Teachers, do you have a student who is routinely “spaced-out” while in class? You’re doing everything short of standing on your head to have a structured daily routine and use visual, non-verbal, and auditory cues, and all the current best practices for engaging your students in their diverse learning modes. Yet, while his classmates are automatically following the routine and are on task, this kid is out of sync consistently and appears somewhat, if not completely, unaware of—or even confused by—what he’s expected to be doing. It’s probable that this child is not just distracted or daydreaming. What is more likely is that this child has significant social emotional learning challenges.
A persistent pattern of inattention is not a behavior problem
Attention is not a behavior. When you see a persistent pattern wherein a child does not know what is going on around her or what to do, even with daily routine, visuals, and auditory cues, it is really important to not shrug it off and conclude that this kid is choosing to not pay attention, is choosing to be by herself, or has a behavior problem. Instead, her brain is likely not able to figure out how the social world works and how to work in the world. She is likely quite weak at attending to and learning the subtle contextual cues, social systems, and patterns of communication that neurotypical students learn almost intuitively and by osmosis. What you are likely observing is a less aware social mind and you will need assistance in helping the student actively participate in your mainstream classroom. It’s important that you talk to the parents to learn if this is happening at home, too (around non-desired activities), as well as alert the special education professionals within your school.
Joint attention is vital to the development of social competencies and successful relationships
Neurotypical individuals, most humans, are genetically and neurologically programmed to be aware of each other. We are born to form joint attention, which is an awareness in directing our attention to join what we are focusing on together. When we are infants and toddlers, we develop the ability to follow each other’s gaze, work collaboratively, observe and read the intentions of people and each other in context. By the time we are three years old, we are figuring out what the social norms are, what’s expected and unexpected, and even how we each feel based on what we do or don’t do together. Simultaneously, our language is forming, and we may be learning the basics in academics, like the alphabet, to build the eventual ability to read and write. This social thinking mindset is the bedrock of developing social competencies and relationships to work in groups and evolve in our ability to engage in critical thinking across multiple perspectives—which we teachers rely on to guide our students toward further practice in critical thinking in English language arts, history, social studies, science labs, and more.
Academic smarts and social competencies don’t always go hand in hand
By the time a child is five years old and entering kindergarten, it is expected within the education curriculum that the child just knows how to enter a group of others and be aware of what’s going on around him, follow the teacher’s directions even though she may be standing ten feet away and appears to be talking to another set of children in the room. If he can’t do these types of expected behaviors, our antennae are up, and he’s on our radar. Nevertheless, when a child is academically sound or even precocious—he appears to be “smart,” comes in reading fluently, knows his number systems, and has strong surface language skills—we educators and parents can be somewhat blind to his possible social emotional learning challenges. We either don’t think they are critical—after all this student can pass our tests!—or we excuse behaviors as quirky, think he is happy by himself, or believe that his social competencies will develop on their own, and he’ll catch up with his peer group as he matures because he is “so smart.”
Why struggling social learners often go undetected
What needs to be recognized is that there are different types of social learners. The more fact-based and literal the learner, the more spaced-out he or she may be in social and group contexts. Generally, in early education from age five to seven, the academic curriculum is largely fact-based. The academic skills and knowledge sets being taught and learned are systematic, static, and predictable—the alphabet, decoding words, vocabulary, number systems, and so on. Youngsters with social learning challenges can slip through undetected because they pass or even excel at this level of fact-based academic learning. While we tend to believe all young children are “literal learners,” the majority, in fact, are attending and interpreting to social abstractions to be able to work and learn in the classroom and play with their peers on the playground. Their minds are also flexible; they begin to realize that words have multiple meanings and that humor can come from playing with language. Steadily, as children age, the academic curriculum becomes less predictable and more abstract, nuanced, and complex, requiring increasing levels of interpretation, inference, and problem solving. Moreover, the social world is dynamic and in a state of constant flux.
Social attention requires our vigilance whenever we are with people. As a result, our less attentive or easily distracted social learners often become less proficient—and some really struggle to make sense of curricula that also become more socially abstract, as they require students to move away from memorizing facts and move toward analysis of information. Simultaneously, the social expectations of peers evolve, yet the child who struggles to understand the social world may not be advancing. The adults in the school may not notice, but their peers do! Each person’s social ability to go with the flow or follow the group plan is interpreted by his or her peers far more actively and astutely than we adults may perceive.
Whether we are abstract- or literal-minded, the abstract social demands of the world are ever present. Neurotypical humans observe, learn, and adapt to changing social information and expectations continuously throughout their lives. But, because early childhood is a time where we expect children to intuitively begin to “figure each other out,” social concepts and skills are not overtly taught in the classroom or within the academic curriculum. The result is that most teachers are taught “classroom management” rather than how to engage the social emotional mind to work and learn as part of a group. In fact, it can be argued that the only reason we can educate students in relatively large groups and expect them to sit in the classroom and talk about what happened in history or what is happening outside of the class in society is because of the development of humans’ social cognitive capacity to engage within and beyond one’s own social mind.
