Core/State Standards
  • Our classroom is implementing Social Behavior Mapping™ for teaching social responsibility via visual supports and modeling.
  • I'm teaching about the Unthinkables™ and Thinkables™ to help my students learn perspective taking and self-regulation.


Is there evidence for Social Thinking? If so, where is it?

To drill down on the evidence question, we first need to clear up a common confusion between the name of the methodology (Social Thinking) and the act of teaching individuals to think socially or use the social thinking process (i.e., socially think about the context, people, thoughts, emotions and social behaviors). We typically differentiate by referring to the methodology with capital letters (Social Thinking) versus the process of teaching how to think socially with lowercase letters (social thinking). Now, on to the evidence supporting the components of the methodology.

There are currently a handful of peer-reviewed studies, including one randomized controlled study, several theses/dissertations, and numerous articles, papers and presentations related to various components of the Social Thinking Methodology (see the Evidence tab on our website). These studies or articles represent smaller pieces of the larger methodology. Unfortunately, some studies did not use the common name of our curricula or product in the title of their paper (e.g., Superflex, Zones, We-Thinkers, Social Behavior Mapping). For example, a study title might state “cognitive intervention” or “social strategy” but the content of the study used our strategies, tools or frameworks. This makes it challenging when searching for evidence. People tend to type evidence for social thinking into a search box which may or may not located actual research related to the Social Thinking Methodology. We do our best to stay on top of studies that are published in peer-reviewed journals. Check the evidence section often to see new research related to our work.

We have found that people tend to have differing views on the term “evidence" depending upon: a) the question one asks, b) the lens with which one views the information, and c) each person’s definition of evidence. For example, the American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association (ASHA) defines evidence-based practices (EBP) as:

"The integration of: (a) clinical expertise/expert opinion, (b) external scientific evidence, and (c) client/patient/caregiver perspectives to provide high-­‐quality services reflecting the interests, values, needs, and choices of the individuals we serve."

ASHA further states,

"Because EBP is client/patient/family-centered, a clinician's task is to interpret best current evidence from systematic research in relation to an individual client/patient, including that individual's preferences, environment, culture, and values regarding health and well-being."

This three-pronged definition (i.e., expertise, evidence and stakeholder input) is the most common; ascribed to by numerous organizations within the behavioral, education and social sciences. We think it is important for people to understand what one means by the term “evidence” because some professions or groups define evidence based purely on research studies. This is a distinction that tends to put people into two different camps: Those who include expertise, evidence and stakeholder input as their definition of EBP and those use research studies alone as their definition of EBP.

So, the ST methodology encourages:

  • Professionals to value their own professional expertise—combined with client data—to select and justify the various interventions and strategies they choose based on individual client needs, not diagnosis.
  • Professionals to truly value parent input, as well as feedback from individual clients—not as an afterthought but as a part of the intervention process. After all, this is part of the definition of evidence-based practices.
  • Professionals and parents to use a different lens to examine the value of data-driven interventions that are grounded in research-based theoretical concepts as well. In other words, practices based on the evidence (PBE).


National Professional Development Center (NPDC): Evidence-Based Practices and Autism

Note: While the Social Thinking Methodology is not specific to the autism spectrum, many who are a part of this community have embraced our work.

In 2014, the National Professional Development Center published findings related to evidence-based practices for individuals on the autism spectrum. This review embraced the three-prong definition of evidence-based practices, but also cautioned professionals and families to include not only published research, but also to value stakeholder input and professional expertise. Unfortunately, studies related to the ST methodology were underrepresented because of the challenges mentioned earlier (i.e., the words “social thinking” were not in the title of the study, but some components have been included in peer-reviewed studies). In fact, many of the EBPs noted in the NPDC are the foundation or infused within the Social Thinking Methodology. These include: Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, Modeling, Naturalistic Intervention, Peer-mediated intervention, Self-management, Social Skills Training, Social Narratives, Reinforcement, and Visual Supports.


Social Thinking® Methodology: More than teaching social skills

Consider this: Many interventionists implement social skill interventions without a clear definition of social skills and their importance in the holistic social relatedness process. The Social Thinking Methodology addresses the fact that first we, as interventionists (both professionals and parents), need to build our own knowledge about the social learning process and what it means to engage “socially” before teaching social learners. We call this understanding how the social world works. Remarkably, understanding how people share space together and engage across context, culture and varying ideas and opinions, motives and intentions is absent from most social "skills-based” approaches. Our methodology ascribes to the notion that the key to understanding our clients/students’ individual social learning needs requires that interventionists gain insight into the variables that contribute to their own “social self” as well as the related expectations of others. This unique view toward social treatment, combined with the many layers of our methodology, means that the components of Social Thinking do not fit neatly into any single traditionally defined social skill intervention. Nor is Social Thinking linked to a specific diagnosis (e.g., ASD), but rather addresses specific needs in those with social learning challenges (ADHD, Mental Health Challenges, twice exceptional, gifted, no diagnosis, etc.).

