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For more than thirty years, Richard Lavoie has lived with and taught learning disabled children. His bestselling PBS videos, including How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop, and his sellout lectures and workshops have made him one of the most popular and respected experts in the field. At last, Rick's pioneering techniques for helping children achieve a happy and successful social life are available in book form.
It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend offers practical strategies to help learning disabled children ages six through seventeen navigate the treacherous social waters of their school, home, and community. Rick examines the special social issues surrounding a wide variety of learning disabilities, including ADD and other attentional disorders, anxiety, paralinguistics, visual-spatial disorders, and executive functioning. Then he provides proven methods andstep-by-step instructions for helping the learning disabled child through almost any social situation, including choosing a friend, going on a playdate, conducting a conversation, reading body language, overcoming shyness and low self-esteem, keeping track of belongings, living with siblings, and adjusting to new settings and situations.
Perhaps the most important component of this book is the author's compassion. It comes through on every page that Rick feels the intensity with which children long for friends and acceptance, the exasperation they can cause in others, and the joy they feel in social connection. It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend answers the most intense yet, until now, silent need of the parents, teachers, and caregivers of learning disabled children -- or anyone who is associated with a child who needs a friend.
I have been involved in the field of learning disabilities for more than thirty years. The majority of that time was spent as a teacher and administrator at residential schools for children with learning problems. During the early years of my career, I was very involved in the admissions process at these schools and, as a result, conducted hundreds of interviews with parents whose children were struggling in school.
I recall one interview vividly. A mother from Maryland was recounting her daughter's academic history and her struggles with reading. As she spoke, she was somewhat detached and spoke in a clipped, matter-of-fact fashion. She told me that her daughter was scheduled to enter fourth grade in the fall and that her family felt that she would not be able to succeed in that placement.
I asked whether her daughter agreed that an alternative placement was appropriate. With that, the mother's facial expression softened and tears began to well up in her eyes. She told me that the idea to change schools had actually originated with her daughter. She came home from school on the last day of classes and reported that her classmates, who had ignored or rejected her all year, had waited until the teacher left the room during the end-of-year party, picked her up, and placed her in the wastebasket. Sarah, the most popular girl in the class, announced, "You're garbage...and that's where garbage belongs."
The mother had been wringing her hands and looking down while she related this story. She then looked up and our eyes met. "Just one friend, Mr. Lavoie. Just one friend. That's all I want for my daughter."
In the 1970s,those who worked with learning disabled children believed that social rejection was a cruel consequence of a child's learning disorder. Conventional wisdom held that (a) the child had academic deficiencies, therefore (b) he failed in school, (c) this failure caused great embarrassment and humiliation that lowered his self-esteem, and therefore (d) he was reluctant to "join in" with his peers and was teased because of his inability to compete academically with his classmates.
If this theory were true, it would seem logical that once the academic failure was eliminated, the child would enjoy social success. Again, the conventional wisdom held that the learning disorder caused the academic failure, and the failure caused the social isolation and rejection.
However, my experiences with these children demonstrated that this cause-and-effect theory was greatly flawed. I watched as these children entered our school's highly individualized and noncompetitive classroom environment. Lessons were tailored to meet each child's unique needs. Success was an integral part of each child's program. Specialized teaching techniques were used to ensure mastery of the target concepts. For the first time in their academic careers, these children were experiencing genuine success in the classroom. As this success expanded, it seemed logical that their social skills and status would improve. But they did not.
This demonstrated to me a direct link between learning disorders and social incompetence. I have devoted my career to highlighting that link for parents and teachers and showing them how we can help children master the abilities they need to develop effective social skills.
I have served as an administrator in residential programs for kids with learning problems for more than twenty-five years. During that time, about two dozen parents have sat across my desk and sobbed, distraught over the difficulties that their children were experiencing. Not once--not once--were these parents crying because their children were unable to spell, read, or do the times tables. When a parent experiences that kind of pain, it is because of the social isolation, rejection, and humiliation that the child suffers every day--sitting alone on the school bus, hiding in the restroom during recess, eating lunch at an empty cafeteria table, waiting for the telephone to ring and the birthday invitations that never arrive.
Professionals have come to realize the critical fact that a child's social life--often referred to as "the other sixteen hours"--is immeasurably important to his happiness, health, and development. Most school systems now recognize that it is in the child's best interest--and, ultimately, in the community's best interest--to provide social skill instruction and remediation for school-age children who are not adjusting appropriately. Numerous formal studies have confirmed the wisdom of this. Children with learning disorders often have particular difficulty developing social competence. This creates a double whammy for them. They confront daily failure and frustration in both domains of school: academic and social.
The social competence of children with special needs has been the subject of extensive research and study in recent years. This research indicates several truths about the link between learning disabilities and social competence that will, doubtless, mirror your own experience with children who struggle in social environments.
Children with significant learning problems
are more likely to choose socially unacceptable behaviors in social situations
are less able to solve social problems
are less able to predict consequences for their social behavior
are less able to adjust to the reactions of their listeners in discussions or conversations
are more likely to be rejected or isolated by their peers
are more often the object of negative and nonsupportive statements, criticisms, and warnings from teachers
are less adaptable to new social situations
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, and concise
have difficulty interpreting or inferring the language of others
are far more likely to be depressed
are more likely to be ignored by peers when initiating verbal interactions
tend to be involved in fewer extracurricular activities and have minimal social interactions with peers outside of school
tend to have limited, repetitive, and immature vocabulary, use shorter sentences, and be less concise
tend to have difficulty inferring the meanings of others in conversation, taking conversational turns, and seeing others' perspective
have difficulty understanding humor, sarcasm, and ambiguities in oral language
When these facts are considered, it is little wonder that many children with learning disorders have significant difficulty functioning successfully in social situations.
