Beyond Skills: The Worth of Social Competence The words of social competence matter when supporting students’ social development. Features
Free
Features  |   September 01, 2016
Beyond Skills: The Worth of Social Competence
Author Notes
  • Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, is director of The Center for Social Thinking in San Jose, California. She specializes in working with students with social-cognitive challenges. michelle@socialthinking.com
    Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, is director of The Center for Social Thinking in San Jose, California. She specializes in working with students with social-cognitive challenges. michelle@socialthinking.com×
  • Pamela J. Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the chief strategy officer at The Center for Social Thinking. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education; and 11, Administration and Supervision. pcrooke@socialthinking.com
    Pamela J. Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the chief strategy officer at The Center for Social Thinking. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education; and 11, Administration and Supervision. pcrooke@socialthinking.com×
Article Information
Development / School-Based Settings / Language Disorders / Social Communication & Pragmatics Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Features
Features   |   September 01, 2016
Beyond Skills: The Worth of Social Competence
The ASHA Leader, September 2016, Vol. 21, 50-56. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.21092016.50
The ASHA Leader, September 2016, Vol. 21, 50-56. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.21092016.50
Words create mental imagery. They form the perspectives we hold and the impressions we impart to others. Words can be like a pebble dropped into a pond: They set into motion a series of events that can affect others in far-reaching ways.
Consider this case study.
At 14, Caleb was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Why the late diagnosis? On the surface, Caleb appeared to be a typical studious kid: quiet, well-mannered and pleasant to talk to. But the reality is that Caleb had no friends, rarely spoke in class and ate by himself every day. He struggled to understand what his peers meant by what they did or said and routinely “zoned out” during class lectures. His parents finally decided something needed to give when Caleb’s teachers expressed concern about his crying during class—in middle school. As Caleb entered high school the crying disappeared, but it was soon replaced by resistance.
During our initial session Caleb presented with a big smile (how he exhibited anxiety) and agreed to work with us to figure out how to tolerate all the “jerks” at school. To Caleb, everyone was a jerk. Before long, we learned he expressed no interest in making friends, had virtually no awareness of the school’s social culture, could not take others’ perspectives, was more literal than testing suggested, expressed rigidity and a one-sided point of view, was very fussy and demanding at home, and had weak organizational skills.
Most school-based speech-language pathologists know students like Caleb who do not stand out in any obvious way as socially awkward or overly literal. Their peers and teachers often describe them using words such as loner, distracted, disorganized, uncaring, or even rude and annoying. They may have a medical diagnosis of ASD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or another neurological issue—or they may not. They may fall within the diagnostic category of social communication disorder, nonverbal learning disability or emotional disability—or they may not.
In fact, there are many students just like Caleb who might not qualify for services until much older or may never meet eligibility for an IEP or 504 given their academic and testing strengths. But these are the very students who are at great risk for social, emotional and academic problems.
These students are not tearing up rooms or having tantrums in P.E. They are, however, using humor in the wrong time and place, blurting, resisting help, being taken advantage of by their peers, existing alone every day, or simply flying under the radar until mental health issues creep up, often in high school or post-graduation. They are students who have deep struggles with social-emotional learning, but may manifest it in less obvious or conventional ways when compared with those with more obvious problems socializing.

Many students may never meet eligibility for an IEP or 504 given their academic and testing strengths. But these are the very students who are at great risk for social, emotional and academic problems.

Subtle, but significant
The tendency is to describe these students as having “mild” social skills problems compared with students who exhibit very obvious neurologically driven social learning challenges. But the term “mild” is misleading. When these same students are compared with their neurotypical peers, they have subtle, but significant challenges in their social competencies.
Consider this: There are far fewer supports and peer mentoring programs for students like Caleb. From our experience, the “mild” students are routinely socially rejected, have considerable executive function challenges affecting their classroom performance, and wrestle with more frequent and more compelling episodes of anxiety and depression.
If students like Caleb are referred for services at all, it is usually at a later age when it is trickier to assess them and create meaningful treatment plans. Like Caleb, they may exacerbate the treatment dilemma by saying they don’t care about being able to develop and sustain relationships. Typical comments: “I don’t want a friend!” “I like being by myself.” “I’m smart, so I go to the library during lunch.”
Given that our goal in education is to help prepare students for college and careers, we need to be aware of students who may do well on a test or have strong IQ scores, but struggle with real-life accomplishments. In fact, a study of people with high-functioning ASD by Cara E. Pugliese and colleagues, published this year, found that IQ is a poor indicator of long-term outcomes in real-world adaptive behavior related to communication, socialization and daily living skills.
A student, no matter how smart, who struggles with developing peer relationships, has poor organizational skills, and/or shows weak classroom performance based on weak comprehension or narrative language, is likely to experience significant challenges in meeting the expectations of college, a job and adult professional and personal relationships.
Given the impact of social learning challenges on long-term life functioning, our role as SLPs and educators is to take note of the Calebs in our schools and clinics and, at the least, propose setting up peer mentoring programs, offering response-to-intervention services, and/or instituting school initiatives related to social-emotional learning. If none of these is possible, we can empower general education teachers to teach about social-emotional learning and guide students to connect with peers to develop social competencies.

