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  • Writer's pictureKelly Priest

Teaching Social Processes vs. Content

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

Most of us start out teaching kids the basic content of social interaction.

We prompt them to say hi, show people how many years old they are on their fingers. “Say please.” “Peeees.” We are expecting them to infer a great deal from repetition of these routines. For most kids, most of the time, we explain relatively little to them about the processes of social interactions...

...what exactly is going on behind the scenes, what’s the purpose of this social routine?

Most of the time, with repetition, kids tend to infer that, for example, when a parent’s co-worker asks, “How are you?” they are expected to give one of a handful of general, positive replies. They are expected to eventually understand, vaguely, that the other person is intending to convey some positive regard toward their parent by signaling that they have positive wishes and intentions toward their offspring, which the child usually seals the deal on by replying something like, “pretty good.” Some kids don’t readily infer the processes – the common unseen intentions and hidden social agendas and rules that guide much of our everyday interaction. When a child seems to hesitate or become anxious, or give too much specific information or too little, we often forget to start with ourselves and ask ourselves what’s up with all our prompting? How come we are still providing direct prompts for fairly routine social interactions for this child, long past the time when many of their peers seem not only to have mastered the basic back and forth, but even play along fairly comfortably because they have a general idea of the intent behind many of the most common routines. What is the purpose of our prompting, if it’s not working? What are we trying to communicate, and to whom?

Max was in the middle of a tough transition into high school when his parents were referred to me by Max’s neuropsychologist. Despite having thought of himself as a pretty good student up through middle school, he was in way over his head in Algebra, and repeating it was all but a foregone conclusion. (Lots of inferential thinking in Algebra, by the way. Solving for x. I didn’t get it the first time either.) In a meeting with his parents, the teachers at his large high school said they would be glad to help him with any questions. When the parents tried to imagine him independently asking a teacher a question after class or during a free period, or even following through if they helped to prepare him, they knew he would need help.

After I spoke with Max’s parents over the course of two meetings, I had a pretty good idea of what they wanted for him, but since they said Max spoke very little to adults outside of his immediate family, I expected that it would take a while before I would know much about what he wanted. When Max come to see me for the first time with his mother, she told him to say hi. He paused for a moment and then said hi quietly, looking down. Then when I asked him, “How’s it going?” he paused for a moment to think of what to say, and she told him to answer me. He did. Then when I asked if it would be OK for us to talk in the other room, she told him to leave his phone with her and go in with me.

This is such a common phenomenon in my work that I made a little sign for my reception area that says, “Prompting,” with a red circle and slash over the word. No-prompting zone. It’s a cycle that usually starts with the kid’s difficulty with social communication or social anxiety, then the parent tries to provide support, then the kid learns that someone will tell them when they need to say something, and probably what to say. As social demands become more complex, a larger and larger proportion of the parent’s interaction with the child becomes about prompting them and telling them what they should have said, then some more discussion if they feel their child was perceived as rude or aloof. In Max’s case, the neuropsychologist found that his processing speed was much slower than the usual rate of conversations. His mom would worry when other kids said hi to him in the mornings when she would take him to school when he was younger. He seemed not to notice. By the time he was about to get a reply out, the other kid was long gone or had moved into a conversation with someone else. So she got used to having to prompt him to say hi, and he usually would. She explained to adults, often in front of him, that he was not much of a talker. She was anxious to make sure they wouldn’t assume he was a sullen misanthrope, so she wouldn’t look like a bad parent. As he got older, both of them were aware that this pattern of interaction made him look less competent and independent than his peers, but his mom hoped that with enough repetition, he would “get it.”

Probably if Max were an average social learner, he would have. But the years rolled by, and the developmental charts parents sometimes refer to don’t have entries like, “independently returns adults’ greetings, within an average range of speed and matching their level of formality/informality.” And Max was an easygoing kid who didn’t seem to outwardly bristle at his parents’ prompts, so there wasn’t much pushback from him. But the spiraling combination of his social communication challenges and his parents’ attempts to accommodate and support him had resulted in his total inability to independently communicate with any adult to get his own needs met. Not in spoken words or writing, both of which he was capable of. His parents were worried about math, but I was worried about the impending clash between his developing desire for more independence and his vulnerability and limitations in a world where he could not ask anyone for directions or help of any kind.

Max and I got off to a very slow start. Early on, I asked his parents to drop him off in front of my building and give him a head start on walking in while they parked the car. I explained that he seemed more relaxed when he started each meeting with me on his own, instead of being brought in. This gave us a little bit of a reprieve from the heavy prompting setting the tone for our interaction, and gave me more time to develop a relationship with the parents before I suggested they pull back on what, to them, was a necessary form of support for their son.