It is a widely accepted fact that the primary need of the human being is to be liked and accepted by other human beings. Therefore, if a child is behaving in a way that causes others to dislike him, can we not assume that his behaviors are beyond his control? Why would a child intentionally behave in a manner that causes others to isolate and reject him? As parents and caregivers, we must remember that the social faux pas that these children make are, generally, beyond their control and are unintentional.
This is the key to understanding and remediating your child's social skill deficits. Once you accept the unintentional nature of these troubling behaviors, you will be able to cease "blaming the victim" and--most important--you will come to the realization that punishing the child for social errors is ineffective, unfair, and inappropriate. Punishing a child for having social skill deficits is akin to punishing him for being nearsighted or having the flu. The situation is beyond the child's control, so punishment simply won't work.
This book will provide analysis of and solutions to the most common social skill problems faced by school-age children. It is difficult to overstate the importance of a child's mastery of these basic social skills or the short-term and long-term consequences for the child who is unable to master them. Childhood provides a laboratory wherein the child uses trial-and-error to develop his repertoire of interactional social skills. The young person who enters adulthood without an effective repertoire of social skills will very likely experience significant difficulty in his home, workplace, and community environments.
Because inadequate social skills often result in peer rejection and unpopularity, they place a child at extraordinarily significant risk for aggression and other behavioral problems. Learning disabled (LD) children tend to have poorly developed problem-solving skills and, as a result, they tend to resolve conflicts by using aggression rather than negotiation.
Dorothy Crawford's classic study of the link between juvenile delinquency and learning disabilities has demonstrated that the LD adolescent confronts three significant risk factors in regard to delinquent behavior:
1. He is more likely to become involved in juvenile crime, due to his inability to secure meaningful employment.
2. He is more likely to be apprehended for his crimes, because of a failure to carefully plan and execute his actions. (Basically, he is bad at being bad.)
3. He is more likely to receive harsher court-ordered penalties than his nondisabled peers, because of this inability to successfully deal with the social demands of the judicial process (e.g., meeting with attorneys, showing appropriate respect during proceedings).
Numerous studies clearly document the weak and inconsistent social competencies of adolescents with histories of delinquent behaviors. These behaviors are both the cause and consequence of a lack of social skills.
Mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety) appear to be closely associated with--and often exacerbated by--social incompetence. The isolation and rejection children with poor social skills experience can create mental health problems and/or precipitate complications and worsening of existing problems.
The child with inadequate social skills has significant difficulty establishing and maintaining appropriate peer relationships. He is excluded from interactions and activities with other children and so misses the opportunity to learn and practice new social skills. In effect, a vicious cycle of social failure and skill deterioration results.
It is important that adults remain ever mindful of the fact that children go to school for a living. School represents their primary activity and purpose. If a child suffers from chronic rejection by and separation from his classmates, his ability to succeed in academic pursuits is greatly compromised.
It is in a school's best interest to provide social skill instruction and support for learning disabled children. This instruction has consistently resulted in improvement in children's behavior, acceptance, and academic performance. It also yields a decrease in antisocial, delinquent, and disruptive behavior. Everybody wins.
There are several additional reasons why we should provide direct instruction and guidance in the area of social skills.
1. Social incompetence has a significant impact upon the family.
I conduct a workshop entitled "On the Waterbed: The Learning Disabled Child at Home and in the Family." I use the term waterbed in reference to an analogy that I often make in the seminar: "A family of five is akin to five people lying side by side on a waterbed. When one person moves, everyone feels the ripple." So it is in a family. If one family member is experiencing difficulty of some sort, all family members inevitably feel the direct or indirect impact. If Mom or Dad is having trouble at work or if one of the children is struggling at school, everyone is affected in some way.
This is particularly true and noteworthy when a child in the family has social skill deficits. This child is frequently a source of embarrassment, puzzlement, and anxiety among his family members. His strange and inappropriate behavior is often disruptive to family outings or even the day-to-day interactions within the home and community. A child once told me, "It makes me sad and guilty when my friends say, 'Come over to our yard to play. But don't bring your brother. He's weird!'"
2. All environments are social.
Outside of school, your child can avoid confronting the majority of his academic deficiencies. If he cannot spell, he can play video games with his friends; you do not need effective spelling skills in order to play Sega. If she cannot read, she can spend her Saturdays playing soccer with the neighborhood children; reading is not a prerequisite for soccer.
But if your child has poor social skills, he simply cannot avoid situations that require these skills. Any and all activities that involve two or more people require the use of social skills. If you are alone on an elevator and the doors open for a second boarding passenger, that eight-foot-by-eight-foot chamber instantly becomes a social environment wherein you and your new social partner have defined rights, roles, and responsibilities. You need social skills to play video games or soccer. The child simply cannot avoid the use of social skills.
3. The child cannot compensate for his lack of social competence.
Thanks to numerous breakthroughs in assistive technology, a child can compensate for nearly any academic disability. The math-deficient child can use a calculator; the child who writes poorly can use a word processor; the nonspeller can use a spell check option on his personal computer.
When social competence is the problem, however, compensation is not possible. It is impossible for a parent to sit behind the child on the school bus and whisper suggestions for conversation starters or responses to him. When it comes to the use of social skills, the child is quite literally on his own.
4. Social skills are the ultimate determining factor in the child's future success, happiness, and acceptance.
The research here is overwhelming. The adult success of the person with learning disabilities is largely dependent upon his social-emotional relationship skills--not his academic skills.
Although most professionals recognize and acknowledge this fact, schools continue to invest the majority of their time and resources in the enhancement of academic skills, with minimal energy invested in the crucial social skills. I have often recommended that schools focus their energies equally in each of the four Rs: reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and relationships!
It is important to remember that children with learning problems often require intensive instruction, guidance, and assistance to master social skills. Most nondisabled children are able to learn these skills merely by observing the behaviors of adults and other children. They seem to learn these skills incidentally, almost through osmosis. Not so for the child with learning difficulties. To master social concepts, these children require instruction that is sequenced, direct, and carefully planned.
