The Foundation of Social Skills by Heather Hinkle, M.Ed. and Diane Foland, M.S., BCBA

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Teaching young children appropriate social behaviors comes naturally to many parents. Here is a very classic scenario. At a family holiday gathering, Great Aunt Charlotte offers little Luis a piece of 3 -week old fruit cake. He grimaces at it, clearly not appreciating the goodie. His mother bends down and says, “Say thank you to Aunt Charlotte for the delicious cake.” Poor Luis obediently thanks his aunt and takes a small bite. All the while thinking, “I do not want to eat this.”

How many times has something like this happened to you? How many times have you done this? Whether you are Aunt Charlotte, Luis, or his mother, you are familiar with this dynamic. The next time Luis finds himself in this situation, he will be expected to know exactly what to do.

Luis’ ability to demonstrate the appropriate, pro-social behavior depends a lot on his understanding of more than just the appropriate social behavior. It depends on his understanding of when and why to behave that way. If a non-family member or a stranger offered the cake to Luis in a public setting he would have been expected to say “No thank you” and walk away. How is he supposed to know the difference between the two situations?

Those without social deficits can quickly switch their “social thinking cap” depending on the expectations of the current circumstance. If Luis’ friend at school offered him a piece of the same stale cake, it would have been appropriate to say “No way, that’s gross!” In another scenario, it would be socially acceptable for Luis to tell a server at a restaurant that his food is cold, sending it back to the kitchen. However, this would be frowned upon while dining in the home of a family friend.

Social skills are more than knowing good manners and appropriate behaviors. Fully developed social skills include understanding social context, hierarchies of authority, and interpersonal relationships.

The first layer in the social skill foundation is to assess the social context. The child should learn to assess what is happening around them before responding. Important questions for the child to consider include:

  • Where am I?
  • What is happening right now?
  • What are the rules for my behavior in this place and this situation?

 

After interpreting the social context, one needs to understand the chain of command around them. Although, it may be easier for a child to identify authority figures like a parent or teacher than it is to spot the leader among a group of peers. The topics of conversation as well as the dominant person in the room will be harder to recognize in unfamiliar environments. When a child can recognize the authority figures in a social context their interaction can be tailored accordingly. Without recognition of the authority in a given situation, innocent social mistakes can occur. Important questions to consider include:

  • Who is here with me?
  • Where do I belong in this situation?
  • What is the current conversation topic?

 

Once we understand our social context and the hierarchy of authority, we usually assess our interpersonal relationships.

A healthy connection among children and adults may include physical/verbal affection, respect, sharing thoughts, humor, love, and attachment. Children must know what type of interpersonal connection (if any) that they have with those around them to avoid an uncomfortable interaction that may come in the form of invading personal space, sharing too many personal details, odd conversational topics, and misplaced emotional expression. Questions that you can ask your child include:

  • Who do I know in this environment?
  • Who can I seek for help if necessary?
  • What is the current body language and facial expression of others?

 

Children who can independently demonstrate appropriate social behaviors are the envy of parents everywhere. Imagine if Luis responded to Aunt Charlotte without being prompted to do so and added a nice remark about her baking skills. His mother would have been so proud. Aunt Charlotte would have been very impressed.

So, how do parents teach these underlying skills? It takes just a little bit of pre-planning and some time spent reviewing. First, make a plan with your child. This should include where you are going, who will be there, they should expect, and what will be expected of them. Modeling and role-playing are invaluable tools to help prepare for social obstacles. You can use the important social questions as a guide to this conversation.

Develop quiet gestures that you and your child can use as subtle social cues to remind them that they should be aware of the social expectations. For example, a tap on the elbow could mean, “Say thank you” or “lower your voice” without embarrassing the child.

Lastly, review the social interactions when the social situation is over. Was your child able to identify the answers to all of the questions and how did that information help them know what social skills to use? Be sure to encourage their efforts, offer praise and constructive feedback to build a trusting relationship and healthy social growth.