Social Groups: Hurdles and Supports for Social Communication
Having positive social experiences is essential to development, and yet for some children this does not come naturally. Plenty of obstacles can stand in the way of a child having successful interactions with peers. Social groups provide a safe environment where a child has opportunities for social success, given the right level of support. Support provided in social groups varies in the moment depending on which “hurdle” is in the way of successful social communication. Sometimes a little coaching (from a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, developmental therapist, or special educator) is all a child needs to begin clearing his or her social hurdles, one by one.
A child may have difficulty maintaining emotional regulation when something does not go their way. They may become upset or angry with a peer. On the flip side, they may become so excited or silly that it’s hard to sustain any type of meaningful social interaction. In these moments, the child may benefit from reflecting on their emotions: “You’re feeling so frustrated!” Sometimes attaching language to a feeling is enough to lessen its severity (as neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls it, “Name it to tame it”). A visual may help as well; the Zones of Regulation® (Social Thinking Inc.) and similar charts attach colors to levels of emotional (and sensory) regulation. The child can then process with visual support that they’ve entered the “yellow zone” and practice strategies (a deep breath, a break) for how to return to the “green zone.”
Some children may seek frequent sensory input through jumping or swinging. They may have sensory aversions. Being in a state of dysregulation is a hurdle that can stand in the way of a successful social interaction. Social groups can support sensory regulation by allowing opportunities for input (e.g. movement games) while supporting children who are overwhelmed or hypersensitive. Reflecting on a child’s internal state, much like reflecting on feelings, can help increase awareness around their regulatory needs: “Your body is moving so fast!”
Children who have difficulties with language may resort to using their body (pushing, hitting) to communicate, as this may be easier in the moment than using words. They may have difficulty using language to negotiate with peers over turn-taking, sharing, or deciding what to play. Therapists can coach by providing language to match a child’s intentions. If a child building a tower pushes a peer away for fear that he will knock it down, the clinician might say: “You can tell him, ‘Please don’t knock it down.’” Even a simple sentence-starter (“Tell him, ‘Don’t…”) may assist the child in using language effectively in the moment to communicate with a peer. Children who have difficulty processing language may require support to repair communication breakdowns: “You can ask her to say it again.”
Children may have difficulty shifting attention to consider or even notice a peer’s actions. Therapists can direct a child’s attention to a peer: “I wonder what Johnny is doing with those blocks?” Children who have “tunnel vision” to objects of interest may not notice a peer’s plan: “I don’t think you noticed that Johnny was about to use that swing.” A young child may not even notice that a toy was in another child’s hand. Safety may be a factor as well: “You’re about to jump in the ball pit, but did you see Johnny in there?”
Children who have difficulty taking perspective to think about a peer’s feelings or intentions may require support to consider how their actions affect a peer. Pausing an interaction to add visual support, such as a “cartoon” of the interaction, can help highlight perspectives. For example, the therapist might draw one child smiling and laughing, while the other child is frowning: “You were making a joke. But to Johnny, it felt like teasing.” Conflicts with peers can serve as opportunities to take perspective; a child can be coached through checking in with a peer (rather than reciting a memorized apology) to see how they are feeling and how to help. When planning and negotiating around play, children may need support to consider that a peer might have a different idea than they do: “You want to play hide and seek. I wonder what Johnny wants to play?”
Children who have difficulty with problem-solving or flexibility may find themselves at an impasse with peers when it comes to setting up a game, deciding on roles or what to play, or working through a conflict. Therapists can coach children through these moments by helping to think of problem-solving strategies: “You both want to go first. What’s a fair way to solve this problem?” The children may come up with a strategy such as rock-paper-scissors. Flexibility is celebrated and encouraged in these moments as well: “Johnny, you offered to go second. You’re being flexible, and now we can start playing!”
Social hurdles may pop up frequently for children, in the form of difficulties in emotional/sensory regulation, language skills, attention, perspective-taking, and problem-solving/flexibility, as well as many other areas (modulation, visual-spatial processing, and impulsivity, to name a few). Social groups allow for children to leap over their individual hurdles successfully, given the right amount of coaching and facilitation. Eventually, with practice and positive experience, they may need less and less of a boost.