Since it is assumed that children enter the public education system with solid to strong age-appropriate social competencies, students with social emotional learning challenges can go undetected and unsupported in school. They may even excel in certain subjects—based on their rote knowledge—even though they may not understand or make sense of what is happening around them. It’s entirely possible for students to make it all the way to high school without a fundamental awareness of how the social world works around them and how to work (navigate to regulate) in the social world. This happens, in part, because most standardized academic and intelligence tests are not designed to measure something as abstract as our ability to actively infer and glean relevance when among people in social contexts.
Students don’t just outgrow social learning challenges on their own
If you are told by school administrators and other district professionals that the parents of the “spaced-out kid” are not complaining, and so it’s not a problem, let us tell you—this is categorically untrue. It is a problem, a big one, that he will not outgrow with maturity. His social emotional learning challenges will not go away but will continue to grow in complexity throughout upper elementary school, middle school, high school, and adulthood. We also know that the less a student is able to blend in and be accepted by her peers, the more likely she will develop coexisting mental health challenges. Currently, most public and private schools continue to believe that social skills are only used on the playground and that social learning has nothing to do with engaging in standards-based education, critical thinking, and problem solving. Most politicians, administrators, and educators believe that the development of the social mind is secondary to advanced classroom learning and group work. Yet, these social competencies are vital for getting and maintaining employment, developing relationships, and being a member of one’s community throughout adulthood. Developing one’s social competencies is perhaps the one toolkit that most reliably contributes to “successful” adult outcomes.
Three essential actions for helping students with social learning challenges
Teachers, a non-attentive student needs more than cues or behavior plans to help him attend to you and his classmates. So, here is what you can do to facilitate student support and success:
- Observe and gather information.
Notice when a student exhibits a persistent pattern of social disengagement, confusion, and “cluelessness” during regular, routine classroom instruction and activities; this pattern leads us to describe these students as “spaced-out.” Avoid taking this personally; his or her lack of social attention should not be considered an insult to you, or even a choice, but instead a need for further investigation. In the classroom, this might look like the following behaviors: doing preferred activities, such as reading a book brought from home; talking to one’s self; seeming lost inside one’s own mind; listening to music or playing games instead of a classroom activity or task; struggling or failing to attend to cues and instructions; avoidance behavior; disruptive behavior; and an inability to start tasks, work independently, or complete in-class work and homework.
- Look for patterns in this student’s academic learning and performance. Many students with weak social attention may also be quite literal in how they interpret social information, and social information is embedded in academic standards and curricula. You may have a student who can master factually based curricula but struggles with interpreting texts, composing paragraphs and essays, determining main ideas, or summarizing information logically and effectively.
- Some students’ parents may refer to the student as “bright but clueless” because the student struggles to understand what it means to line up in class, walk with others, engage with peers, and play or work collaboratively.
- Some may appear to not be aware of what’s going on during group discussions or independent work time but then constantly blurt out questions or answers to questions.
- Some may really get upset when they don’t win a game or get chosen to go first.
- Peers may actively reject these students; no one chooses them to work in groups or to play with them.
- Some might have tried to relate to peers, albeit awkwardly, when a bit younger, but now withdraw from all attempts at group work and tell you they are happy by themselves. Be aware that humans need to connect with others; it’s part of the human DNA.
- Document where and when you notice a student routinely unable to engage in self-directed, goal-oriented work. This is indicative of executive functioning challenges which many of our social learners also face.
- Some students struggle with doing their work for the class. In this case, it’s important that you avoid doing the work for the student. Instead, write notes on his or her worksheets to help with a portfolio evaluation from the psychologist and others on the assessment team.
- Contact parents and special services professionals within the school to explain your concerns, observations, and information. Don’t just refer. Refer with your valuable observational information and collected artifacts.
- Facilitate improvement within your classroom.
- Use visuals to support instruction, transitions, expected behaviors, and routine.
- Implement and visually post a seating chart and a daily agenda.
- Review and prepare students in advance for non-routine events and schedules.
- Place the student next to a student or students who can help direct attention and model expectations and tasks.
- Avoid the expectation that this student knows when he or she is “spaced-out.” Establish and use non-verbal cues paired with direct verbal cues to redirect attention.
- Do not expect this student to ask for help. Develop a check-in system to see when he or she requires help. Some students are not only weak at social attention, but also have weak social self-awareness. This means they don’t know what they don’t know, making it more difficult for them to know when they need help.
- Avoid expecting this child to behave. Instead, explain information that appears “obvious” to other students and avoid assuming what your student knows about how the social world works.
- Check out the Core Social Thinking Vocabulary and treatment frameworks available through www.socialthinking.com for more information on how to break down social information to build up social competencies.
When a child needs help, alerting the system may be the most important step you take
Nowadays, the demands on mainstream classroom teachers, and what they are expected to accomplish within the classroom, have reached the point of absurdity. We acknowledge this and want to help. Frankly, no matter how accomplished, teachers cannot support and foster social learning in students with social emotional learning challenges successfully without the help and support of special education professionals, specialists, and parents. Our goal here is to bolster teachers’ awareness of students who are not “group smart,” who struggle significantly and routinely to rally their social attention within the classroom, not out of choice, but because of the way their brains are wired. Teachers are on the frontlines and are the first to see when students struggle with the academic and social curricula of our education system. They are uniquely qualified to observe and document the “spaced-out” students’ social learning performance in context, then refer these students with crucial anecdotal information to the school and district professionals and specialists who can provide these students with the social emotional learning support they need—for success in school and life thereafter.