Over the years I have lead a support group and worked with parents whose children have learning disabilities or have behavioral disorders at our church. Parents often express their frustrations about their child’s academic performance; however these same parents are reduced to tears when they realize that their child does not have any friends, endures isolation every day at church/school or is a target of a bully. We can accommodate or make allowances for a child’s academics performance through academic modifications; however we are unable to compensate or modify for their lack of social skills or peer acceptance. Almost every situation that we encounter is a social interaction; from getting along with peers, siblings, teachers, parents to gift giving.
What are social skills and why are they so important? Social Skills are a collection of isolated and discrete learned behaviors that enable an individual to interact appropriately in a social setting. The lack of social skills or the mastery of social skills will affect the child’s entire life and can be the determining factor in their future success, happiness and acceptance by others. Accepted etiquette is a part of the social skills set; however it will not improve their acceptance at church or school. For those children who lack social skills we need to teach them in a sequential and deliberate manner.
In recent years studies show that children with learning disorders, sensory integration disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger Syndrome have particular difficulty learning social skills that most children and adults learn by “osmosis”. The current research shows they;
- Are more likely to be rejected or isolated by classmates or peers
- Are more often the object of negative or non-supportive statements, criticism, warnings and non verbal reactions from teachers
- Are less likely to adapt to new social settings
- Are more likely to be judged negatively by adults after informal observation
- Receive less affection from parents and siblings
- Have less tolerance for frustration and failure
- Use oral language that is less mature, meaningful or concise
- Have difficulty interpreting or inferring the meanings of others in a conversation
- Seeing from another perspective, or taking conversational turns
- Have difficulty understanding humor, sarcasm, or ambiguities in oral language
- Chronic rejection and separation from peers at school compromises academic success
- Mental health (anxiety, depression) is closely associated with and are often made worse by social incompetence.
Think back to the last time you observed two children “fighting” or engaging in a not so friendly conversation in your class…what is the core of the issue? Did one of the children encroach on another child’s sense of space? Did one of the younger children hit another child out of frustration due to missed nonverbal signal to leave them alone? Are they left alone due to the child’s inability to enter into a conversation or group of peers? With approximately 55% of all communication is nonverbal, 40% is communicated through tone of voice and 5% are the actual words it is easy to see how a child’s social skill deficit can affect their ability to make and keep friends at church. One of the easiest and most effective strategy to help a child learn social skills during a squirmish will take you about 2 minutes and will leave both children with their dignity.
- Ask the children what happened, starting at the beginning allowing each child to tell their side of the story in a private conversation with you. Don’t interrupt or be judgmental.
- Restate the problem to the children. Once you have clarified what the “problem” is, ask the offending child what was the “social error” or mistake that they made. If they are to able to articulate or identify the problem coach them through this process.
- Once the error has been identified, come up with possible alternatives to the situations or what the effects of their behaviors is on others i.e.; standing to close, making fun of someones clothing, etc. Don’t say “should” instead use “could” which helps the child to see what options are available. Avoid scolding or repriminding when it is a social skill problem, not a willful act of disobedience or misbehavior.
Using this technique for social skills errors or problems allows the child to learn the needed skills in”a safe, non-threatening manner and are more likely to want to participate in “problem solving”. Most children will respond positively to this technique when they see this as a teaching moment, not as “I am in trouble again” moment.
“You can’t dry tears with notebook paper.” – Charles Schultz