Helping Peers Understand Our Kids' Social Challenges

The following is a transcription of Diane Levinthal's wonderful 11/20/2008 SEPTAR presentation. Diane has reviewed, edited, and approved these notes. If you would like a script for talking to peers about social challenges, or for more information on social groups and help with social challenges, please contact Diane directly at info@socialstrides.com.

This talk is geared specifically towards "typical" classmates of children with social challenges in grades three to six, but much of the information is helpful for child (and adult) peers of any age.

Diane Levinthal, MA CCC-SLP
Special needs parent and professional
Director of a Peninsula practice for social thinking and skills, Social Strides


Helping peers understand our children's social challenges is a topic close to all of our hearts, especially as inclusion and inclusive themes gain prominence in our schools.

Kids with learning disabilities often have a wide range of social challenges. Tonight, we are talking about the kids who interact the most with with typical peers, kids with pragmatic problems, diagnoses such as pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger's, Non-verbal learning disorder, etc. We need to know how to reach the kids who will be interacting with our kids, in typical/inclusive classrooms, for kids with or without aides, kids in special day classes with mainstreaming, or kids on facilitated playdates.

Schools usually give kids information about character traits in assemblies and possibly have an anti-bullying program--but generally when we're talking about the early grades, instruction is about accepting differences and using the Do Unto Others model. At this age, we tell kids to "accept people 's differences and we'll be okay."

Things get tougher in 4th grade, because kids are getting older, reaching the "tween" stage, wanting more social acceptance, and starting to worry about societal conventions, concerns about "popular" groups, etc. At the same time, these kids in upper elementary -- grades 3-6 -- are still really receptive to any information about anything social from adults, because they still believe that we know better than they do. These kids are interested in social relationships, anything social, and they usually have social concerns about themselves and successful social functioning, about where do they fit in?

When Diane goes into classrooms, kids want to hear about social challenges; she finds that they are good participators.

Sometimes kids get specific information about kids with challenges. If their classroom was to include a child who was hearing-disabled, they would get specific tips on how to interact with this child and what does their disability mean, e.g., you have to make sure the child can see your face when you're talking. Diane sees this kind of inclusiveness discussions all the time.

She has NOT seen people giving specific information to kids about kids who are neurodevelopmentally or socially challenged. There is not much out there in terms of a script for helping kids think about social challenges. There is tons FOR the kids with social challenges, but very little for their peers, especially for upper elementary and middle school, when these kids are starting to become very concerned about social issues. It is very important to get the following information out there. And then when there are resources available in the district, the resources can be used to train school staff.

Her hope is that by giving us this information, we will feel more comfortable going and giving talks to our kids' classes and peers.

Parents worry about confidentiality issues. But even with one or more kids in the room on the spectrum, you can give information without violating privacy. Do not use names, and you don't even have to say "Autism" etc. It is enough to use the term social challenges, because as we describe the phenomenon through example and role plays, the kids will understand that we are not speaking about momentary social awkwardness that we all experience from time to time.

(The following information is drawn from three sources: Michelle Garcia Winner, Carol Gray, and Diane's own experience.)

So: What do Regular Ed peers need to know, to interact successfully with included kids?

* Need to know what "being social" is and what social challenges are
* Need to know about high incidence of social challenges across settings, that they have a LOT of socially challenged peers
* Need to know how to interact with them instead of avoiding them
* Need to know what it's like for our kids to try to get thorough a a day with social challenges
* Need to know that they can go to adults for help with socially-challenged peers
* Need to know that our kids do not do strange and unexpected things on purpose
* Need to know that our kids can learn, if they have enough experience and practice
* Need to know that our kids have abilities as well as disabilities

We are doing this because we expect them to be part of the solution, and we want them to be empowered instead of confused.

There is only so much you can do in an hour or incidentally, but any effort is a start. If you decide to go into a class, you need to do three things:

1) Ask the teacher for one hour
2) Get okay from other parents of included kids
3) Ask teacher if she or he will follow up with written assignment on "What this meant to my life, and what I learned."

Afterwards ask for permission to read the essays. That way you can see if they missed anything, and if you need to go back and recover any information (and this can also help you to find children who would be a good peer for playdates).

(Feel free to contact Diane at Social Strides for a model script. She will email it to you: info@socialstrides.com.)

Diane then led an example of how to present this topic, in a 4th grade regular ed class.

"Today we're going to be talking about social skills and social thinking. I'm "Sandy's" mom. By the time you're an adult, you're going to have met a lot of people. You'll know that a lot of people are good and bad at lots of things.

