Years ago, I’d probably have described my work as running Social Thinking®groups.

While I still enjoy working with small, well-matched groups, I rarely take an application, meet a student, and then place them in a group. These days I usually work with parents first on how to support their child’s social development. I also consult with the child’s teachers to help them better understand and support their student. We often collaborate on small-group or whole-class social learning activities that support both the student and their peers. At some point, I meet with the student and determine whether they can benefit from individual work or not. If and when the time and the peer group is right, I will offer them a spot in a social learning group, but that tends to come later. This wraparound model emphasizes the complexity of a child’s social learning, including the environment they’re learning in and how they’re being supported.

Social Thinking, Michelle Winner’s groundbreaking cognitive-behavioral approach, remains the backbone of the vocabulary, tools, and strategies I use, in addition to Collaborative Problem Solving®and Responsive Classroom®. But these are tools, not an approach. My overriding approach is to build an honest relationship with a child that allows me to facilitate positive social growth while respecting and affirming their “essential OK-ness” – their developing sense of themselves as a worthwhile, good-enough, perfectly imperfect human being and social learner.

To get this far, I’ve needed to learn about neurodiversity and neurodivergent minds from writers and advocates like Judy Endow, Ruti Regan, Ari Ne’eman, Lydia X. Z. Brown, M Kelter, and Amy Sequenzia. Not just reading their writing, but getting to know them as people. It’s required me to question and unlearn a great deal of what I was taught, not just in “Abnormal Psychology,” but more broadly, in life, about social success, status, friendships, and more.

My most important teachers have been my own children and my students, all of whom tend to enthusiastically step into the space I make for them to give me feedback. It’s been fascinating, informative, and occasionally hair-raising to observe and support my young adult and my teenager through the social ups and downs of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At this point it would be hard to say which of my kids and which kinds of social challenges have taught me more.

All of this has led me away from the concept of “intervention” and toward a clear assertion that my work does not offer any kind of fixing, quick or otherwise. As Winner has said, “This is slow, deep learning.” Effective social learning requires a relationship-centered approach that affirms each child’s dignity and intrinsic self-worth. Anything else is conversion therapy, and conversion therapy is harmful.

Here are my priorities:

My first priority is to match group members thoughtfully. When children have social learning challenges that justify weekly attendance in a group, their social self-worth may already be brittle, shaky, or battered. Being placed in a group with other children who are either far beyond or behind them in apparent social sophistication elevates each child’s social anxiety. Anxiety makes it difficult for them to engage and learn.

Most of my students enter social groups bearing the dissonance of knowing they are capable in some ways, but anxious or struggling socially. It isn’t fair to require children to manage the weight of this dissonance while also expecting them to think in a nuanced, big-picture way about how they fit or don’t fit with an assigned social group. I match with great care and make sure students understand that these are working groups, like lab partners in science, not assigned friends. But if a child still doesn’t feel OK about being part of a given group after giving it a try, even if they really need help — even if we believe they are in a well-matched group but they don’t see it that way — I will find another way to work with them.

My second priority is to make the group experience pretty darn fun.

Kids with social challenges learn from hard experience that satisfying, sustained social interaction is more elusive for them than for others. For them, the pleasurable aspects of social interaction are marred by hurtful conflicts, or are sporadic, unpredictable, or nonexistent. Social skills instruction too often means a painful string of corrections, consequences, overprompting, and lectures.

Therefore, it is especially important for them to consistently experience a sense of “belonging, significance and fun” (from Responsive Classroom) in a social learning environment. They truly need it as a counterweight to many of their other social experiences. If kids are not laughing together on a regular basis, we need to fix that by any means necessary. Cat videos, Mad Libs, silly charades — whatever it takes.

This also provides plenty of motivation for students to take on challenging social learning. I do not have to motivate students with Friendship Bucks, stars, or plastic trinkets. In my work, tangible rewards for performing specific social behaviors send the message that social interaction is a chore whose value lies mainly in the external rewards adults give you when you produce expected behaviors. 

Helping kids build a working, internal understanding of the social world and take confident ownership of their social learning is one of my responsibilities. So we spotlight moments of progress, honor the development of insight, celebrate attempts at using new social strategies or concepts, and point out the positive consequences of doing so. I take photos of good times, happy faces, and interesting projects.

           

I draw cartoons and use lots of other visuals to help students connect the dots between the social concepts we are learning and their own real-world social interactions and the responses. 