Our role is to propose setting up peer mentoring programs, offering response-to-intervention services and/or instituting school initiatives related to social-emotional learning.

Social skills versus social competencies
What’s key in all this is how we use words in thinking and talking about a student’s social learning challenges. Words matter—especially when explaining the need for treatment related to social functioning.
Take, for instance, the phrase teaching social skills. Many imagine a club-like atmosphere of game playing or a lesson-based format where individual social skills are taught and practiced “to mastery.” People tend to think of social skills as discrete and linear. The phrase teaching toward social competencies, on the other hand, implies complexity and dynamic systems of learning.
Our words as highly trained professionals should reflect this complexity. When working with students like Caleb, we are actually focusing on their social learning to increase social competencies. Phrasing in this way encourages a shift in perspective about what is involved in the treatment process. And, it allows all of us the opportunity to state what we have been trained to do well, including teaching social interpretation, critical thinking, self-awareness (both social and academic), and perspective-taking to problem-solve for more fluid social communication.
Social skills or social learning
Caleb’s initial take on his current social skill status was, “I’m not the problem. Everyone else is a jerk!” At that point, teaching Caleb social skills would have been inadequate because he didn’t believe the problem was his. Instead, we added Caleb to a group of others with similar challenges in social competencies. For instance, they all had difficulty interpreting social interactions, observing subtleties in others and establishing friendships. But they all had clear strengths in language and cognition.
Where to start? Social learning almost always starts with social observation. Early work by Albert Bandura (see sources) showed that social learning is cognitive work and that observation is often the catalyst for that learning. Neuroscience has since added to this notion through the recent discovery of mirror neurons—perception or action neurons in our brains. Mirror neurons are reportedly critical to how we perceive and learn new skills through observing and “mirroring” others’ actions and possibly their intentions (see sources). Yet many of our best science-oriented, detail-minded students lack socially based, conceptually minded observational abilities. In other words, they struggle to use relevant social concepts to make meaning out of social contexts. So the students in Caleb’s group needed a systematic framework to guide their observations.
We spent the next several weeks using the framework of Social Thinking’s “Four Steps of Face-to-Face Communication” as our guide to deconstruct the communication process. Historically, we find that interventionists tend to push for quick behavior change in the absence of deep understanding on the part of the student. Students may be able to produce the social skill, but lack the critical-thinking tools to grasp when, where and how to use the skill in real-time interactions. Hence, they lack the ability to socially problem-solve now and into the future. So our initial goal was to increase awareness, not push for immediate behavior change.
We asked members of Caleb’s group to become more aware of their own and others’ communication abilities across these four steps:
Step 1. Thinking about the other person. Can we observe or tell when people are thinking about each other? Do their questions or comments show they are both thinking about similar things like topics or ideas?
Step 2. Establishing physical presence. How do people indicate they are about to communicate with one another—verbally or nonverbally based on the context (for example, physical stance, movement, gestures)? How close is too close? How far is too far?
Step 3. Thinking with one’s eyes. Explore how people use their eyes to figure out (interpret) the situation and people. Use that information to determine motives, intentions, attention, inattention, emotions and so forth.
Step 4. Language to relate to one another. Explore what people mean by what they say. Notice how peers use language to communicate with each other. Consider how to practice different language-based concepts to participate in conversations (for example, ask a question, add a thought, make a supporting comment).
We also made it clear that we were not teaching social skills 101. Each boy had basic knowledge of social rules/skills, so we stressed the difference between understanding social rules/skills and observing/responding to social nuances. We monitored their social observations through Google Circles (an online site that allows for real-time interactions within a closed group of users) with parental permission and security settings set at high to ensure no outsider access. Eventually, the boys began to describe how they were using their own adaptive problem-solving and nuanced social behaviors.
Caleb’s posts were remarkable. While we knew he had subtle but significant social learning challenges, his posts revealed his lack of understanding about the social world, as well as his journey toward understanding. From the start, his observations helped him “get” peer culture and peer relationships. The following short excerpts demonstrate some of the many observations and triumphs Caleb discussed in his posts.

Interventionists tend to push for quick behavior change in the absence of deep understanding on the part of the student. Students may be able to produce the social skill, but lack the critical thinking tools to grasp when, where and how to use the skill.

December 2015
Anyway, I usually find people not outside, but a large group of people hanging out inside the main building hallways. And, to make things more intense, people that I see daily there at lunchtime were in those same, almost exact locations along with other people, who probably hang there in the morning. I was just noticing some more patterns that occur in the social world, about who does what, and just hidden routines that you would have to just pay “real close attention” to in order to find out!!
March 2016
This week was very good, both in terms of talking to others and learning more about how others communicate to each other. I began talking to one of the people from my group at the beginning of the year. Especially during class, we both began talking more.
May 2016
This week I got invited to a party from one of the guys that I talk to. I was not expecting that to happen, but I guess it is good news!
Over the past 18 months, we have explored lessons that included social understanding, adaptive problem-solving and social output. Here is a sampling of the content:
  • Exploring our own and others’ perspective-taking.

