Over the past several years, I’ve made a shift from running Social Thinking® groups to more broadly facilitating social learning in the context of good mental health. Often, I work with small, well-matched groups. But when it suits a student better, I may work with their classroom teacher instead, see the student individually if they want, or work with their family to support social learning in a more deeply integrated way. Usually it’s some combination of these. I’ve let go of traditional models in favor of doing whatever it takes to tailor my support of children’s social development in ways that protect and serve their developing, tender sense of themselves as OK, capable, worthwhile human beings.
Social Thinking, Michelle Winner’s cognitive-behavioral approach to social development, remains influential, particularly the groundbreaking shift from focusing on training specific social behaviors to teaching social concepts in an accessible, often visual way that students can apply flexibly. But in the last few years I’ve brought my mental health background and my ever-developing multicultural lens more to the foreground. Specifically, the perspectives of writers and advocates in the exploding field of neurodiversity — Judy Endow, Ruti Regan, Lydia X. Z. Brown, M Kelter, Maxfield Sparrow, Amy Sequenzia, Shannon des Roches Rosa, Steve Silberman and others — make vital contributions to my daily work. Finally, my experiences as a parent of a young adult and a teenager with two dramatically different neurotypes can’t be understated.
My groups do not offer any kind of fixing, quick or otherwise. As Winner has said, “This is slow, deep learning.” Effective social learning requires a child-centered approach that affirms each child’s dignity and intrinsic self-worth. To that end, here are my priorities:
My first priority is to make social learning safe, useful, and pretty darn enjoyable. Young people with social challenges learn from hard experience that satisfying social interaction is more elusive for them than for others. For them, the pleasurable aspects of social interaction are spotty or nonexistent. For them, social skills instruction often means enduring a painful string of corrections, consequences, overprompting, lectures, and misinformation.
Therefore, it is especially important for students to consistently experience a sense of “belonging, significance and fun” (from Responsive Classroom) in a social learning group. They truly need it as a counterweight to many of their other social experiences. If kids are not belly laughing together on a regular basis, you need to fix that by any means necessary. Cat videos, The Far Side comics, Mad Libs — whatever it takes.
This also provides plenty of motivation for kids to take on challenging social learning. I do not use Friendship Bucks, stars, or plastic trinkets. In my work, tangible rewards for social behaviors send the message that social interaction is a chore whose value lies mainly in the stars and knick-knacks adults give you when you please them by producing the expected behaviors. If kids make any apparent social gains in these conditions, they tend to taper off when the trinkets end.
Helping kids build an accurate, working understanding of the social world and become active agents in their own social learning are some of my top goals. So we spotlight the application of learning, honor insights, explore new social strategies and concepts, and then debate their merits with an open mind. I take photos of good times, happy faces, and cool projects. We draw cartoons and use lots of other visuals to help students connect the dots between the social concepts we are learning about and the different ways they play out in the real world.
Social learning has to be positive, meaningful, and useful to the child, and it has to be made accessible to them by visual or tangible means. Otherwise, we adults are just making a bunch of sounds come out of our mouths.
Another priority is to match group members thoughtfully. When children have social learning challenges that justify weekly attendance in a group, their self-worth is likely to be fragile, dented, or battered. Being placed in a small social learning group with others who are too different from them in social sophistication elevates their social anxiety. This makes it hard for them to engage in social learning, which is already challenging.
Students enter social groups bearing the cognitive and emotional dissonance of knowing they are “smart” and capable in many ways, but not adept socially. It isn’t fair to require children to manage the weight of this confusion and anxiety while also expecting them to think in a nuanced, flexible way about how they fit with an assigned social group.
While I match with care, if a child still doesn’t feel good about being part of a given group after giving it a try, I will try working with them individually, or see if they want to try later, which they often do. My referrals and screening processes tend to maximize the likelihood that what I offer is a good match by the time I ever meet with a new student. But occasionally, when a child doesn’t want to work with me, I advise parents to take advantage of this opportunity to teach their child about consent, to listen to their child, and to support them in finding a better match.
Third, I meet kids where they are. My students need to develop a sense of agency and assertion in choosing what we focus on learning. So I don’t use a manualized curriculum, or step people through a pre-set series of lessons. There can be some advantages to that, but it’s not what I do. I offer an ongoing weekly group that is responsive to the kids’ own current social learning interests. These tend to reliably flow from their own unsolved social problems, worries, and puzzling or troubling social interactions. Basically, we start with their own complaints and concerns.
Their corresponding, underlying social learning needs usually fall into in the following, fairly predictable areas:
- flexible thinking
- perspective taking
- social communication
- social inferencing and problem solving (including setting boundaries)
- building and navigating friendships
- balancing “thinking as part of a group” with “just me thinking”
- zooming in and out between “detail thinking” and “big picture thinking”
For each of these, we have hands-on activities, projects, visuals, games, books, video clips, and so forth. I’m also open to new suggestions. While we identify and strengthen these underlying social cognitive skills, we always make direct connections to how this learning is likely to benefit the child in dealing with their social concerns. I say “likely,” because I have found that it always pays to be honest with my students about the fact that everyone is still learning, socially and otherwise. This social learning we are taking on can be of real, measurable benefit, but it is not like a magic wand.
Social interaction and connection is complex. The truth is that we can’t make other people accept us or even be decent to us, we can’t build friendships by following behavioral prescriptions or platitudes, and we can’t avoid making some social mistakes. But we can take ownership of our own social learning, and my students find that there is power in this. In their wisdom and practicality, they use what we learn together to build a better understanding of the social world and their roles in it.
Finally, I share my own ongoing social learning. For example, I might talk about a real social mistake I’ve made and ask my students to help me figure out how big it is on a scale from one to five. We might discuss how to fix it or work around it in the future, or think about different scenarios or twists that might change our ideas about the size of the problem. Or I might point out some area where I’m confident that I’ve improved, or casually mention something I’ve been working on and am still. I encourage parents to do the same.
The purpose of this is not to pretend that everyone struggles with social learning the way my students do. (That’s not necessary, and it sends the wrong message. There’s nothing wrong with struggling, and there’s nothing wrong with social learning.) The purpose is to authentically share our common, lifelong social learning processes. This gives a child’s specific, often painful social struggles some context, perspective, and above all, shared humanity. Adults need to clearly and consistently model and articulate self-awareness, self-compassion, and a growth mindset regarding our own lifelong social development before we ask children to demonstrate these qualities themselves. Whether they have specific social learning challenges or not.
My way is not the only healthy way to support social learning, it’s not perfect because I’m an evolving social learner just like everyone else, and it isn’t right for every child or family. I typically work with students who can use language well and demonstrate some abstract thinking, but not always. Most of my students are referred to me by neuropsychologists and developmental pediatricians who have a thorough understanding of the readiness required of both parents and children for taking on this kind of work. It is a lot of work, and sensory overload, communication roadblocks, and the resulting dysregulation and mood issues usually need to be cared for first. But no matter where a parent or child is in terms of readiness, the bottom line is that social learning groups should first do no harm, then focus on supporting kids in exploring and illuminating the social world in ways that are meaningful, accessible, and useful … for them.