Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Why do we engage in small talk?

What’s the purpose of saying “hi” to people you know or don’t know?

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Can “reading people” help you read?

How do we communicate that we want to spend time with another person, or avoid them? What strategies do we use to make and keep friends?

How do friendships affect your schoolwork?

The questions above are constantly on my mind.

When I began my career over thirty years ago, I started teaching children how to read. As my practice and experience grew, I learned a lot myself.

One of the most important lessons I learned is about the interaction between academics and social skills. Social skills, the way we interact with people, at first seem completely disconnected from learning. However, the more time you spend in the classroom, the more you recognize that social skills are integrally connected to how children learn.

Michelle Garcia Winner is the author of several bestselling books and the pioneer behind the concept of Social Thinking.

Garcia Winner explains her philosophy as follows: “Our social thinking, fueled by our social cognition, is designed to make sense of the world around us; it is our grand interpreter and social meaning maker. We are expected to use it to figure out people’s feelings and motives – whether they appear in person, on a screen, in a book, in a painting, etc. We are also expected to use it to infer what others are thinking about us. As we make sense of this social information we then can choose how to respond to it.

Regardless of if we are directly interacting with people, sharing space with others, or just passing by someone, our brain tries to figure people out in order to help us stay safe, realize when to offer help, who to ask for directions, etc. If we are interacting with a person our social thinking helps us to navigate the interaction based on the context, our relationship with the person, our intentions, what we are thinking and feeling and what we are inferring they may be thinking and feeling.

“Improving our social thinking begins with improving self-awareness, and is a skill that is used for much more than having successful social interactions. Only as individuals gain awareness of their own thoughts, emotions, and intentions can they become increasingly aware of the thoughts, emotions, intentions, and actions of others. As a result, they are better able to use the information they’ve gained from their social thinking to inform many things they do throughout the day. Improving one’s social thinking will help to improve their social skills (social behavior), reading comprehension of literature, written expression, narrative language, playing with peers, working as part of a group, forming peer networks, etc. Much of what we do in school, at work, and as part of the community requires understanding the perspectives of other people and thus – social thinking.

Remarkably few educators, administrators, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, parents, etc. are aware of the power of the social mind and how it seeds our ability to think critically and socially problem solve. In fact, many journalists and politicians refer to social skills as ‘non-cognitive skills’ – though our social behavior is determined by our social cognition and has a large effect on the outcome of our lives!”

 

The Hidden Curriculum

One of the ways students who have trouble with social thinking will struggle in the classroom is with the “hidden curriculum.” In other words, the hidden curriculum is the implicit social rules that many children pick up on without having to be explicitly taught. For instance, the rules for a student’s behavior are different before and after the teacher officially starts the class. That means that before the teacher starts the class, it might be ok to put your arm around your friend and sing a song, once class has officially started this would be against the rules. Students figure out the “hidden curriculum” through their social thinking skills, but if students have social cognitive deficits, they would need to be taught these rules since they would not pick up on them on their own.

 

Different Ages, Different Rules

As children get older, the social rules change. It might be acceptable to interrupt your friend when he or she is speaking when you are in preschool, but as you get older, your friend will begin to notice and take offense. The same thing applies to social rules within the classroom. Teachers don’t generally think to teach these social skills, but for some students, explicit instruction is extremely important.

 

Imagination and Reading Comprehension

Though we don’t always realize it, we use our imagination and our social thinking to interpret many texts that we read. We understand a character’s response to a painful situation because we have labeled it as “sad.” Our children and students need reading comprehension for almost every subject in school, and when they are able to use their imagination and their social thinking, this too will become an easier and more enjoyable task.

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