After over a year of togetherness with family, social distancing, and online learning, children and teens have a big challenge ahead: returning to the classroom and their social worlds. For some kids, the move back to larger social groups, school routines, and time with peers will be a relief and source of joy. Yet, for children with anxiety, social learning and cognitive challenges, the return to “normal” may not be as welcomed. As we usher children back to more typical learning environments, a focus on social learning and skill building may be helpful for those who are struggling to understand their social worlds. But what even are social skills, why are they important, and how can we teach them to help our children grow into flexible, adapted and resilient learners?
What are social skills?
Social skills are typically seen as a person’s behavior displayed in a social setting (Garcia-Winner, 2015). When we evaluate social skills, behavior is typically judged on what is expected within the context of the environment they are displayed. Though social skills are culturally tailored, and broadly based on setting, whether or not someone exhibits “appropriate” behavior in context impacts others’ perspective of them, the relationships they form, as well as safety, school performance, and continued learning to name a few.
What does it mean to have good social skills?
Simply, having “good” social skills means people cooperate and share their physical and social worlds with others effectively in a way that supports pro-social living. It means following the usually unwritten rules within our environment, and adapting our feelings and behavior based on endless contexts (Garcia-Winner, 2015). Examples of expected social skills include raising your hand to speak in class, saying please and thank you, and taking turns with a group. Still, these skills go way beyond basic “do’s” and “don’ts,” and grow increasingly challenging as we develop and grow in our relationships with others. So, how do we move beyond modeled skills and social rules? With practice, through interacting with our social world and building our own understanding of being human, we can develop a flexible, social thinking brain. This social thinking “soup” includes an understanding of the expectations from our environment, an appreciation for the thoughts and feelings of others, executive functioning skills like self-regulation and perspective-taking, and big picture comprehension. For some of us, this comes naturally over time: the brain develops to hold all the moving pieces and parts of the environment to make sense and produce “appropriate” interaction. For others, it can feel overwhelming and confusing. When that’s the case, group learning and practice can support building social skills to interact and engage in the world meaningfully and effectively.
Why is it important?
Getting along and cooperating with others, or what we might call, Prosocial behavior, is key to human thriving (Atkins, P., Wilson, D., & Hayes, S., 2019) not just for our everyday lives, but quite literally our maintenance as a species! Participation in cultural norms and social groups has allowed us to rapidly adapt to new environments and evolve to live at the top of the food chain. Before we get into the weeds with evolutionary concepts, let’s go back to the basics. Social skills help us participate and grow in our worlds, develop meaningful and fulfilling relationships, and ultimately build rich, valued-based lives. When we don’t have them, or struggle to apply social thinking, it can have tremendous costs on our academic, work, and life performance. Learning to live in cooperation with others at any age supports building meaningful and rich inner and outer worlds.
How do we build our social skills?
Social skills development and learning is an active process, combining genetics and biology with the environment starting from birth (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003). Typically developing children will actively grow in their social learning and progressively form perspective-taking skills as language and abstract thinking emerges. For some kids, however, understanding social relations and social communication in context does not happen naturally, and more concrete social learning opportunities are needed. With direct instruction and cooperative group learning, children, teens, and adults can build their social thinking muscles by practicing:
- Initiating language and opportunities to engage with the social environment
- Listening, interpreting, and comprehending visual, auditory, and contextual information on small and large scales
- Recognizing and cooperating with cultural and social messages, norms, and expectations
- Understanding and appreciating the perspectives of self and others
- Identifying self-in-context i.e. big picture thinking as a person evolving in the world
- Forming a consistent sense of self that develops with and among others.
What services are available?
Austin Anxiety and OCD Specialists will offer social skills groups to children and teens this summer. For more information, see our group info page here.
The Autism Society of Texas connects families and individuals to community resources and supports in Texas. Information about parent support groups, educational opportunities, and on-line networking, and more can be found on their website here.
Hideout Theater is an inclusive space offering adapted programming and instruction for neurodiverse and special needs groups. Improv classes are a fun, unique way to build social skills, confidence, and connection in a fun and challenging way. Learn more here.
Atkins, P., Wilson, D., Hayes, S. (2019) Prosocial: Using evolutionary science to build productive, equitable, and collaborative groups. New Harbinger Publications.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, M. (2003). Einstein never used flashcards. Rodale Inc. Publishers.
Winner, G. (2015). Think Social: A social thinking curriculum for school-age students. Social Thinking Inc.
By: Katy Rothfelder, RBT