To illustrate, the Social Thinking Methodology (capital S and capital T) ascribes to the principles that the process of thinking socially or social thinking (small s and small t) is required to interpret (and possibly respond) to socially based information. This includes the ability to consider our own and others’ thoughts, emotions, beliefs, intentions, knowledge, etc. for interpretation (in our own mind) and related responses (through our social behavioral interactions). In the literature, this is often referred to as Social Cognition.

Social skills are the result of considering our own social thinking (social cognitive abilities) and then adapting our behavior effectively (self and social regulation), based on the situation and what we know about the people in the situation. We adapt our skills so that others will react and respond to us in the manner we had hoped. Note: not all social skill adaptations are meant to have others respond in a "polite" or kind manner. In fact, good social skills also include the ability to advocate for oneself, avoid confrontation, and enhance safety. And, the reason we use social skills is to impact how people feel, which also impacts how we feel about ourselves.

Furthermore, social learning is embedded in academic learning, which means social thinking is embedded in academic learning. One’s interpretation of the social world impacts one’s ability to engage in socially based academics such as reading comprehension of literature, written expression, and collaboration/cooperation/conversations in the classroom. Socially-based academic concepts are embedded in the educational standards on a national, provincial and state level.

It is fair to say that the social learning treatment is far more complex than most realize. However, it is through this more complex lens that the Social Thinking Methodology continues to evolve.


Social Thinking Methodology: A deeper look at the evidence base underlying the practice

The following pages illustrate a structured way to show how the Social Thinking Methodology is grounded in theoretical research-based concepts and constructs, and how each lesson and activity can be traced back to its roots in the research literature. It is also a way to make sense of the many different pathways of information we have created over time.

Column 1 (Layer 1): Theoretical concepts, constructs, and therapies (i.e., definitively recognized in the literature and possess an extensive research base). These form the foundation of all components of the methodology. Note: This column is all about what an INTERVENTIONIST (educators, therapists, and parents/caregivers) needs to understand to teach the content in columns 3, 4, 5 and 6. Theoretical concepts and constructs are not traditionally tools for teaching SOCIAL LEARNERS. *Exception: some sophisticated adults may benefit from learning about the research-base underlying the strategies.

Column 2 (Layer 2): Conceptual frameworks found within the Social Thinking Methodology that spring from, and are supported by, the research base in Layer 1. Note: This layer is about what an INTERVENTIONIST needs to understand to teach SOCIAL LEARNERS in columns 3, 4, 5 and 6. These conceptual frameworks are guideposts for the interventionist to learn how the social world works to create and organize his or her own thinking about the process of social learning and social relatedness. Conceptual frameworks are not intended for direct use with clients/students. *Exception: some sophisticated adults may benefit from understanding and learning about the conceptual frameworks underlying the strategies.

Column 3 (Layer 3): Some key treatment frameworks. Every treatment framework has a link to a conceptual framework. These treatment frameworks serve two missions: 1) Provide the INTERVENTIONIST with a deeper understanding of how the social world works, and 2) Create a structure for SOCIAL LEARNERS to understand that strategies do not stand alone but are part of a larger social process. Note: Treatment frameworks were designed for INTERVENTIONISTS to understand first and then utilize that knowledge to structure teaching for SOCIAL LEARNERS.

Column 4 (Layer 4): Intervention strategies related to the treatment frameworks. There are numerous strategies, but for the purposes of this paper and space, only Social Thinking Vocabulary (STV) and a handful of other strategies created by others are included. Note: Strategies were designed to further build the knowledge of INTERVENTIONISTS while also providing a structure for teaching SOCIAL LEARNERS.

Column 5 (Layer 5): Activities based on the treatment and conceptual frameworks. Note: Activities represent how we make the other columns come alive and are to be adapted to create meaningful lessons for SOCIAL LEARNERS.

Column 6 (Layer 6): Motivational/Developmental Tools—the ways in which we "package" the theoretical concepts/constructs, frameworks, and strategies for dissemination and implementation for teaching SOCIAL LEARNERS.


NOTE: The following table helps to show the research-based foundation of the Social Thinking Methodology and is not meant to show a 1:1 correlation between each column from left to right. The reality is that the social learning process is dynamic and synergistic, and many of the frameworks (both conceptual and treatment) overlap with a variety of research-based concepts, constructs, and therapies. In other words, use this table as a resource to help you understand the origins and connections to the literature within the lessons and activities you teach. To be clear, the pathways demonstrated in this table are NOT as unidirectional and linear as they appear—it's just not that simple. There is tremendous overlap, which makes sense! We have over-simplified the information to simply demonstrate theoretical research-based pathways. Nor is the table comprehensive by any means! Our hope is that these examples will guide your thinking, discussions with others, and ultimately your understanding of the deeper roots of the Social Thinking Methodology.

We hope this paper helps you think in a more complex manner about the strategies and activities you teach. We also hope this information prompts you to have deeper conversations with colleagues, parents, and administrators about the core evidence base underlying and EBP infused within the Social Thinking Methodology.


For more information related to evidence and the Social Thinking Methodology, click here.

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Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Brock, M., Plavnick, J., Fleury, V., & Schultz, T. R. (2014). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.

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Abbreviated Bibliography

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