“If you know something about people's challenges, it makes it easier to understand others and it will help you interact with kids who have differences. Today we are going to focus on something called social challenges.

"Let me tell you something about myself. I can sew really well. I can look at a piece of fabric, look at a chair, and without measuring or using a pattern make a cover that will fit that chair perfectly. Does that make me a genius? No. But I'm smart. What kind of smart is this? The smart name is visual-spatial processing.

"I also have a challenge. I'm really bad at driving directions. Can I fix this? I don't know. Does this make me a complete loser? No, because I'm smart at other things.
Do I still need to go to the mall and find my way? Yes, I do. Should people not get in the car with me because I'm bad with directions? No.

"What is helpful is if I have someone with me in the car to tell me where to go, and do it in a nice way that doesn't make me feel bad.

"Let me ask you kids, what is one thing that is an ability in your life right now that you feel good about? Tell me one challenge that you have.

**people raise hands and list various abilities and challenges**

"Now I know your challenges. But if you guys didn't tell me this stuff, I wouldn't know. It takes a while to get to know people, and know what they can and can't do!

"Kids can have many different challenges, like being sensitive to light, sensitive to sounds being too loud, sensitive to touch. One of the hardest things is challenges with social problems and social thinking.

"What is social? [always waits for some kind of answer]

"It's about sharing space well with others. Right now in history there are more people than ever who have social challenges. This huge increase started just a little bit before you were born and no one knows why. We just know that each and every person in this room is going to deal with dozens of people who have social challenges in their life. You will be around these people in your class, scout troop, family, neighborhood. Some have big social challenges, some have medium challenges, some have small challenges.

"Being good at social is knowing what the rules are, about who you are with, where you are and what is going on at the time. For most of you social skills are usually an ability rather than a challenge. You can tell the rules for social pretty easily and quickly.

"For instance, what are the rules for being in an elevator?

"Let the other people get out first.
"Don't push the red button unless it's an emergency.

"Good job with those rules!

"What are the rules at home? Can you be noisy, interrupt each other, stand close to each other? Share feelings? Yes, but you can't do these things with strangers in an elevator!

"Can you sit in your mom's lap? Can you sit in the principal's lap? No? Why not? Did anyone tell you theses rules? Then how do you know them?

"We learn social rules by watching reactions and seeing how people react. 95% of how we interact is body language! It's true! This is something we learn to do when we are really little. For instance, when you were a toddler, if you tried to touch your mom's purse, you would see her giving you a look that meant, "no, don't touch that." You would observe your environment, and learn from your mom's expression

"A lot of learning social rules is that you need to attend to your environment and to people's body language, observe, and guess what you're supposed to do, and then act. This is called ‘social problem solving.’

"Most of us are born with a brain for social thinking, for being able to do social problem solving automatically. But some people aren't, and for them social thinking is really hard.

"Okay, so I'm going to go to the front of room. Now I'm stopping and looking at the floor. What are you students probably going to think about that? Would you think that there's something on the floor? You follow my gaze because I'm acting in an unexpected way so you want to find out what is going on. You might say 'what's on the floor?' If I said, 'It's a spider!' If it was an ugly, huge spider crawling on my floor, what would you do? Would you slide a piece of paper under the spider so you could get it outdoors?

"All of this can happen without speaking a word:

• You used your eyes to check out the environment
• You noticed that I was staring
• You followed my gaze
• You read my facial expression
• You assumed that I was afraid
• You saw that I stopped talking and looked at the floor, and
• You guessed that I couldn't continue class because I was afraid.
• You altered your behavior because of what you saw, and
• You guessed and got rid of the spider.

“By doing that you returned the class back to calmness, or returned us all to an "expected" flow of events. What you just did is a very complex process!

"Every person with a social brain is constantly reading their environment and making smart guesses, and adapting their behavior so that everyone feels comfortable.

"If people can't do this and keep making social mistakes, everyone is uncomfortable. What if the kid misread my thoughts and feelings and picked up the spider and handed it to me? I might think that that kid was goofy.

"Most people, kids and adults, don't understand social challenges. They think the kids are being weird on purpose.

"How do people react to socially awkward people?

1) They avoid them, feel sorry for them, OR
2) They get aggressive, tease, bully, set up, joke, get angry because they think the kids have no smarts or are doing it on purpose

"If you were a kid with social challenges and everyone was avoiding you and getting mad at you no matter what you did, and you didn't know why and you couldn't figure it out, how would you feel? Frustrated?

"Having social challenges is like being really bad at science. You know you're bad but you have to take the test anyhow, and the teacher is getting mad at you and what you're doing is wrong, but you don't know why and you have to take the science test anyhow.

