The How and Why of Socializing
I used to work with a teenager who had a long-term plan for dealing with his social skills challenges. When things were going well, he was able to make some good connections with the other members of his group. When things weren’t going well, he took it hard. One day, he and I were talking after he had gotten into a disagreement with another group member. Essentially, he told me that my feedback was all fine and good but, ultimately, irrelevant. His plan moving forward was to find a career that didn’t involve any social interaction at all.
I said it was a long-term plan. I didn’t say it was a good one.
You can’t just sit down with a kid and teach him or her why it’s worthwhile to learn how to interact effectively with peers…The desire to form connections has to come from a deeper place – a place beholden more to emotions, expectations, and intuition than to reason.
Looking back, it’s pretty clear that the road map for life that my former charge designed for himself bore a heavy dose of short-term situational angst. His argument with a friend got him frustrated. He became flooded with emotions, and let loose with his ill-considered plan for a solitary career path. I haven’t seen this boy in years but I have to assume that his goal of finding a job in which he could be completely isolated didn’t work out. Unless he had his heart set on a career as an ascetic or a monk living and meditating in a cave in Tibet, his list of options would be very short if “No interaction with other humans” was a firm requirement.
Whether he was serious about his career choice or not, this boy’s stated wish to avoid social contact is illustrative of one of the most frequent and important oversights within the world of social skills interventions. Most models of social skills training focus exclusively on teaching kids HOW to improve their interaction skills. There are some excellent, widely used models aimed at helping kids read and respond to social cues, improve conversational skills and perspective taking, and to incorporate considerations beyond their own immediate self-interest when they interact with others. What’s missing from many of these interventions is any sustained effort to show kids why social connection is worthwhile in the first place.
Think about the history that could lead my boy to list social isolation as the criterion for his career choice. Like lots of the kids we see here at Academy MetroWest, he came to us feeling beaten down and defeated after trying unsuccessfully for years to form satisfying friendships. They have a hard time trusting adults who encourage them (or nag them – depending on their perspective) to change their behavior in ways that should theoretically make them more socially successful. They have a hard time trusting peers to understand them and treat them fairly. Beyond these issues of trust, lots of kids just don’t see how it’s in their interest to consider the needs and perspectives of other kids when their previous efforts have left them feeling rejected, frustrated, or isolated.
One of the main problems that adults have in responding to the “why bother” question is that the answer doesn’t lend itself to didactic, curriculum-based instruction. You can’t just sit down with a kid and teach him or her why it’s worthwhile to learn how to interact effectively with peers. It’s not a matter of teaching a concrete, rational concept. The desire to form connections has to come from a deeper place – a place beholden more to emotions, expectations, and intuition than to reason.
At Academy MetroWest, our approach to working with kids and adolescents on social interaction places a huge premium on showing kids why friendships are worth the effort rather than trying to teach or explain that idea explicitly. We want our participants to gain an understanding that even if socializing is not easy or intuitive for them, when they put their minds to it, they can do it. And when they do, life gets better. That’s not a matter of instruction. That’s a matter of sustained, direct experience. Week after week, kids in our groups have fun together, work together as allies, resolve conflicts, and share their successes together. Well constructed groups take on a feeling of community in which all members feel supported, understood, and welcomed. Slowly, it begins to dawn on group members that peer interaction can be inherently rewarding and that it is, in fact, in their interest to present themselves in ways that are likely to result in acceptance and affirmation.
One of the keys to facilitating this process is an emphasis on careful, considered group placement. Prior to being placed in a group, all prospective participants undergo an initial interview. We spend 25 minutes or so in our gym going through a structured series of activities with each new client. This enables us to get a sense of each new participants’ physical skills, level of social cognition, overall developmental level, and personality. After collecting a developmental history from the parents, we take a look at our weekly roster of groups and ask ourselves the following question: Which group offers this kid the best chance at forming connections with his or her fellow group members? Is there any chance that he or she is actually going to like the other members of the group? Will that feeling be reciprocated? Without the right match, feedback regarding a child’s social presentation is likely to fall on deaf ears. As a counselor, when I tell a kid to think about the way his or her behavior affects the other members of the group, the challenge is multiplied exponentially when a kid honestly replies “I don’t care. They’re jerks anyway.” Asking kids to change their social behavior is a tall order even in the best circumstances. If there’s no one else in the group with whom that child has a connection, it becomes even less likely that they’ll be willing to take that feedback to heart.
To their credit, public schools seem to be taking a more consistent interest in helping kids with social-emotional learning these days. Many of the kids we see have been part of a social skills group or lunch bunch at school. Unfortunately, most of the feedback I’ve heard about these groups from parents and kids ranges from neutral to negative. And that’s not due to any incompetence or apathy on the part of the school professionals running them. Structural issues found in school based groups make it difficult for them to be more than anything besides well-intended setups for failure. For one, they take place at school, a venue that many kids already view through an impenetrable negative haze. Kids are likely to start a group feeling defensive and skeptical, making it difficult for them to ever really buy in to the agenda. There are other built-in obstacles to school based groups that, at times, leave their leaders fighting an uphill battle. The most insurmountable may stem from the way group placement is determined. Rather than going through a careful group placement process, sometimes the only criterion for inclusion in a school-based group seems to be “Has social skills development listed as a goal on IEP.” Given the relatively small population they draw from, it’s just not practical to form properly constructed groups. Every once in a great while, I hear a parent tell me that a school based group has been helpful. When things line up well, they can give kids some concrete feedback and support around learning how to improve their interaction skills. But, for the most part, they come up short in the area of showing kids why it’s worthwhile to bother in the first place.