As we attempt to improve the child's social skills and enhance his social competence, we must understand that social skills and manners are not synonymous. Although the practice of accepted etiquette is an important part of social competence, appropriate manners alone will not improve a child's social status.
Children with learning disabilities pose extraordinary challenges for the parents, caregivers, and professionals who wish to teach them social skills. The complexities of the child's disability cause myriad difficulties in several areas of development and behavior. The child simultaneously may be confronting problems in the areas of attention, memory, organization, language, and impulse control. Indeed, these children are fighting their battles on several fronts.
To teach and promote social competence to these children, we must consider the obstacles that they face, and that requires us to abandon some of the assumptions that generally underlie our relationships with others. For example, when we interact with others, we make the assumption that the person will listen to and be interested in what we have to say. This behavior is anticipated, as a sign of respect and a reflection of the person's desire to learn, grow, and cooperate. When this behavior is not present, we assume that the person is disinterested and inconsiderate. We respond with a negative, confrontational attitude.
We must understand that the distractibility and impulsivity of a child with learning disabilities may, at times, result in behaviors that seem inattentive and distracted. The adult must learn to take these behaviors seriously, but not personally.
Under most circumstances, we expect others to be consistent in their performance and behavior. Once a person demonstrates that he can do something, we make the understandable assumption that the behavior has been mastered and that the behavior will be performed consistently in the future. This is not a safe assumption when dealing with children with learning problems, whose performance is often characterized by significant inconsistency and irregular progress. This inconsistency is often misinterpreted as laziness, lack of motivation, or manipulation.
When dealing with another person, we assume that the person will be realistic and rational. When he fails to conduct himself in a rational manner, we have difficulty relating to him. Again, children with learning disorders have difficulty comprehending and responding to the reality of situations. As a result, they will often make statements or manifest behaviors that are in conflict with the reality of the situation. ("If I apologize to Bill for stealing and selling his bike, we can be best friends again.")
Another common assumption that we make with others is the belief that they will understand and accept our reality. For example, we anticipate that the child will understand and relate to our discomfort when he embarrasses us in front of our coworkers. However, children with learning problems have significant difficulty understanding the perspectives and feelings of others. This is often interpreted as selfishness or insensitivity. In actuality, it is neither. As you work to enhance the child's social competence, remember that the assumptions that we often make about people with whom we interact are neither appropriate nor valid when dealing with learning disabled children.
To enjoy social success at home, in school, or in the community, the child must develop and master four basic skills that will allow him to interact positively with others. These fundamental skills are
1. ability to join or enter a group
2. ability to establish and maintain friendships
3. ability to resolve conflicts
4. ability to "tune in" to social skills
Ability to Join or Enter a Group
The strategies that a child utilizes to join a group of peers participating in an activity will largely determine whether he will be accepted or rejected by others.
Children with social problems have great difficulty in this area. Some will approach the group loudly with great fanfare, demanding that they be allowed to join the activity and insisting that the current rules and format of the game be changed. Others will stand quietly on the sidelines, hoping that their presence will be noticed and that they will be invited to participate.
The child's difficulty in joining a group reflects his inability to "read" social situations by interpreting the setting's various clues and cues. For example, if three children are huddled together and speaking in low voices, they are obviously involved in an intimate conversation that cannot and should not be interrupted. Failure to accurately interpret these clues and respond appropriately will result in social errors for which the child will be isolated or rejected.
Ability to Establish and Maintain Friendships
Unfortunately, many of the behaviors necessary to maintain a friendship are the precise skills that children with LD are lacking: sensitivity, ability to "read" body language, complex language skills, and so forth. Much of this book will be devoted to outlining these skills and teaching you how to foster them.
To make and keep friends, a child must demonstrate sensitivity, flexibility, and responsiveness. The attentional and behavioral difficulties manifested by children with LD often make it difficult for the child to put himself in another's shoes and understand the needs and desires of his peers. The child with LD is often viewed as insensitive, uncaring, immature, and self-absorbed. He is rarely aware of the negative impression that he presents to others and is puzzled by his inability to make social contacts and relationships.
Ability to Resolve Conflicts
Children with learning problems are often concrete in their thinking. Because they tend to be inflexible in their reasoning and view their world as black and white, with little tolerance for or understanding of shades of gray, it is difficult for them to compromise or negotiate. They feel that each conflict must yield a clear winner and a clear loser. They have difficulty understanding that both partners can be satisfied with a compromise.
This inability to resolve conflict without physical force or resorting to name-calling, threats, or disruptions is often cited by classmates as the reason for the child's lack of social acceptance.
Ability to "Tune In" to Social Skills
In order to explain this concept to your child, it may be useful to draw a comparison between social cues and radio waves. The air around you right now is filled with radio waves. You cannot see, feel, or hear them. However, if you turn on your radio, you will be able to hear those waves clearly, and as you move the dial to various frequencies, you tune in to still other waves.
Similarly, the child's daily home and school environments are filled with social cues. The child must learn to recognize and pay attention to these cues--tune them in--in order to gather the social information she needs to respond appropriately to the social environment. Again, the attentional and language problems experienced by children with learning disorders contribute to the child's inability to do this successfully.
A teacher or professional can use several methods and strategies to determine the social status of a child. This assessment will provide a valuable guide as you help the child improve his social competence. Currently, there is no widely accepted, standardized test or tool, but there are a number of ways to secure a "snapshot."
Sociometric Devices: These surveys are designed to evaluate an individual's relative popularity within a peer group. All members of a group are required to place the names of their colleagues in rank order based upon traits such as popularity and cooperation. In effect, a polling procedure determines the social acceptability of individuals within the group. While these devices generally provide a valid instrument for determining social competence, they tend to be somewhat reactive and often reflect the constantly changing school-age "in crowd/out crowd" dynamic.
Teacher-ranking Systems: Here, the teacher measures and records the frequency of each child's social interactions with classmates. Such systems can be valuable, but much like sociometric devices, they provide no diagnostic information about the quality of the interactions, only how often they occur.