Social learning has to be meaningful and useful to the child, it has to be concrete and clear, and there has to be supportive adult scaffolding for practice, follow-up, and fine-tuning. Otherwise, we adults are just making a bunch of sounds come out of our mouths. Either we want to have “talks” with kids about appropriate social behavior, or we want to engage with them in practical, active learning that is likely to actually help them.

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 anyone through a pre-set series of lessons. There can be some advantages to that, but it’s not what I do. I offer individual social learning support or ongoing weekly groups that are responsive to the kids’ own current social learning needs and interests. Their needs tend to be identifiable by working backwards from their own unsolved social problems, worries, and puzzling social interactions they can’t yet figure out for themselves. Basically, we start with their complaints and concernsTheir corresponding, underlying social learning needs usually fall into the following, fairly predictable areas:

  • self-regulation
  • flexible thinking
  • perspective taking
  • social communication
  • social inferencing and problem solving
  • building and navigating friendships/relationships
  • shifting between “detail thinking” and “big picture thinking”

For each of these, I have plenty of tried-and-true hands-on activities, projects, visuals, games, books, video clips, and so forth. I also create new ones with my students all the time. While we identify and strengthen their 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 the truth is, this social learning we are taking on can be of great benefit, but it is not a magic wand. Social interaction and connection is complex and often difficult because it involves other people, in all their own wondrous variety, who are also bumbling along in their own social learning. Our social lives are not part of a predictable, linear, if/then formula.

We can, however, take ownership of our own social learning. Fortunately, my students get this. Even if friendships don’t materialize overnight, or they still get overwhelmed by social demands, my students, in their wisdom and practicality, use what we learn together to build a better understanding of the social world and their roles in it. They find stability, comfort, and confidence in that.

We start with more structured and conceptual learning, though I still teach experientially and visually, with sensory breaks, snacks, dance parties, and outdoor play days and side trips to the frozen yogurt shop down the street. Some days we work so hard and learn so much our brains are fried, some days we just enjoy our time together, and most days it’s a combination. Later on, we usually shift toward more application of the concepts we’ve been exploring, with substantial multi-week group projects everyone helps to choose, open-ended play, or challenging field trips.

Fourth, I disclose my own ongoing social learning.
For example, I might talk about a real social mistake I’ve made in the group or in a meeting and ask the kids 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 I might point out some area where I’m pretty confident that I’ve improved, or casually mention something I’ve been working on and am still. I strongly encourage parents to do the same.

The purpose of this modeling is not to pretend that everyone struggles with social learning in the ways my students do. There’s nothing wrong with struggling, and there’s nothing wrong with social learning. The purpose is to authentically and openly share some of our common, lifelong social learning processes. This gives a child’s specific, often frustrating or painful social struggles some context, perspective, and above all, humanity. Adults must demonstrate self-awareness, self-compassion, and a growth mindset regarding our own ongoing social development before we expect children to demonstrate these qualities themselves.

My way is not the only healthy way to support social learning, and my way is not right for every child or family. Most of my students are referred to me by neuropsychologists, school counselors, and developmental pediatricians who know what I’m best at and have a good understanding of the readiness required for taking on this kind of work. But no matter  what approach is suggested by teachers or helping professionals and chosen by parents, the bottom line is that all social learning support should first do no harm. And I believe we should all focus much more on supporting kids in exploring and illuminating the social world in ways that are honest, meaningful, accessible, and useful … for them.

 

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Lucas

Here’s to the cerebral dads, who read long, jargony books about ADHD, autism, sensory integration, anxiety, or giftedness. Or parts of the books. Or listen to their spouse talk about something they learned from the books.

Here’s to the dedicated dads, who take the kid to occupational therapy every week, once a month, or several times a year. Even though no one can ever explain what occupational therapy is.

To the wacky-fun dads, who provide extra proprioceptive input by pretending to be a humpback whale, breaching magnificently from behind the edge of the bed and then squooshing the delighted kids with a whaleish, “Whhhaaauuunnnhhh!”

To the focused dads, who silence their phones and listen to the teacher or the psychologist talk about trying a different perspective or strategy with the kid.

The flexible and adaptive dads, who make an effort to incorporate some or one of these new perspectives or strategies in their parenting.

The tenacious dads, who ask the professionals the next week, “Wait, tell me again what you were saying last week?”

The wise dads, who are good co-stewards of the family’s finances, but who know that working with with quality professionals is a great investment.

The grateful dads, who know they are lucky if they have a partner who shoulders more of the job of helping their little cub reach their potential.