"But science class is temporary. Social issues are all day long. If social skills don't come naturally, you have to deal with one of your biggest challenges all day long. A person can't NOT do social!

"I'm going to show you a video about kids who have social challenges, from their perspective. Remember that there are a lot of kids like these kids at your school, right now.

[Diane plays excellent fifteen minute video: Intricate Minds III from Coulter Video Educational DVDs (www.coultervideo.com). Diane hasn't been able to find anything else like Coulter Videos to help regular ed kids in this age group learn about social language and behavior challenges. And their videos address all age levels and all ranges on the spectrum.]

"Do you know anybody who reminds you of these kids? Don't name any names guys ~ just raise your hand if you do.

"If you do know someone who looks or acts like this, do you know for sure they have a neurobiological condition like autism or Asperger's? Not necessarily, because we all make social mistakes from time to time.

"Is it okay to ask kids if they have these conditions? NO, it is not. It is their business and their choice to tell people about their condition. If they do tell you, it is not okay to tell other people without asking permission, because otherwise you're taking away that person's choice of who they choose to tell.

"The best way to help peers with social challenges:

• Don't to give up on them
• Don't ignore them
• Make them listen to you sometimes!

"This will help them learn. It is always better to tell someone how to do something than tell them now NOT to do something. If too hard, ask for help -- teacher, aide, or their parents, or [speaker] to help get ideas about what might work for you.

"You guys know that the ways people react depends on who you are with, where you are and what's going on at the time.

"Here's an example of social rules changing because of where we are:

“If we are hanging out in my kitchen, do you need to raise your hand and wait to talk every time you want to say something? No, not in a private social conversation.

"People with social challenges have a problem understanding that there are these kinds of social shifts, that how you act depends on where you are and what's going on.

"Can you show me how a teacher can call on a student without using words or pointing? By looking directly at them! But not everyone is going to understand that message. If we were having a conversation and I turned my head to the side and put up my finger, what does that mean? It means wait a minute, I need to think. But what if the person I was with didn't understand my point? He or she would keep talking and then I would get irritated because they ignored my signal.

"How about verbal interactions with unclear words?

“If I keep following you around and talking about Pokemon, you might get irritated but if I don't look at your face then I wouldn't know.

“If you back away or say something sarcastic, I still might not get this because I don't understand that your voice and facial expression mean that your words aren't true.

“You might get so mad that you yell at me and I still might not understand your feelings. maybe when I do recognize your anger, it will come as a sudden surprise in what seems like out of no where but I still won't know why and then I won't be able to change my behavior in order to keep you feeling comfortable with me.

"Here's how you can help kids with social challenging behavior:

1) Say what's bugging you/label the behavior ("You're ignoring my gestures")
2) Say how it makes you feel ("When you ignore my gestures, I feel like you don't care about what I'm saying.")
3) Make suggestion/ask about what you want to happen instead-- kindly and without judgment -- don't be mean. ("Please give me a turn to talk, too.")

"I know it's hard for some of you not to just try to be polite and say nothing, and ignore the mistakes. But this really doesn't give the socially challenged person a chance to learn or correct what they are doing. It's better to say something in a neutral and helpful way.

“Also remember that you need to compliment people very often if you are going to give them constructive feedback. I know you all learned how to do this in second grade when they taught you about "oreo feedback." (Two nice statements for every constructive statement.)

“If you run into some confusing social situation you can always get advice from a teacher, an aide or me if you see me on campus. It's okay to talk about social and get help for yourself or to help with a peer with social or other challenges.

"Kids with social challenges need a lot more practice to learn how to adapt to new social scenarios!

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  1. Thank you for taking, and sharing, such awesome notes. And just because I know how meticulous you are about crediting the correct sources, Ms. Gray of Social Story fame is Carol Gray. (Even though of course Cheryl is a much nicer sounding name.)

  2. WOW. Thanks for this terrific stuff.

  3. Anonymous5:27 PM

    Love the material, but PLEASE don't say this:

    "Being good at social is knowing what the rules are ... You can tell the rules for social pretty easily ..."

    The word "social" is not a noun, it's an adjective. You use it properly as an adjective throughout this piece, but every once in a while this improper usage creeps in there.

    I'm old enough to recognize a jargony variation on a word and understand what you mean, but the age group you're talking to needs consistent, correct modeling of grammar and usage.

    Please don't confuse children with words that are incorrect when they're still in a stage of learning the rules.

  4. Understood, the word should be in quotes to point out atypical usage while Diane (the speaker) was making a point.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.