Social Thinking: Building up your social skills brain

27561744813_fce19082af_zBy Sabrina Bartels

For the past two Wednesdays, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in a professional development opportunity centered around Social Thinking. Two of our speech and language pathologists have been hosting it, and it has been amazing!

The concept of Social Thinking was pioneered by Michelle Garcia Winner, and revolves around social skills. The curriculum involved is targeted towards our students who are usually average to above average intelligence, but struggle with interacting in social situations. Some students may be rude, or very self-centered, or have very big reactions to very small problems. The majority of the time, these students don’t understand that this is not a typical reaction for the situation.

I am a big fan of the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.” I could watch that show morning, noon, and night, and still find things to laugh about. If you know the show (and even if you don’t,) you have probably heard of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons. Sheldon is someone that often comes up in our Social Thinking class, since he frequently demonstrates social skills deficits. He appears very self-centered; he often turns conversations with his friends to focus on himself. He can be rude towards his friends, saying that they are not as smart as him. He can also perseverate on little things (one memorable episode involved him chanting “You forgot your flash drive” for several minutes!)

But with Sheldon, and with the scenarios we discuss in our professional development, people who have these deficits often don’t realize it. Or, if they realize it, they are not sure how to handle it. I think in particular of a student I had this past year, who really seemed to struggle with making friends and being appropriate in social situations. To join conversations, he would shout, or make loud, obnoxious noises to get other people to notice him before joining in on the conversation. It mystified his teachers and me; he was a brilliant student who took some advanced classes in middle school. How was it that this smart kiddo didn’t understand that he couldn’t just honk like a goose to join a conversation?

It wasn’t his fault. And he didn’t disobey our directives to start acting like a middle school student when he did these things. He was trying, he really was. But after taking this class, I realize this went way beyond a behavioral thing. It was something he just struggled to understand, and he needed someone to teach and reinforce his social skills.

Also, picture yourself in a middle school. Think of all the different social situations that come up. Think of all the goofy, yet still acceptable behavior that you may see. The tricky thing about social situations is that there is no one statement that can account for every single social situation you are in. Sometimes, it’s okay to tease your best friend, but sometimes it isn’t. Even think about this in your own life. For example, my husband and I went to “rival” colleges: Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We constantly tease each other about who went to the better school. We do it in good fun (and it helps that both my in-laws were Marquette grads as well!). However, if someone else would say the same things to one of us, there is a good chance we’d be insulted. It’s so hard to instruct someone about their social skills, since there are so many nuances.

This class has really opened up my eyes to some of the additional challenges students face. I think about my students who were seen as rude or mean, but they didn’t realize how they were coming across. How many of my students flew under the radar in this regard? How many of my soon-to-be 6th graders have a hard time being successful in social situations, and are frustrated that they can’t seem to get the hang of it? Using Social Thinking is definitely something I want to remember, and possibly even try with some of my students.

If you are as interested in Social Thinking as I am, you can check out the official website of Social Thinking here.

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