The insistent dads, who make dates that involve nonrefundable tickets and getting dressed up and refuse to take, “But I’m so exhausted” for an answer.

The balanced, tuned-in dads, who give extra time and attention to the sibling(s), who still needs to feel special and visible.

The insightful dads, who recognize a few of the kid’s traits in themselves and use their self-knowledge to help the family set a healthy course between pathologizing and denial.

And finally, here’s to the affirming, hopeful, understanding and loving dads, who enjoy being in the moment on the kid’s terms: Playing a video game. Running an errand together. Listening to a long explanation about dinosaurs or space or movie release dates. And leaving the bright, noisy baseball game 15 minutes in, saying convincingly, “It’s cool, buddy – I was about ready to go get us some ice cream.”

 

 

 

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This has been a hit with the families in my practice. One group of parents told me that they laminated it and used dry-erase markers with it on a regular basis! In this case, their kids quickly got the hang of it and started using it on their own for a while, then they didn’t need it anymore.

 

                        LET’S PLAY!

  • Friendly welcome. Let them know you plan to be
    friendly and have fun.  (Doesn’t have to be words.)
  • Show around your house if first time.
  • Offer two ideas for fun things to do.  
    (See starter ideas on back.)
  • Try a little flexible thinking on activities.
     (Take turns, mix ideas, try a little?)
  • If there are any problems, maybe ask yourself 
    what’s the size of the problem before you react.
  • Stay nearby. (Beware of “drift”!)
  • BUT: If you need a break …
        1. Make sure your friend has something to
        2. Give your friend a heads-up: I’ll be right back!

     What’s your “back pocket plan” in case the playdate
     isn’t working?  ____________________________________

 

                      PARENTS
Briefly remind about expected behavior before the playdate.
Give kids time to figure out expected behavior.
Give a tip or reminder in private.
Only 1 or 2 reminders, no repeating.
Be prepared to make some good snacks or help get materials out.
Practice flexible thinking about small messes.
Keep it short.

 

                 WHAT CAN WE DO??

OUTSIDE:   Trampoline    Play Structure/Tree   Chickens
Pool     Tennis/Hoops     Climbing Trees     Hopscotch
Jump Ropes     Chase/Tag     Sidewalk Chalk
Skateboards/ Bikes/ Rollerblades/ Scooters/ Pogo

GAMES:  Othello    Life    Chess   Trouble   Mancala
Apples to Apples   Charades

MORE GAMES:  Pretend     Sly Fox     Hide & Seek
Sardines      Chase

ARTS & CRAFTS:   Clay    Sculpey   Drawing   Painting
Making Cards     Bracelets    Write a Play    Dance Party

FOOD:   Making Snacks    Baking    Cooking   Lemonade

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT:     Boxes/Forts      Potions
Dress-up       Spy       Pretend      Reading Together

BACK POCKET PLANS:   Dance Central     Sprinkler/Pool
Walk Dog      Change of Scenery      Snacks

OTHER IDEAS:

_______________________________________________________

_______________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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If a child’s behavior is the visible part of the iceberg, self regulation is the 90 percent that is below the surface. On a basic level, it includes emotional literacy, calibration (responding in proportion), and self control, both with respect to inhibiting impulses and directing attention.

As children develop, they also begin to incorporate skills from the other core social domains into their self regulation repertoire. What do I mean by that? They adjust their responses to stressors based on a clearer understanding of others’ perspectives, decentering from their own point of view and thinking as part of a group, and shifting their focus to reframe a situation in terms of the big picture instead of focusing on one detail that is bothering them.

The overlap and integration of all these sophisticated skills make self regulation a complex process, so there’s no one right way to teach it, no linear A-B-C method that always works. But here are a few principles I’ve developed over the years to help parents and teachers to support children and teens in learning new self regulation skills without getting lost and overwhelmed.

  1. Pick one thing. Some children will present with several areas of need. It’s wise to choose one skill to work on at time. You might feel neglectful putting a known concern on the back burner. But if doing so allows you to focus on making real progress in a specific area, it’s a good investment.

    Picking one thing will protect your relationship with the child, maintain their positive self regard, and bolster your sense of self-efficacy. Then you can move on to the next goal.This is easier said than done. Sometimes, helping the adults focus on supporting the child in just one specific area of self regulation is 80 percent of what we work on for a few weeks.