Behavior-rating Scales: Parents, teachers, or peers complete these checklists, which measure a child's social behavior. They are valuable in determining the specific social skill deficits that require attention and remediation. They provide data for a comparison of a child's social skills in a variety of different settings (e.g., the home, the classroom, the playground).
Interviews: This type of assessment is often quite effective for students with learning disabilities, since it does not require extensive reading or writing skills. Because it encourages anecdotes and the citing of specific situations and incidents, it also allows for a more nuanced look at a child's social competence.
Observation Codes or Checklists: A more formalized, cut-and-dried observational approach depends on codes or checklists with which an examiner records the occurrence or absence of a specific, clearly defined set of behaviors (e.g., cooperation, self-talking, sharing). The examiner may observe the child in a structured social setting such as a reading group, Scout troop, or cafeteria and objectively record specific, predetermined, observable social behaviors of the child: for example, cooperation, self-talk, and sharing. These measures can be quite valuable in diagnosis of skill deficits as well as evaluation of training effectiveness.
As a parent, you may want to informally and objectively assess your child's social competence. Unfortunately, the child himself may not be particularly helpful in such an assessment because he often misreads or mischaracterizes social interactions or may tend to exaggerate--"Billy always calls me names"--or minimize them--"I didn't do anything wrong and all the kids yelled at me!" The child may be confused or puzzled by the social situation and will, therefore, provide information that is inaccurate.
Your own observations are the most effective assessment tools. Carefully observe your child in numerous social settings to determine which of the primary social skills are lacking and require your attention.
Here are some key behaviors for you to watch for:
Handling Emotions and Social Challenges
is unable to prioritize
is unable to understand or react to nonverbal language
is highly disorganized
shares private, confidential information inappropriately
has low self-esteem
has inconsistent motivation
displays negative mood; complains often
has a poor, undeveloped sense of humor
loses belongings constantly
is excessively shy
is socially inept in many settings
is a poor listener
has difficulty understanding, identifying, or expressing his feelings
has difficulty expressing affection
is overly fearful
has poor impulse control
is easily embarrassed
responds poorly to failure
Handling Peer Situations
acts inappropriately in groups
is overly aggressive
reports that he is "lonely"
has minimal empathy for others
often misinterprets and overreacts to social situations
prefers the company of much younger (or older) children wherein his role is well defined
has poor relationships with siblings
is excessively physical; pushes, shoves often
seems to sabotage relationships
bullies or is cruel to others
is bossy, controlling, dominating
has difficulty initiating and sustaining conversations
is ineffective at negotiation
shows poor sportsmanship
is highly susceptible to peer pressure
has difficulty understanding the link between behavior and consequences
is excessively dependent on adults
cheats; has difficulty following rules
is often referred to as immature by adults
has difficulty relating to authority figures
asks for help ineffectively
has difficulty following or giving direction
has difficulty dealing with transitions or changes in routine
avoids new or novel social situations
has marked difficulty making simple decisions
is excessively silly in social situations
has low tolerance for frustration
often complains about his health
responds poorly to failure
If your child manifests many or most of these behaviors, she doubtless has significant difficulty with social competence.
If your child is struggling in his academic subjects, he is probably experiencing difficulty in his social life too. In a recent government study, only 16 percent of children with learning problems reported that they had "normal social relationships."
This is understandable because learning disorders influence the way that a person perceives, interprets, processes, and explains his world. It is logical to assume that this pervasive disorder would have an impact as significantly on the child's sixteen-hour "social world" as it does on his eight-hour "classroom world."
We have come to recognize that social skill difficulties are a direct--not indirect--consequence of the learning problem. Even a child who is successful in his academics can have marked difficulty relating to peers, adults, and siblings. School failure is a consequence of the learning problem...but is not, necessarily, the cause of the social isolation and rejection.
Our collective recognition of the significance of social skill difficulties has given birth to a cottage industry of programs, strategies, and approaches designed to improve the social competencies of children. Many of these methods have met with limited and inconsistent results. Among these "questionable practices" are:
"The Deep End of the Pool": Some well-intentioned parents feel that the child will develop appropriate relationship skills if he is forced into social situations and left to fend for himself. The child is enrolled in a Scout troop, softball program, or community theater and is expected to develop the social competencies he needs in order to survive the experience.
This approach is generally unsuccessful and often results in public humiliation. This failure only enhances the child's reputation as an undesirable social partner. The overwhelming majority of children want to be accepted by their peers. If their behavior prevents this acceptance, it generally means that this behavior is beyond their control. Forcing the child to interact by way of this sink-or-swim approach will generally result in failure.
Incentives: Parents might offer rewards to the child if she improves her social skills: "If you behave appropriately at Aunt Paula's, we will get some ice cream on the way home." Perhaps the parent might take a behavior modification approach featuring checklists and scorecards that record the child's social performance. Positive social behavior results in rewards or privileges of some kind.
Again, this approach will doubtless fail. Any incentive program holds the belief that the child is capable of the target behavior (e.g., appropriate social behavior) and merely requires reminders and motivation in order to behave properly. This premise is greatly flawed when dealing with social competence. The child's inability to manifest appropriate social behavior is often caused by neurological difficulties that are beyond his control or influence.
Using behavior modification techniques to improve social competence is akin to using behavior modification to improve a child's eyesight, hearing, or growth. Incentives can actually increase the child's anxiety in social settings because of his inability to comprehend abstractions. For example, suppose you tell the child, "If you are good and act mature at the mall, we will go to the park this afternoon." Does he understand what "good" and "mature" actually mean? And if he does, has he acquired the skills to overcome his neurological difficulties and meet your expectations?
Teachers and parents must remember that there are a variety of reasons that a child may act in a socially inappropriate manner. Most of the time, these behaviors are unintentional. Therefore, punishing a child for being disruptive or inappropriate in a social setting is both unfair and ineffective.