  • Studying the relationship between choices and consequences.

  • Defining what it means to create a strategy and determining when to use it.

  • Observing signs of friendly versus unfriendly and then practicing how to be perceived as “friendly.”

  • Learning to initiate social communication rather than only to respond.

  • Exploring how participation in classroom discussions ultimately helps with content for essays.

  • Becoming more self-aware of wandering social attention and developing strategies to harness it.

  • Determining how to think about and show social behaviors that align with how we want to be perceived by others.

By focusing on social competencies rather than social skills, we were able to make connections between reading, writing, speaking, listening, organizational skills, motivation and social self-awareness as they relate to critical thinking and social problem-solving.
Words matter
The words we use to teach concepts and related social behaviors affect how we learn to navigate the social world. In the same manner, the language we use to describe our work with colleagues and family members is ultimately the catalyst for how they will paint the picture in their minds of who we are, what we do, and why our treatment is to build competencies as well as social skills. After all, as author Sebastyne Young puts it: “A picture can tell a thousand words, but a few words can change its story.”
Building Students’ Social Competence to Comply With the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards, adopted in most states, pose particular educational challenges for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and social communication disorder (SCD). The Standard for Speaking and Listening is particularly difficult for these students because it requires both flexible communication and collaboration.

Students must develop skills to deliver formal presentations and work cooperatively in a group. Meeting such expectations is often a struggle for students with ASD and SCD because of their difficulties in initiating and sustaining communication, using social language, maintaining reciprocity, taking another person’s perspective, inferring the interests of others, and matching communication styles to the situation.

Here, step by step, is how school-based SLPs can help these students meet the speaking and listening standard by building their social competence.

Identify students’ specific social skills deficits. These include:

Skill acquisition deficits: a specific skill or behavior not currently in a student’s repertoire.

Performance skills deficits: a target skill or behavior a student has learned in a structured learning environment but is unable to demonstrate in naturalistic environments or situations.

Fluency skills deficits: a social skill or behavior the student knows how to execute, but delivery is awkward or unpolished.

Match the intervention approach and service delivery option to the skill deficit. For example, a pull-out service delivery model will likely work best for a student with skill-acquisition deficits. A classroom-based intervention may work better for students with performance skill deficits so that they can practice newly learned skills throughout their day. A coaching intervention—in which students monitor and evaluate their own performance of skills—may best suit those with fluency skills deficits.

Ensure that the skills we teach generalize to real-life situations. This is key to demonstrating effectiveness of our services. We need to heed how and where we teach students, and the types of practice opportunities we offer them. In particular, we can capitalize more on home practice, sharing suggestions with parents to facilitate their child’s use of newly learned skills. For example:

  • Encourage parents to establish a daily routine of asking their child about topics, events or activities learned in school. Parents can model and expect their child to add related comments and ask relevant questions to continue the conversational exchange.

  • Have parents role-play language use in various social situations, such as greeting a familiar peer at the mall or movies. Parents can use scripts initially and then develop their own role-play situations with their children.

  • Parents can discuss social interactions between characters on TV, such as how they matched their communication styles to the situations, and, most importantly, why.

—Janet Dodd, assistant professor, Department of Communications Sciences and Disorders, Chapman University dodd@chapman.edu

Sources
Bandura, A. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Bandura, A. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.×
Hasson, U., & Frith, C. D. (2016). Mirroring and beyond: Coupled dynamics as a generalized framework for modelling social interactions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1693).
Hasson, U., & Frith, C. D. (2016). Mirroring and beyond: Coupled dynamics as a generalized framework for modelling social interactions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1693).×
Pugliese, C. E., Anthony, L. G., Strang, J. F., Dudley, K., Wallace, G. L. … Kenworthy, L. (2015). Longitudinal examination of adaptive behavior in autism spectrum disorders: Influence of executive function. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(2), 467–477.
Pugliese, C. E., Anthony, L. G., Strang, J. F., Dudley, K., Wallace, G. L. … Kenworthy, L. (2015). Longitudinal examination of adaptive behavior in autism spectrum disorders: Influence of executive function. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(2), 467–477.×
Rowley, E., Chandler, S., Baird, G., Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Loucas, T., & Charman, T. (2012). The experience of friendship, victimization and bullying in children with an autism spectrum disorder: Associations with child characteristics and school placement. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(3), 1126–1134. [Article]
Rowley, E., Chandler, S., Baird, G., Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Loucas, T., & Charman, T. (2012). The experience of friendship, victimization and bullying in children with an autism spectrum disorder: Associations with child characteristics and school placement. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(3), 1126–1134. [Article] ×
0 Comments
Submit a Comment
Submit A Comment
Name
Comment Title
Comment


This feature is available to Subscribers Only
Sign In or Create an Account ×
FROM THIS ISSUE
September 2016
Volume 21, Issue 9