By Shelley Petry, B.A.
Originally published by Eckert Centre in 2009; revised in 2015
Social skills (such as communication, interaction, play skills, perspective taking, expression of needs), inclusion, relationship, and friendship skills, are the foundational elements of coexistence, the basic requirements to experiencing success in a group environment.
So what if your child is struggling with one or a combination of these skills? There are a growing number of resources directed at teaching the abstract thought that guides our social worlds, so how does one choose a curriculum that will truly support social awareness instead of just teach rote scripts and rules? Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School- Age Students by Michelle Garcia Winner (2005) is a step by step program that guides young people through the various stages of social thinking. This book gently pushes individuals to think about their social worlds while providing educators with concrete ways to practice and instil skills. Furthermore, the program offers literal interpretations of abstract concepts, set rules to aid memory, and provides a neutral common language to discuss new topics.
In Think Social! the author guides the student through a natural learning progression that moves from literal and concrete to increasingly abstract and ambiguous. The lessons first cover the essential components of recognizing expectations within a group. Winner uses the neutral language of “expected” and “unexpected” to discuss social behaviours throughout the curriculum. Lessons then move into supporting self-awareness and the recognition that a person’s whole body communicates with others. Instruction then focuses on the development of encouraging observation of others and their behaviours to figure out what others are thinking or saying. Finally, the ability to recognize and master the ability to adjust one’s own behaviour in social interactions is discussed.
As a coach working with individuals of all ages and levels of social thinking, Think Social! provides me with a continually reliable groundwork to teaching and individualizing the learning of abstract social concepts. I particularly appreciate the neutral and literal language that guides each new idea. Phrases such as “think with your eyes” (p. 67) and “keep your brain in the group” (pg. 85) provide a concrete and non-judgemental way to offer feedback to students during real life situations. However, phrases are not situation-specific, so they can be used consistently in multiple contexts to help the student begin to think about what is happening on a more global level. Moreover, these general phrases encourage the student to think through the event rather than having the educator simply correcting the behaviour. The common language around behaviour also proves helpful for parents to begin discussing social situations that arise with their children on a daily basis.
Furthermore, the book sets up some helpful basic rules that later serve as simple reminders for group interactions. These rules, in line with the rest of the book, move from very concrete, such as the “3 parts of play” (p. 47) and “listening with your whole body” (p. 60), to the abstract skill of “Social Behaviour Mapping.” Having a set of rules to follow that can easily be transferred between settings is often a helpful way to reduce anxiety for individuals and provide structure for educators and parents. Lastly, this curriculum works from a positive reinforcement perspective, meaning that focus is placed on reaffirming and encouraging positive behaviours rather than continually correcting negative behaviours. This approach makes learning social skills fun, while giving students a source of encouraging feedback from educators. Most importantly, focusing on successes allows students to recognize the positive consequences that follow from behaving in an expected way during daily interactions with others.
Because this book is designed in such a way that the educator can individualize lessons and activities that can be successfully practiced with very few materials, this program is effective for individuals with a wide variety of unique learning needs. Designed for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, this curriculum can be used effectively with any student struggling to grasp the abstract nuances of social life.
However, as with any educational tool, Think Social! is not suitable for every student. Due to the non-specific nature of the lessons, students are required to engage in a higher level of reflection and abstract thought in order to use the concepts across various contexts. This quality makes the curriculum unsuitable for students who are non-verbal, or those struggling with verbal learning disabilities. In addition, the thought-based and reflective nature of the program is best delivered in situations where everyone in the student’s life is on board and familiar with phrases and concepts, so that the child receives feedback across environments and is able to generalize new skills.
Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students is a timeless resource that offers an innovative and fresh approach to teaching the crucial skills of social interaction. It is easy to follow for both educators and students, and sets the stage for a fun and positive learning experience. If you would like to learn more about this program or how to support your child in navigating their social world, the Cognitive Coaching Specialists at Eckert Psychology & Education Centre can help.