  2. Pick a good time. If you’re training a dog, it’s best to provide a correction or reward immediately. If you’re working with a tender, impressionable, struggling human child on self regulation, it’s better to wait for the most teachable moment. Often, we must manage behavior in the moment. But to help scaffold and support the growth of independent self regulation, you usually need a calm child and a few moments without competing demands and distractions.
  3. Get in front of the problem. If your child is struggling with some area of self regulation, they will learn best if they are set up for success just before the triggering situation arises. We can’t get in front of everything, but when we recognize a problematic pattern, we can make a plan with the child’s input and then remind them about it right before the end of the playdate, or first thing in the morning, or as we drop them off at school.
  4. Draw more, talk less. Even talkative kids with big vocabularies benefit from having good visuals paired with language-based support in self regulation. Why? Because language is an abstract medium, and the self regulation concepts we are sharing are also inherently abstract. So for children who struggle with language, listening, and self regulation, a purely language-based approach is ineffective.

    Our signal that we need to draw or write more and talk less is when we find ourselves thinking or grumbling, “I’ve told them a hundred times!” That’s our sign that we need to slow down and “break it down until we hit concrete” by incorporating drawings, posters, photos, videos, charts, hand signals, and more. Adults worry that kids won’t tolerate stick figure drawings, but I have consistently found that if we start drawing in front of them without talking about it or demanding that they participate, they get curious and want to fix my work, which I welcome.

These are just a few of my own core practices in approaching self regulation. I also recommend reading The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene, Helping Your Anxious Child, by Ronald Rapee, and Self-Reg, by Stuart Shanker.

 

 

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The first thing to know about flexible thinking as a social skill is that children who get through a a whole day with a great working set of flexible thinking skills only appear to sail along. In reality, they are smoothly and consistently deploying a sophisticated set of learned cognitive strategies. It’s a lot of work.

Even young children use cognitive set shifting to transition from one task or setting to another. They update mental representations when they revise a drawing or rephrase a question. They process multiple dimensions of meaning simultaneously as they play around with puns, jokes, or new languages, or assert their own idea while incorporating a friend’s in imaginative play or conversation. They use pattern recognition to detect and incorporate exceptions to rules, in grammar, friendships, or P.E. games.

Good social support around Flexible Thinking should make the process of learning these skill sets more conscious, explicit, and useful in a variety of settings. Over time, by both building in and taking advantage of in-the-moment learning opportunities, we can scaffold children’s growing metacognitive abilities, helping them build an internal infrastructure for thoughtful and adaptive flexibility over time.

Flexible Thinking shouldn’t be used to get students to do whatever we want them to do. Let’s avoid imploring children to “Be a flexible thinker” or asking rhetorical questions like, “Can you please just be flexible?” when we really need them to follow basic expectations like buckling up their seatbelt or moving over to let a grandparent sit down.

By the time we feel the urge to tell a child to be flexible, they are likely to be flooded with prefrontal cortex-impairing cortisol, and sometime so are we. So if we do make the choice to use the moment to teach flexible thinking (knowing that coming back to it later is always an option), we must remember that in a tense moment, many children will need help with a couple of ideas of how to be flexible. It is not something they can just be. Under stress, just about everyone’s capacity for cognitive flexibility is diminished (Goldfarb, 2016). With all of this in mind, our approach might sound like this:

  • “I wonder if any of the Ways of Flexible Thinking from our drawing might help you get unstuck. Take a look and I’ll check with you in a minute to see if any of them would work in this situation.”
  • “I remember how you were able to shift your brain so quickly from focusing on your TV show to getting your shoes on yesterday. See if you can remember how you did that.”
  • “Yesterday on my way home, I thought of a way I could have been more flexible about __________. Sometimes it takes me a little time to figure out how to use “both/and” thinking. We can try it today and see if it works.”

In my social learning groups, I remind children of previous successes and draw out their strategies, provide visuals and language that prompt them to recall and apply specific lessons and practices, and model my own flexible thinking strengths and stretches in an authentic way.

Finally, let’s be cautious about inadvertently teaching students that inflexible, rigid thinking is a prerogative of people who have power by virtue of age, education, or other favored positions of culture or authority. We know from experience and common sense that neglecting to be careful with this leads to power struggles with some children and teens, who will predictably try to assert their own use of this “privilege” by attempting to assume a dominant role and bulldozing us right back!

So instead of telling kids, “No, I can’t be flexible about that,” when they protest that we are not being flexible, we can respond that we already discussed the time limit for the computer, or this is an important safety rule, or this is our plan for dinner, but they don’t have to eat it. Don’t throw Flexible Thinking under the bus when you really need to set a limit.

 

 

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