There are widely accepted and effective principles of behavior management that should be followed when dealing with all children. Among these principles are:
Behavior that receives attention and reinforcement is likely to be repeated.
Positive feedback (praise, reward, privileges) changes behavior; negative feedback (punishment, scolding, loss of privileges) only stops behavior. You will not make meaningful, lasting changes in a child's behavior by punishing him.
Children respond best to an environment that has clear expectations, rules, and limits. Establishment of a consistent, predictable, and structured approach is key.
Providing children with viable and frequent choices can minimize power struggles.
Effective behavior management depends largely on the adult's ability to be proactive rather than reactive in regard to children's behavior.
Behavior change is gradual, and each step toward the targeted behavior must be reinforced. Reward direction, not perfection.
A well-managed learning environment is one where each child is successful and safe.
An interesting, motivating, and engaging curriculum is the key to successful classroom management.
Often, a child's behavior is described as "attention seeking," and adults are encouraged to ignore the behavior. I have long felt that this is an inappropriate and insensitive approach. The child, through his behavior, is telling us that he needs attention...so give him some! You may choose to ignore the behavior, but you cannot and should not ignore the need. It is ironic that children send us such a clear message about their needs and we respond by giving them the opposite of what they require.
It is important to remember that, even though incentives rarely improve a child's social competencies, reinforcers can be extraordinarily effective. Incentives are outlined prior to a behavior. ("If you behave at the store, we will go to the arcade on the way home.") Reinforcers are unexpected and occur after the behavior. ("You were terrific at Uncle Jim's today. Thank you. Let's stop for an ice cream!") Reinforcement and praise are fundamental to the child's mastery of social skills. Parents must provide the child with the four Rs of social development:
1. Reason: Provide a reason for the rule.
2. Rule: State the rule.
3. Reminder: Provide the child with a hint or memory trigger of some kind.
4. Reinforce: Recognize and praise.
On the ride to Grandma's
"Jamal, you know how proud Grandma is of her garden. The flowers are very delicate, so remember to stay away from that side of the yard. If you go past the toolshed, you are probably too close so stay in the front yard. You were so good at Grandma's last weekend. I am sure that you will be again."
Upon entering a restaurant
"Jen, this is a real fine restaurant where people come to enjoy a nice, quiet meal. Remember to talk quietly. You probably want to talk only to the person to your right or left. If your voice begins to get too loud, I will wink at you. That signal means to tone it down a bit, okay? I have been looking forward to taking you here. You'll love the lobster pie!"
Before religious services
"Benjy, today's synagogue ceremony is very important because we will be welcoming the new rabbi. We all need to remember that it is his day. Be sure to shake his hand and have a conversation with his son, who is about your age. Now, I know that you are excited about your upcoming Bar Mitzvah and you will want to talk to your friends about it, but remember--your ceremony should not be the focus of the day. The new rabbi is the reason for the gathering. If you start talking about your Bar Mitzvah too much, try to remember that, okay? I will be so proud to have you meet the new rabbi. From what I hear, he is a big Red Sox fan, too. I'm sure that he will enjoy talking to you about the Yankee series."
Ignoring: Several years ago, a technique known as planned ignoring became quite popular. This strategy was based on the premise that misbehavior is generally an attempt to get attention and that once the attention is removed, the behavior will cease.
This methodology has questionable effectiveness in behavior management and has virtually no positive impact upon a child's social development. In fact, quite the opposite occurs: by ignoring a behavior, the adult sends the message that the behavior is appropriate and acceptable. Suppose you were to begin to call your employer by his first name. He never corrects you or responds to this in any way. On your year-end evaluation, he gives you low marks in the category of Office Relationships and cites "inappropriate informality with superiors." You would make the argument that he never informed you that your behavior troubled him and so you considered your behavior acceptable and appropriate. So it is with children. If a child's social behavior is inappropriate, you must respond and react with guidance or instruction. Failure to do so sends the message that the behavior is appropriate. Ignoring the behavior will tend to routinize it and increase it, not eliminate it.
Social Skills Videos, Role Playing, Social Skill Groups: Most educational catalogues available today offer dozens of booklets, kits, videos, and DVDs designed to remediate social skill deficits. Although these materials can be somewhat useful and effective with some children, they will do little to impact a child's deep-rooted social competence problems.
Social skill groups provide instruction in interactional skills to small groups of children with social challenges. These groups are generally led or facilitated by a social worker, psychologist, or teacher. Many parents are disappointed in the results of these sessions.
Children with social skill deficits learn most efficiently in natural environments. So if you want to teach your child appropriate library behavior, conduct the lesson in the library. Clinical, contrived activities conducted in a classroom or office will not produce skills and competencies that will automatically transfer and generalize to the real world.
The effectiveness of a group approach will be enhanced if the group conducts occasional, well-planned field trips so that students can apply their newfound skills in natural settings. Do not expect that these sessions alone will have significant impact upon the child's social behavior. In order to maximize their impact, there should be consistent communication between the family and the facilitator so that the parents are aware of the specific skills that are being addressed in the sessions. The skills are more likely to be mastered if they are reviewed, reinforced, and practiced at home, at school, and elsewhere. As your piano teacher used to remind you, "The lessons aren't enough. You have to practice, practice, practice."
Among the most common social skill intervention is formal social skills training. A typical activity in a social skills curriculum consists of a discussion of a child's reaction to being excluded from a birthday party to which most of his classmates were invited. The students can generally develop dozens of effective and appropriate social responses to this situation (e.g., "I would ask the host politely if I could come," "I would ask one of my friends who was invited to ask the host to let me come," "I would ask my mom to call his mom"). Despite their ability to generate these solutions in a controlled, clinical classroom setting, it is doubtful that they will be able to spontaneously utilize these skills in a real-life social situation. The emotionality of the incident, coupled with the disinhibition and impulsivity that these children often experience, would generally result in a less appropriate response.
