At The Friendship Connection, our goal is to teach children not just how to “act” socially but how to “think” socially. While children who struggle with social disorders do not make up a homogenous group, there are commonalities in their thinking and processing that make it difficult for them to understand and adapt to social situations. Many tend to be rigid thinkers who thrive in factual, rule based, clearly structured, and predictable endeavors. Unfortunately, social interactions are riddled with variables and highly affected by irrational forces such as emotions. Other people rarely behave the way they are supposed to or the way you want them to. This makes knowing how to interact with them a real struggle for children who are not born with an intuitive understanding of others. All of us see the world through the lenses of our needs and experiences but during our development we learn to see others as separate from ourselves with needs and experiences of their own. We naturally learn how to see the world from others’ perspectives and use that knowledge to guide our interactions. Many of these skills develop in a very natural and intuitive way over time. For children with social difficulties, however, these skills do not naturally develop or their development is arrested by some event along the way. They tend to be stuck in the “ego” stage and can only see the world from their point of view. This makes it nearly impossible to understand where someone else is coming from – a crucial element in knowing how to socially interact with others.
Many social programs provide children with “social scripts” to teach them what to say in certain situations. While these can be useful for specific situations, they only equip children with the skills or language they need for that one situation. Since many of these children do not have the ability to generalize skills, integrate information, or connect situations on their own, the effectiveness of social scripting is limited. They may learn how to act in a targeted situation but they do not know how or why those behaviors are expected of them. The Friendship Connection believes the key to teaching children how to be social beings is to teach them how to think like social beings. Teaching children how to be aware of their environment and others is the first step to helping them learn how to “read” social situations. From there, the complexities of social interactions need to be broken down into discrete skills that can be applied to multiple situations. Children need to be taught cognitively how to think socially.
The trick is to create fluid programming that naturally carries over into all aspects of the child’s life. The functional application of skills is equally as important, if not more important, than the cognitive understanding of them. Making connections between all settings –therapeutic, home, school and community - is a crucial component in teaching children how to be social beings. In order to teach children lacking solid and intuitive social cognition, we believe you need to be creative, flexible, and global in your approach.
Although we draw on a developmental, behavioral approach that utilizes cognitive behavioral strategies to teach core social thinking concepts and related skills, we integrate other intervention strategies and therapies in our programming that have been beneficial to individual children in other settings. The focus of this kind of social cognitive therapy is to teach children how to think, not what to think. We stress the importance of being able to read social situations and make informed communication and behavioral choices. As children age, they need to be able to figure out what to do on their own and not be overly reliant on others to tell them what is appropriate or expected.
JULIE ANNE FIORE