By: Diane I. Ferber-Collins MBA, MA, C.A.S.

Social Skills, Social Cognition and Social Thinking are all terminology used to describe the social abilities. As our students develop physically, cognitively and emotionally, their social development also follows a developmental trajectory. For many children, the full repertoire of social skills come easily through everyday interactions with adults and peers, but it is still important for educators and parents to reinforce this casual learning with direct and indirect instruction. For other children, direct instruction and support in navigating the trials and tribulations of skill acquisition are even more important. While there are direct interventions for children with documented difficulties in this arena, including children on the autism spectrum, even more ‘typical’ children can benefit from conscious support.

As experts have pointed out, perhaps the most difficult part for parents and teachers is to accept that setbacks and uncomfortable situations are part of the growth process; and to recognize that rather than “bubble” a child or swoop in to “fix,” we can use these situations to guide and help empower each child to create his/her own solutions and strategies that will last a lifetime.

Strongly developed social skills will impact a child’s ability to adapt to change and variable situations, as well as to provide resilience across settings. The child with good social skills is more likely to have a positive self image and to meet challenges with confidence. As they mature, these children will have better developed peer resistance and better conflict resolution skills, which also impact tolerance and acceptance of diverse groups. In turn, these areas of comfort will inform life choices into adulthood.

What is “Social?” The ability to share space with others effectively, which requires a complex set of capabilities.

The required capabilities for positive social interactions involve complex and numerous skills. For example, we rely on being able to interpret others’ perspectives, including their emotions, point of view, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge and intentions, gleaned and remembered from previous interactions, and read from body language and facial expressions. Successfully sharing space with others also relies on our own ability to reflect on, sort through, process and regulate our own reaction and to adapt across situations. For young children, it requires the developed ability to share one’s experience of an object or event (joint attention) and to successfully wield “pragmatic” everyday informal language. There are hundreds of social cognition and communication skills – from initiating conversations, reading body language and expression, understanding of abstract and inferential communication, to adequate attention and motivation.

In general, these component skill areas can be grouped into Interpersonal skills (sharing, asking for permission, joining an activity, waiting your turn, showing empathy); Problem solving skills (asking for help, apologizing, accepting consequences, deciding what to do); Conflict resolution skills (dealing with losing, being left out, peer pressure, teasing, accusations); and Survival skills (listening, following directions, ignoring distractions.)

What Can Parents, Teachers and Professionals Do to Help Children Navigate their Social World?

  1. Recognize that it is normal and to be expected that children experience some “normal social pain” in the form of being teased, left out, unfairness, secrets told, alliances changed, etc.
    • Developmentally appropriate and expected behavior at different ages
      • Tension between affiliation and autonomy
      • “Experiments” in social power
      • Focus on “popularity”
    • Parental acknowledgement, and perspective are powerful
      • Offer comfort and listen
      • Focus on positive coping and inner resources, not pain or victimhood
      • Reflect a resilient attitude toward social setbacks
      • Try not to respond to our own childhood social traumas
      • Try to help our children interpret interactions correctly (e.g., friends didn’t exclude you, they were already playing a game)
      • Intervene when necessary, but let them work out problems themselves when possible
    • Listen, and then ask the THREE QUESTIONS:
      • What did you do?
      • How did it go?
      • What can you try next?
  2. Talk about strategies which help foster Social Thinking
    • Whole Body Listening: Learning to use our eyes and brain, not just our ears
    • Be a Social Detective: Look for clues (non verbal, situational) as to what someone is thinking/feeling/responding
    • Popularity, friendship and kindness: Discuss what these are, and what they mean
    • The Three Questions: Encourage self reflection and problem solving when a problem emerges or feelings are hurt
    • What do you think they were thinking/feeling? Encourage perspective taking and empathy
  3. Provide opportunities for play dates and diverse peer social interactions
  4. Model good social skills in all interactions: be flexible, less directive, and responsive to the child’s ideas; laugh and smile often, take responsibility for your mistakes.

Good Books and Resources:

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children
Michael Thompson, Cathe O’Neill-Grace , Lawrence J. Cohen , Catherine O’Neill Grace
Review: Best Friends, Worst Enemies does everyone a tremendous service by helping parents and educators understand more about a child’s social relationships-what we think kids ought to innately know.

Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems
By Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. , and Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. , with Catherine O’Neill Grace
Review: Few parenting challenges compare to helping a kid cope with teasing or being left out. With empathy and understanding, Mom, They’re Teasing Me gives parents age-by-age information and practical advice to guide and comfort kids through every stage of their so-called social lives.

You are a Social Detective!
By Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke
Every one of us is a Social Detective. We are good Social Detectives when we use our eyes, ears, and brains to figure out what others are planning to do next or are presently doing and what they mean by their words and deeds. This entertaining comic book offers different ways that can be reviewed repeatedly with students to teach them how to develop their own social detective skills. Enjoy watching your students blossom day-by-day into successful Social Detectives! From 4 years old to 5th grade.

Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD, Friendship, Popularity and Social Cruelty,
Michelle Garcia Winner’s theory of Social Thinking:

Featured Author: Diane Ferber-Collins, MA, C.A.S.

Diane Ferber-Collins is a school psychologist and learning support specialist practicing in CT. As the School Psychologist for an independent elementary school, Ms. Ferber-Collins works collaboratively with teachers, parents and children to promote an optimal learning environment that focuses on the strengths and needs of each individual child. Her goal is to bridge the understanding of how a child learns into classroom strategies.

As an independent assessment practitioner, Ms. Ferber-Collins conducts actionable and understandable psycho-educational and neuro-psychological evaluations for students grades K through 12. She received both her master’s degree in school psychology and her sixth year certificate in advanced study in school psychology from Fairfield University, and brings experience in teacher consultation and student services. She is the mother of two teenage boys.

She can be reached through her LinkedIn profile and at the, Pear Tree Point School