Another reason for the ineffectiveness of formal social skills training is the fact that morals are, for the most part, situational. That is, the daily moral decisions that we make are based largely on the specific characteristics of the social situation in which the incident occurs.
For example, suppose you went to your local post office to mail a letter. As you insert the letter into the mail slot, you notice a postcard protruding from under the mailbox. You pick the card up and note that it is stamped and ready for mailing. The card is a reminder of an upcoming meeting for an organization. Obviously, someone had been mailing a large number of postcards and dropped one.
Would you drop the card in the mail slot? Most people would.
Now suppose the postcard carried the return address of the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party. Would you drop that card in the slot? Most people would not.
This anecdote demonstrates the fact that the moral decisions that we make daily are often affected by the dynamics of the situation.
Social competence simply cannot be taught in a structured, artificial classroom setting. Teaching social skills in such an environment would be comparable to teaching tennis in a classroom. There are some tennis skills that one could learn in such a setting (e.g., scoring, regulations), but you will never become a skilled tennis player until you get out on the court and hit the ball around.
"One-shot" Interventions: Some professionals offer intense, focused instruction in social skill development that may require a child to attend a daylong seminar that covers the basic rules and conventions of social interaction. Again, these interventions are likely to fail. Children who have poor social skills generally
misread or fail to notice social cues
have limited problem-solving and conflict-resolution capabilities
have a low tolerance for frustration and failure.
These complex and intense problems will not be solved by a single intervention.
Some additional Don'ts related to social skill instruction include:
Don't necessarily discourage the child from establishing relationships with students who are a year or two younger than he is. He may be seeking his developmentally appropriate level. By befriending younger students, he may enjoy a degree of status and acceptance that he does not experience among his peers.
Don't force the child to participate in large groups if he is not willing or able. If the child responds well when working with another student, plan activities wherein he has ample opportunities to do so. Then add a third person to the group, then another, and so on, until the group approximates the entire class.
Don't place the child in highly charged competitive situations. These are often a source of great anxiety and failure for students with learning problems. Rather, focus upon participation, enjoyment, contribution, and satisfaction in competitive activities. Emphasis should be placed on the development of skills and strategies--not on winning or losing.
Don't assume that the child understood your oral directions or instructions just because he did not ask any questions. Ask him to repeat the instructions in his own words before beginning the activity: "What did you hear me say?"
Don't scold or reprimand the child when he tells you about social confrontations or difficulties that he has experienced. He will respond by refusing to share these incidents with you. Rather, thank him for sharing the experience with you and discuss other strategies that he could have used.
Don't attempt to teach social skills at times of high stress. Rather, approach the child at a time when he is relaxed and receptive. For example, "Meghan, next week you will be going to Jilly's birthday party. Let's practice how you will hand her your gift and what you will say when she opens it and thanks you."
Don't view praise as the only verbal reinforcer--interest works, too! Expressing a genuine and sincere interest in a child can be as positive and motivating as praise. You might say, "I watched you playing soccer at recess, Adam. Do you play at home with your brothers?"
Don't encourage the frustrated child to relieve his stress by engaging in pointless physical activities (e.g., punching a pillow). Rather, teach him to relieve stress through an activity that has definable and observable goals (e.g., shoot ten baskets, run five laps, write a one-page letter).
Don't expect punishment or negative feedback to have a meaningful or lasting impact upon your child's social skill deficits. Punishment may stop specific behaviors in specific settings, but positive reinforcement is the only effective strategy for meaningful and lasting social skill improvement. Overuse of punishment is largely ineffective for the following reasons:
It does not teach appropriate behavior. The child merely learns what he should not do.
The child often becomes passive in the face of punishment and merely avoids situations similar to those in which he makes social errors (e.g., visiting grandmother, going to the store).
The child may develop a concurrent set of inappropriate behaviors, such as lying, cheating, or blaming others, in order to avoid punishment.
The child may adapt to punishment, which will require you to intensify the level and severity of the punishments.
When the child is punished, the message--"We want you to improve your social skills"--is often lost in the resultant fear, anger, anxiety, stress, and tension.
Children generally associate punishment with the punisher, not the offending behavior: "The coach yelled at me today," versus "I got in trouble today because I threw a volleyball at the scoreboard in the gym."
Punishment is only effective as long as the threat of punishment exists.
We have reviewed the commonly used strategies that rarely improve social competence. What follows is an alternative technique that has been widely field-tested and has been quite successful in improving children's social skills in a wide variety of settings.
Social Skill Autopsies: A Strategy to Promote and Develop Social Competencies
Janet and I were enjoying a wonderful dinner at the home of friends. The hosts, Jerry and Linda, were the parents of a terrific young girl who attended our school. Barbie, twelve years old, had significant learning and language problems, and these difficulties often caused social difficulties. Her impulsivity and her inability to monitor her language effectively often created embarrassing situations for Barbie and her family.
Barbie joined us for dinner, and the five of us were enjoying an exceptional meal and stimulating conversation. The discussion turned to automobiles. "We're going to get a new car next week! It's s-o-o-o-o beautiful and it has a CD player. It's very fancy...not a cheap car like yours!" Barbie blurted out, excitedly.
The table went silent. Jerry was humiliated. Linda was near tears. Barbie, unaware that her comments were offensive, continued her conversation.
Jerry erupted. "That is the rudest thing you have ever said, young lady! Leave the table right now and go to your room."
Confused, Barbie sheepishly left her seat and went to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
The four of us quietly continued our meal under a pall of embarrassment. Jerry knows me well enough to recognize that I did not approve of his response. He finally broke the uncomfortable silence by saying, "Okay, Rick. I know that I blew that one. What did I do wrong? What should I have done?"
Reluctant to convert the meal into a consulting session, I replied, "We can talk later."
"No, really, Rick, I want to know. She's always doing that kind of thing. We punish her, but it doesn't seem to help."
"Jerry," I began, "you are wonderful with Barbie. You are her most effective teacher! What if you were trying to teach her the multiplication facts and she said that five times three equaled twenty. Would you have yelled at her and sent her to her room?"