One day he came in with an after-school treat his mom had bought him, from a coffee shop. It wasn’t what he had ordered, and he agreed that it would be great if he could eventually get comfortable enough with asking questions and asserting himself that he could get what he really wanted in restaurants and other places. He was realistic about the probability of having to repeat math over the summer, but agreed that it would be better if he could get help from his teachers early on before he got so far behind. We knew from his earlier speech therapy assessments that he technically had the ability to ask questions, but he said he couldn’t do it with adults. So we tried using some conversation cards to spur some Q&A between us, but, like his Health class, he didn’t find it relevant, so it made participating too hard. I tried to watch some of his favorite anime with him, but I just couldn’t get into it. He could tell I was trying too hard, so it made our time artificial and uncomfortable.

We settled on watching Terrace House, an unscripted reality show about six young people who live in a house in Japan. I found a season that is fairly tame, in terms of adult behavior, and cleared it with his parents. It has subtitles and moves slowly enough that it was paced well for him, and the commentators who analyze everyone’s motives and needs and wishes and personalities made sure we were not ever baffled by anything, but there was enough intrigue and cultural comparison to generate conversations.

Eventually, after we made some progress on asking questions, and more importantly, after we were getting comfortable with each other, expressing differing opinions, with me coaching him to challenge me when he disagreed with me, and then laughing together, I asked him if it would be OK for us to talk the next week about how we greeted each other at the beginning of our meetings. He said OK.

I explained to him that I didn’t want to just give him the rules of polite greetings (the content), because I could tell, from the example of his Health class, that if something didn’t seem relevant to him, he would not do it. I explained that the purpose of us greeting each other is to show that we have good intentions toward each other and a plan to work together well that day. He said, “I would assume so.” I explained that some days, if he had a hard day at school or was really tired, or if I was a little under the weather, it would be good to know that so we could adjust a little bit to accommodate each other’s needs. He froze in spacetime as he considered this, then gave me a curt nod. So if he greeted me in a way that showed he was ready for us to do our thing, then I would feel more comfortable because I would have a better indication that I wasn’t overriding his consent to learn from me that day. He needed to understand the process of greetings, not just memorize the formality of what to say and where to look. So the explanation was the first part.

Then I did something I almost never do. I asked him if I could pretend to be him, and he could be me, and we could go over how we usually greet each other. He smiled and agreed. He plastered an implausibly big grin on his face and said “Hi, how’s it going? Ready??” a little too loudly. Point taken! I had to work hard then to keep a straight face when I played him, not appearing to acknowledge me and walking into the room with shoulders hunched, hair in my face, and plopping down in the chair. He smiled and agreed that it would be hard to know if he wanted to be there or not, and I agreed that as much as I thought I had toned it down with my greetings, I could stand to take it down another notch.

Then we practiced greeting each other without words, and again with any words we chose that would convey that we were both ready to work together. We also practiced communicating fatigue and “not feeling it today,” again, with and without words. The process and what was behind it was as important, if not more important than the prescriptive content of greeting.

We aren’t always in a situation like I was in with Max, where we had a lot of focused time to try different things and get to know each other. But one of the more accessible ways to focus less on direct prompting of social routines is to take a step back from the direct prompt. When you notice yourself overprompting or struggling to hold back from prompting, first, start with yourself. If you think you might be doing it to compensate for your child’s social awkwardness, let yourself (and the kid) off the hook. You can either keep up appearances or support social learning, but you can’t do both at once. If you’re worried that without your prompting, this child won’t answer people or say expected things, like, “Happy Birthday,” give yourself a reminder that your current strategy is working about as well as simply telling the kid the answers to as many math equations as possible and hoping it will click. So it’s OK to let go a little.

It’s not going to hurt to try taking a step back from the prompt. When someone greets your child, slow yourself down a little. Let there be awkwardness. See if your child responds in any way. A nod, a wave, even a glance or slowing down their pace. If so, let it be. Their ownership of their own social connections is more important than matching the conventions. If they don’t respond at all, say to your child, “Shaheen was saying hi to you.” Then wait. Or gesture gently without words to direct your child’s attention to the person greeting them.

Over time, I hope that my students will feel more confident in their own ability to navigate the social world as they decode more of the private logic behind certain social conventions and other people’s interactions with them. I hope the social world becomes a bit less frustrating and a bit more predictable to them, and they are empowered by their increasing abilities to connect and manage relationships with others, including both those who think about social interaction differently than they do and those who are more similar, if they are lucky enough to find them.

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