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Explaining Social Thinking to Others: The Big Picture in Sound Bites

Explaining Social Thinking to Others: The Big Picture in Sound Bites

Updated: May, 2015
© 2020 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

At just about every conference at which I speak, people ask me for suggestions on how to describe Social Thinking in a few words or a short paragraph. “Sound bites—that’s what they need,” I think to myself. “Easy-to-remember phrases that capture the essence of what we’re trying to do with the curricula and materials we create for our public.” You asked, we responded. I hope you find appetizing bites of information you can share with others in this Q&A format that follows.

Hi Michelle, we think Social Thinking is pretty cool; we just can’t explain it very well to others. How did it get started and how would you summarize what you and your team have created over time?

Since 1995, when I began working with students with high language and learning skills but weak social learning skills, I have been wrestling with the concept of how to teach social skills. So I asked myself a fairly simple question: “Why do we use social skills and how do we learn them?”

Here’s what I knew for sure then and now: people with sophisticated social skills do not simply memorize and apply social skills across all situations.

Social skills are produced based on our awareness of the situation, the presence (or absence) of people in it, and our related social thinking.

So what is the point of using our social skills? They tend to make people feel comfortable.

The goal in using effective social skills is to be able to impact how people react and respond to us. Since most of us want to keep people feeling comfortable with us the majority of the time, our social skills help us accomplish that goal.

So I began teaching what I called “Social Thinking” to help students learn to be more mindful of the larger social learning process. I purposefully was attempting to shift my students away from the idea that they just have to learn a set of social behaviors to, instead, thinking about the social learning process. That process starts in our minds and then transfers to how we behave in front of others.

Are you with me so far?

So with Social Thinking you focus on just teaching students what they need to learn to get along with others?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. There’s more.

As I started teaching this to my students, I discovered that my students’ parents, teachers, and school administrators did not understand what I was talking about. We seem to best be able to teach that which we remember being taught. Typically developing people don’t remember much about how they acquired their social skills since they seemed to learn them through osmosis. Born with reasonably intact social brain functioning, children, right from birth, intuitively learn to focus on people, their bodies, and their social interactions. The process starts first with their parents and then expands outward. Through this fusion of thinking, emotions, physical awareness, and experiences interacting with people across a range of situations, we typically learn strategies for developing and maintaining relationships. That’s the process for most folks.

Now think about the children who are not born with intact social brain functioning. They need to be taught what the rest of us learned intuitively. And that’s where I lost most adults. How to actually teach this just didn’t “compute.” If we, as adult parents and professionals, want to effectively teach our children/students more information about the process through which we ultimately learn social skills, we first need to understand it ourselves. I needed to create a way to teach adults philosophy and related strategies to help them inform our students.

Okay, so Social Thinking is all about teaching adult stakeholders, students, and children core social learning ideas and related strategies. That’s it, right?

Almost, but not quite.

It turns out that our ability to think socially gives us the means to interpret and respond to people (their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) and what we learn about them as they interact within and between situations.

It’s our early social learning abilities that help most of us become good social observers in a natural way. We use these social observational skills voyeuristically in watching and learning about others as much as we use them to guide our own social behaviors within our personal interactions.

Voyeuristic social observations help us also interpret what others may be doing or thinking when we’re not part of the immediate social situation. Some examples include using these skills to interpret characters, settings, motives, etc. when reading a book of literature, studying history, watching virtually any TV show or movie, or when writing an e-mail, story, essay, or book. We use these social thinking skills whether or not we’re in the presence of others!

Our social mind is our “meaning maker.” Without our social mind, learning tends to be rote, fact based, and devoid of interpretation.

So our social mind helps students with their schoolwork by bringing more meaning into what’s being learned?

Exactly! The social mind is critical for making sense of so much of the information taught through our Common Core or state standards. For example, any standard that encourages a student to consider another’s point of view, compare and contrast story lines, explain information in a logical sequence, use vocabulary to refine and enhance meaning, infer or predict actions, or summarize plots or messages is rooted in processing that occurs in the social mind.

By helping students sharpen their ability to think socially, we provide better cognitive tools for them to understand and succeed with their curricula as well as develop healthier interpersonal relationships, which includes improved conflict resolution skills.

Now I got it... Social Thinking, the company, provides a philosophy and a continuously expanding set of teaching tools for parents, professionals, administrators, and students to learn more about how we process and respond to social information, which helps us in our daily social relationships and within the academic curriculum. That’s it, right?

You’ve almost got it, but there’s just a bit more... stay with me, okay?

Our ability to think socially develops and evolves over time. For instance, the way we apologize, ask for help, or kindle a friendship as a child in kindergarten is very different from what we do as adults. The core thinking skills we learn as children lay the foundation for us to become more mature in our social thinking as our social abilities keep expanding across our lives. The socially based critical thinking that helps us write a persuasive essay in eighth grade may be exactly the same type of thinking we’ll use in our adult lives in our partnerships/marriages, during job interviews, in business meetings, when seeking out new customers, or while marketing a product. The core abilities are the same, although the way we express and use these skills matures and evolves as we become stronger social thinkers.

Basically, from the time we develop solid language and thinking skills in preschool and throughout the rest of our lives, we use our social mind to help us navigate and respond to all the information around us. This requires us to consider our own and others’ perspectives.

If you were going to try and explain this to a really busy administrator or someone in a Human Resources department of a big company, what would you say to motivate them to learn more?

If I had to sum it up briefly, I’d probably be provocative and say: “Social Thinking is a company that teaches us to think socially by helping us all think about you thinking about me and then figure out what we can do with all that thinking so that people think and feel about us the way we want them to!”

If I get the chance to explain it a bit further, I would say: “We take for granted the brain’s ability to think socially. Whether we are born to strong social thinking skills or our social thinking is relatively weak compared to our many other strengths, all people benefit from exploring our own and other’s social expectations.

“Social Thinking is a company that has developed a philosophy and related practical strategies and curricula to teach more sophisticated social skills that help us better co-exist and interact with those we share space with. These same core concepts also help us develop stronger insights and socially based critical thinking for use in solving social problems, interpreting a book of literature, writing an e-mail, understanding a video clip, etc. We can all better express our own ideas to others if we stop to consider how people think about us!”

...and if the administrator or HR director wants to think about this a tad bit more, you can add in:

“It’s our social mind that keeps people working together in the classroom or in a company. It helps us not only figure out what people mean by what they say and do but also how people want us to respond to help them feel comfortable. Everyone benefits from being reminded explicitly how our social mind works implicitly. The philosophy and related teaching strategies created by Social Thinking for folks with fair to strong language and scientific intellect help people across a lifespan develop stronger social thinking skills.”

And there you have it—a short summary and some sound bites to help you talk about and explain Social Thinking to others. Good luck!

To learn more about Social Thinking philosophy and strategies and how they are explained to different audiences, please visit our website, There you can explore the many free articles we offer, and/or learn more about our range of products grouped in these categories:

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