"Of course not," Jerry responded. "I would have taught her the right answer so she would know it the next time."
"Exactly," I countered. "And that's what you need to do when she makes social errors, too."
This incident gave birth to the concept of the "Social Skill Autopsy." This technique is now used in schools and homes throughout North America and has been effective in improving the social competence of thousands of children. The strategy is based upon three basic tenets.
1. Most social skill errors are unintentional. It is universally accepted that a primary need of all human beings is to be liked and accepted by other human beings. Therefore, if a child conducts himself in a manner that causes others to dislike or reject him, can we not assume that these behaviors are unintentional and far beyond the child's control? Why would a child purposefully defeat one of his primary needs?
2. If you accept the premise that the offending behavior is unintentional, it becomes obvious that punishing a child for social skill errors is unfair, inappropriate, and ineffective.
3. Traditional approaches to social skill remediation are not effective. These strategies--role-playing, demonstrations, videotaping, lectures, discussions--seldom have a positive impact on the development of children's social competence. They may have a temporary short-term effect, but the results are seldom lasting and do not often generalize to other settings.
The Autopsy approach provides the socially struggling child with an authentic real-life "laboratory" in which he can learn, develop, and apply effective social responses to actual social dilemmas. This authentic approach parallels the LD child's tendency to learn more effectively in practical situations. If you want to teach dining-out skills, conduct the lesson in a restaurant; teach bus etiquette on the bus; and so on.
Before outlining the process of the Social Skill Autopsy, it is useful to explain what this process is not. This technique is not intended to be a reprimand, a scolding, or a punishment. Neither should the Social Skill Autopsy be solely controlled by the adult, without input from the child. This strategy should not be viewed as a one-time intervention. Rather, the effectiveness of the Autopsy will be greatly enhanced if the strategy is used frequently. The technique will be ineffective if it is used in a hostile or angry manner. The child should feel secure and supported throughout the Autopsy process.
The Autopsy approach has been extremely effective in modifying and improving the social competence of children in a variety of settings. The technique is easy to learn and can be utilized by family members, babysitters, bus drivers, or coaches. By training all of the adults in the child's life, you ensure that he will be benefiting from dozens of Social Skill Autopsies each day. This intensive exposure will foster growth and generalization of the target skills.
The success of this strategy lies in the fact that it provides the child with the four basic steps in any effective learning experience:
Scolding, reprimanding, and punishing provide none of these elements. Barbie was sent away from the table for her inappropriate remark, but no teaching, learning, or reinforcement occurred. As a result, an important learning opportunity was lost. Nothing occurred to make the behavior less likely to be repeated in the future.
Another reason that the Social Skill Autopsy approach is so effective is that it enables the child to clearly see the cause-and-effect relationship between his social behavior and the responses and reactions of others. Children with social skill difficulties often are unable to recognize this relationship and are frequently mystified about the reactions of their classmates, teachers, siblings, and parents. As a child once told me, "People get mad at me all the time and I just don't know why."
The Social Skill Autopsy strategy can be a very effective and responsive technique if used properly. It is critical to be mindful that an Autopsy should be conducted as an instructional, supportive, and nonjudgmental intervention. It should be conducted as soon as possible following the offending behavior and should not be viewed--by the adult or the child--as a scolding or negative interaction.
Conceptually, the Social Skill Autopsy is based on the idea of a medical autopsy. Webster's dictionary defines autopsy as "the examination and analysis of a dead body to determine the cause of death, the amount of physical damage that occurred, and to learn about the causal factor(s) in order to prevent reoccurrence in the future." The working definition of a Social Skill Autopsy is "the examination and analysis of a social error to determine the cause of the error, the amount of damage that occurred, and to learn about the causal factor(s) in order to prevent reoccurrence in the future."
The basic principle is to assist the child in analyzing actual social errors that she has made and to discuss the behavioral options that the child could have utilized in order to have improved the situation.
In seminars, I often cite a classic Social Skill Autopsy that I conducted in a dormitory. I was walking the halls of the residence when I heard loud arguing in Tom and Chip's dorm room. I entered the room and inquired about the nature of the argument.
"It's Tom!" Chip bellowed. "Yesterday I bought a brand-new tube of toothpaste. Tonight, Tom borrowed it and lost it!"
I turned to Tom and said, "Let's autopsy this!" I began by asking Tom to tell me what had happened. He explained that he was unable to find his own toothpaste. He borrowed his roommate's tube, although he was unable to locate Chip in order to get his permission. He went down the hall to brush his teeth in the bathroom. As he was brushing, Jim (a mutual friend of Chip's and Tom's) entered the bathroom and asked Tom if he could borrow the toothpaste. Jim passed it on to yet another student and its current whereabouts was now unknown.
The following dialogue took place:
Lavoie: "Okay, Tom, I understand what happened. What do you think your mistake was?"
Tom: "I know, Mr. Lavoie. I won't make that mistake again. I promise. I never should have borrowed Chip's toothpaste."
Lavoie: "No, Tom, that wasn't your mistake. It's okay for you and Chip to borrow things from each other occasionally. You are roommates and friends. You borrow his stuff and he borrows yours. That's not a problem."
Tom: "Oh, okay. I've got it now. I know my mistake. I shouldn't have lent Jim the toothpaste. I should have told him, 'No.' "
Lavoie: "Nope, that's not your mistake, either. Chip and Jim are good friends, too. Chip surely would not have minded you lending an inch of toothpaste to his friend Jim. Try again!"
Tom: "I've got it! I shouldn't have let go of the tube. I should have squeezed the toothpaste onto Jim's brush and then returned the tube to Chip!"
Lavoie: "Bingo, Tom, you've got it! Our social lesson for the day is not 'Do not borrow,' it's not 'Do not lend.' Rather, our lesson is 'When you borrow something from someone, it is your responsibility to be sure that it is returned. You cannot give that responsibility to anyone else.' Got it?"
