Which Students Need Social Learning Groups?

Diane Levinthal


Unless a child is diagnosed with a learning disability that is known to affect social interaction, issues can take parents by surprise. All of a sudden, we notice that the same children who played alongside peers in daycare are now alone at recess during the early elementary school years. They want friends and try to interact with peers but without success.

At this age children engage in cooperative play and interactions are based on peer choice, not just who happens to be in the class or in a playgroup mom selects.
Now they must be able to read the subtleties of verbal and nonverbal language and tell the difference between literal and non-literal language across people (authority figures, peers, family, acquaintances, friends) and settings (school, community, home). We take this ability for granted, but it is an awesome leap in development. We expect them to absorb the nuances of social interaction just like the rest of their peer group. Why isn’t that happening for them?

In some instances, these are students with learning challenges in language, self-regulation or flexibility in thinking. In all instances, these are students who cannot learn to interact well simply through experience and exposure. It is not enough to let them join in with other children and hope that they will make friends. Because they are not able to read social cues well, they will not learn that way. Every day social settings are good places to practice newly acquired social thinking and related social skills, but they are not good places to learn them. Real world interactions move too quickly and are too complex for children with social differences. They also leave too much room for others to misunderstand them. For example, if a child is overly blunt he may hurt others’ feelings unintentionally and land into trouble at school. Or he may take friendly teasing literally and overreact in ways that prevent friendships from developing. These students need to be taught social thinking and skills in direct, concrete ways, and be allowed to practice those new skills while receiving feedback on how they are doing. They must use cognitive skills to learn what others learn automatically.

Some programs teach social skills that can be used in rote fashion in predictable situations. Examples include hand-raising in class, saying excuse me, or use of eye contact. But the social world is more complex than that. For example, eye contact is much more than simply looking into someone’s eyes. In addition to reading emotions, we track eye gaze to see what people are thinking about or what their intentions are and this helps us guide our own behavior. We use it to read the direction in which people are moving and this helps us to avoid collisions in hallways. We use it to note a listener’s eyes looking down and away from us, suggesting that they are not interested in our subject. We can also track eye gaze to determine whether teasing is friendly or not based on whom the teaser looks at immediately after delivering the joke.

Children with social difficulties require more than social skills instruction. They need to be taught to think socially. They need instruction that addresses social thinking, non-verbal language, inferring intentions and social problem solving so that they learn not only the “what, where, who, when and how” but most especially “the why” behind social interaction.

If you think your child is having trouble socially, get help. Social challenges do not go away on their own, and as our kids grow up, the social world gets more complicated and nuanced. In my experience, every individual wants to relate to others. With appropriate help, every student can make the social strides needed to develop friendships.