What are social skills anyway?


I just had the opportunity to attend a 2 day workshop put on by Michelle Garcia Winner, founder of Social Thinking. Although this workshop is not meant to meet the needs of kids as significant needs as Braden, I thought I would share a bit of what I learned for those of you with kids who have higher functioning social skills.

First off, go to this website: www.socialthinking.com  There are over 120 free articles to read on the topic. Social thinking also has a Facebook and Pinterest page.

Social thinking is a methodology and helps to better frame our thinking around social skills. For years, people have called social skills “non-cognitive skills.” This is a ridiculous idea as it takes a lot of cognition to read the world around you, make determinations of what is happening, and figure out how you should respond in that situation. An example used at the conference was that we were all new to this venue. It was lunch time. What did we need to do to figure out our situation? We had to look at the set up of the buffet. We had to determine what direction the line was going, where to get the plates and utensils. However, before we even got out to the cafeteria, we had to depart the meeting room. To do this, we had to know certain “rules” such as: we should wait until the person in front of us goes. We shouldn’t climb over them. In the line itself, we wouldn’t cut ahead. When we go to sit down, we wouldn’t sit on a person…all these are social rules that we know. Aren’t we lucky? Some of our kids don’t automatically know these rules. When we’re in a new situation, it can cause a bit of anxiety for us. For our kids with social problems, this type of situation can be a nightmare!

I couldn’t possible share everything I learned in the past two days. However, I did want to share a few things. We all know kids who are very intelligent but have poor social skills. Some may have a diagnosis of being on the spectrum. Others may not. But we can’t get wrapped up in labels. Kids who have poor social skills are really at a disadvantage.

Think about it. When Braden doesn’t behave “appropriately” in a social situation, he is quickly forgiven. Everyone knows within a few seconds that something is going on with Braden, even if they’ve never met him. So when he stamps his feet loudly or stims with his hands, people may glance over, but they don’t get angry. Now, consider a highly functioning intelligent adult. This adult, while intelligent according to IQ scales, has poor social thinking. He may say something deemed rude by another. He may speak too loudly. He may sit apart from the group and not try and interact. What are your thoughts about this person? You think he’s rude. You think he’s a jerk. You don’t easily forgive someone like this.

And when you think about it, isn’t this unfair? Don’t get me wrong. I find myself reacting to co-workers or peers with poor social skills in a very judging manner. I don’t easily forgive these behaviors. Why? Because they are smart! So I think that they should know better.

My big learning: “There is no such thing as a mild social skills problem.” The smarter the individual, the less forgiving we are of their lack of social skills. According to Michelle Garcia Winner, these people have difficulties in school and the workplace.

What does that mean for us? We have to help our kids become aware of their social selves. We can teach this awareness. Will kids be cured of ASD? Of course not. Can they move up levels on the social awareness scale? Maybe. But the more we help them become aware, the better off they’ll be.

As a learning support teacher, when my students with social needs say something that is unexpected, I need to ensure that I help them become aware of this and give them skills and strategies to work on the behavior. But if I just keep ignoring it, they will never learn…and never function in school or the workplace.

But I also think it’s important that all of us educators have patience and understanding. Kids with social skill issues generally also have learning issues. They may have a high intelligence, but have problems with Executive Functioning. Or, kids with social issues often are perfectionists. What does this mean in the classroom? They’re afraid to even try because they’ll fail. In the classroom this looks like a student who doesn’t want to learn. Teachers react very strongly to kids who they feel don’t want to be there.

I will always hold on to this by Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child. You can listen to a podcast Mike did with him here. (More on Mike’s podcasts in another post) “Kids do well if they can.” If they are not doing well, it’s our job to find out what is happening. We can’t just write them off and say, “Well, they don’t even try so they don’t want to learn.” This is the easy way out. We can and MUST do better.

One other nugget I learned this weekend (there are unfortunately too many of them to write about): “To say a child does not have empathy is to take away their humanity. All people have humanity. They just might not show it at the expected time.” Think about it.

I know I have friends who have kids on the spectrum or with ADHD or with poor social skills. I highly recommend attending a Social Thinking workshop. I wish I could share more of my learning from the past 2 days, but it would take many hours. I know I’ll be using what I learned in my teaching from now on. I’ll also help to spread the word that we cannot continue to ignore social skill problems.

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