Tom: "Yup, I've got it!"
Lavoie: "Okay, let's make sure. Suppose you stuck your head into my office and said, 'Mr. Lavoie, all the kids are playing catch and I don't have a baseball glove. Can I borrow the baseball glove that you keep in your closet?' I say 'yes' and toss you the glove. While you are playing catch, your dorm counselor comes over and tells you to return to the dorm to finish some chores. As you head off the field, one of the kids asks to borrow the glove because you won't be using it. What are you going to say?"
Tom: "I'd say, 'Sorry, but it's not my glove, so I can't lend it to you. It belongs to Mr. Lavoie. Why don't you come with me while I return it to his office? Then maybe you can ask him to borrow it.' "
Lavoie: "Great! Now, Tom, I want to give you a little social homework. Today you learned that it is important to return what you borrow and that you can't give that responsibility to anyone else. Sometime this week, I want you to use that skill. I will check in with you on Friday and you can tell me how and when you did it!"
As you see, the Social Skill Autopsy has five basic and separate stages:
1. Ask the child to explain what happened. You will want to have him start at the beginning, if possible. However, some children give a more accurate and complete accounting of an incident if encouraged to begin with the climax of the event and work backwards. Don't interrupt or be judgmental. You want his clear recollections.
2. Ask the child to identify the mistake that he made. This is an important and interesting part of the Autopsy process. Many times, the child will be unable to determine when and where the error occurred or his interpretation is inaccurate.
Tom initially felt that borrowing the toothpaste was his error. It wasn't. Had I merely punished Tom ("Give Chip three dollars for a new tube of toothpaste"), Tom would have erroneously felt that his mistake involved borrowing the toothpaste.
Often, a child will get in trouble with an authority figure, but the child will have no idea what he has done wrong. "I got in trouble at practice today." "What did you do?" "I dunno. But I got the coach mad!"
How can a child stop repeating a social error if he is unable to determine or understand what the error is?
3. Assist the child in determining the actual social error that he made. Discuss the error and alternate social responses. At this point in the discussion, the adult should avoid using the word should. ("You should have waited your turn," "You shouldn't have asked the principal if he wears a toupee.") Rather, use the word could: "You could have asked if you could take your turn next because Mom was coming to pick you up early," "You could have asked the principal about his new car or complimented his ties." This strategy underscores the concept that children have options in social situations.
4. The scenario is the part of the process wherein the adult creates a brief social story that has the same basic moral or goal as the social faux pas. The scenario should have the same basic solution as the incident. It should require the child to generate a response to the fabricated situation that demonstrates his ability to generalize and apply the target skill.
5. Social homework is strongly recommended by Syracuse University psychologist Arnold Goldstein as a strategy to ensure the mastery and application of the target skill. This step requires the child to use the target skill in another setting and report back to the adult when this had been done. This technique causes the child to seek out opportunities to apply the social skill that he has learned. In the toothpaste scenario, I assigned Tom the task of using the skill of appropriate borrowing. A few days later, he excitedly told me that the dormitory counselor had lent him her large snowman mug when the dorm students had cocoa on a wintry night. As Tom was rinsing out the mug, another student asked if he could borrow it. Tom told him that he was not at liberty to lend the mug, but encouraged his dormmate to ask the counselor if he could use it. Tom's application of the "borrowing concept" demonstrated that he is well on his way to mastering this skill.
Children respond very well to this strategy, and, if it is correctly applied, they do not view the technique as a scolding or a reprimand. On the contrary, they come to view the Autopsy as an intriguing and effective strategy designed to improve their social competence. Students actually request Autopsies when they are involved in a social interaction that they do not understand. A fourteen-year-old girl once entered my office and asked, "Mr. Lavoie, can you help me? Last night my sister called me from college and we ended up having a big argument. I know that I said something wrong that made her angry, but I don't know what I did. Can we do an Autopsy on the call?"
Remember the Autopsy is:
a supportive, structured, constructive strategy to foster social competence
a problem-solving technique
an opportunity for the child to participate actively in the process
conducted by any significant adult in the child's environment (teacher, parent, bus driver)
conducted in a familiar, realistic, and natural setting
most effective when conducted immediately after the social error
It is not:
a punishment or scolding
an investigation to assign blame
controlled/conducted exclusively by an adult
a one-time "cure" for teaching the targeted social skill
In the following chapters, you will learn the various symptoms of learning disorders and their impact on a child's social development. We will also explore numerous other strategies to foster a child's social confidence and competence. By understanding the unique way that the child views his social world, you will be better able to design effective strategies and interventions.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Richard Lavoie
Getting in Good
Dr. Mel Levine
Rob and Michele Reiner
Introduction: "The Other Sixteen Hours"
Part One Why Do They Do the Things They Do?: The Impact of Learning Disorders on the Development of Social Skills
One Children with Learning Disorders Are Wired Differently: It's All in Their Heads
Two Anxiety: A Cause and Consequence of Social Isolation
Three Language Difficulties: Getting and Giving the Message
Four Paralinguistics: Words Carry the Message, Body Language Carries the Emotion
Five Attention Deficit Disorder: The Social Lives of the Unhappy Wanderers
Part Two Social Skills on the Homefront: Dealing with Parents, Siblings, and Other Strangers
Six Enhancing Organizational Skills: Bringing Order and Structure to the Disorganized Child
Seven Siblings and Other Strangers
Eight Playdates: The Social Coin of the Realm
Part Three Social Skills at School: Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic, and Relationships
Nine Bullies, Victims, and Spectators: Strategies to Prevent Teasing, Intimidation, and Harassment in School
Ten Mastering the Hidden Curriculum of School: The Unwritten, Unspoken Rules
Eleven Teacher-Pleasing Behaviors: Polishing the Apple
Part Four Social Skills in the Community: No Kid Is an Island
Twelve Appropriate Social Skills in Public Places
Thirteen Meeting, Making, and Keeping Friends