Just like actions have equal and opposite reactions, social interactions have equal and appropriate reactions. When someone offers a greeting, such as “hello,” the expected response is a similar greeting, not to walk by without responding. Likewise, during a conversation, it is appropriate to pause and offer the other participant a chance to talk and not just continue talking forever.
Many children seem to learn these unwritten rules by observation and through play. But not everyone can. For some kids, especially children with Autism or Social Communication Disorder, the routines and rituals of these interactions are confusing and frustrating. For these kids, social skills must be explicitly taught.
A lack of materials addressing these specific skills and an attitude of “one should just learn the unwritten rules” results in a bit disadvantage for kids who are not able. These children may have a difficult time in school making and keeping friends or appropriately participating in the classroom. They are the kids who might not offer a greeting, are off on a different topic from everyone else, or have a harder time reading the emotions of others.
The good news is these skills can be learned. Speech Pathologists specialize in social communication, understood as “using language for social purposes.” This can encompass verbal language, such as greetings, or changing speech depending on the receiver. It can also include learning expected norms of conversation, such as not interrupting, or non-verbal language like eye contact or gestures.
Here are some strategies a parent or educator can use to develop or improve the social communication skills of a child:
1. Don’t assume kids know the rules or what went wrong in a social situation. Some children may not even realize that there was an interaction breakdown, and some may think that the other child was in the wrong.
2. Remember to be positive. When discussing a situation with your kids, always find something positive to include in the discussion. Only focusing on the negative can be upsetting and lead to discontent and avoidance of social situations, which is not the goal.
3. Practice, practice, practice. If there is a particular area that is difficult for a child, practice strategies the child can use to make it easier. Or, if you know a new situation is arising that is atypical from their day-to-day interactions, try role-playing what might happen and appropriate responses.
4. Start small. Large groups can be overwhelming. Have one friend or two over to play a game until the child becomes more comfortable.
5. Read. There are books that are specifically geared towards social skills. Each of these books focuses on one skill and provides concrete examples, strategies for success and opportunities to practice.
Kids experience numerous social interactions throughout their day with both peers and adults. We can help make these interactions by preparing them and giving them tools for success. For instance if you know someone who always monopolizes the conversation or only wants to talk about things they are interested in, then they may need more in-depth instruction in conversational turn-taking. In Freddie the Fly: Motor Mouth, Freddie learns signs for when he should stop talking and how much you can learn by listening.
Or for someone who is always having communication breakdowns, Freddie the Fly: Connecting the Dots shows that there is so much more to a message then what is said. It teaches the importance of non-verbal language and how you must also identify tone, face and body during a conversation to get the real meaning. Each book includes effective, tested, and fun tips for parents and educators. In addition, downloadable activities to reinforce the lesson are available.