Social Learning Without Shame
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 concerns. Their corresponding, underlying social learning needs usually fall into the following, fairly predictable areas:
- 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.