Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Social Smarts

Putting our Best-Foot Forward Helping our Youth Manage their Social Status

Filed under:
Social Skills
Written by:
Melissa Yue, BSc. (Hons.), MSc., Registered Provisional Psychologist
Jan. 9, 2019

Being successful in school requires more than good grades. School is a juggling act. Students are expected to learn geometry, write papers, study, build friendships and avoid trouble - all at the same time. When a friend keeps asking to hang out when you feel overwhelmed studying for an exam, it's hard not to snap. This is when social skills are needed. Having good social skills help protect our relationships and our goals. They allow us to handle strong emotions while we politely decline an invitation.

Going to school gives kids the first, major place to meet others and begin to discover what we can and cannot do around people. Acting in expected ways helps other people to like us by not making them feel uncomfortable or upset. On the flipside, acting in unexpected ways that go against social norms often hurt our reputations. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is different from learning a new lesson in class because the steps for keeping a conversation going or resolving a conflict are not clearly laid out. There are no textbooks, diagrams, or classroom demonstrations. We often have to learn these skills through making and learning from our own mistakes.  In some cases, we can even learn by watching others interact.

As you read this article, you may identify that your child struggles to read social cues. Or, maybe they do things that cost them dearly in the friendship department. Is your child prepared to put their best-foot-forward in our changing and somewhat unforgiving society?

This thought process leads us to an important question…

Why does my child who has a Learning Disability (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) struggle to make and keep positive relationships?

Researchers have noticed that children who have been identified as having LD, ADHD, or other conditions that make learning hard also struggle in social settings. But, why? The majority of the research can be summed up into one finding. The same struggle a child faces while learning in a classroom spills over and affects their learning in the social world as well.

It helps to understand how your child processes the world and the factors that make learning tricky for them. Some children may use up the bulk of their mental energy learning how to spell using word sounds while writing. In this example, spelling takes up all their energy that leaves less energy to make a good impression or control any frustrations they may be feeling. Another child may struggle to stay focused. This can make it hard for them to block out random thoughts when talking to someone. Others might see them as being inconsiderate when they interrupt or quickly change the subject. Children with lower working memory or processing speeds often find it hard to follow conversations. This leaves them in a tricky place to know what to say or how to respond when it is their turn to speak.

The reality is that children may not develop social skills by themselves. They may be too drained or lack the skill to notice what is going on around them.  They may not be able to see the connection between their behaviours and how others are responding even though others are signalling them to stop.

To add more strain to the situation, a necessary evil in school is group work. Working in groups provides another chance to help students develop teamwork. But, for those who struggle with the schoolwork and how to behave around others, these children are usually picked last as partners. This double disadvantage can often make the problem worse. It limits the very social opportunities that are needed to work on social skills. When this cycle is broken, it is common for these children to say that they are lonely and left out.

So, now what? What can we do to help?

Even though each child will learn these skills differently, there are several ways to improve the odds that a child will become more socially aware. These steps are based on Richard Lavoie’s Social Autopsy.

Step 1: Identify and label social norms and expectations

Make those social cues easier to see. Help draw your child’s focus to the hidden rules of society. When entering a social setting (like the library, or a hockey game), take a moment with your child and scan the environment. Ask questions like, what do you see other people doing? What do you hear? Are people talking loudly or softly? Are people trying to reach a goal that we can help out with? What do you think people are feeling?

Step 2: Give clear steps on what to do

Start by knowing what skill you want to practice with your child. Afterwards, casually talk about why the skill is important. Timing is important. Make sure your child is in the right frame of mind to learn. If they are emotional, tired, hungry, or unfocused, meet those needs first.

When they are ready, try not to lecture them. Ask questions that help guide and show the importance of the skill you wish to teach. For each idea, talk through the scenario.  Talk about how others might respond (or be thinking but not saying).  Together, decide which of the ideas is the best option. Now is the time to clearly outline the plan.  What is your child going to do the next time they find themselves in that situation? For example, “the next time a friend takes my toy without asking, I will first take two deep, belly-breaths.  Then I will ask them to return it instead of shouting at them and calling them a name. Because that will hurt their feelings, and I don’t want to look mean.”

If you are feeling a little uncertain about how to provide clear instructions, you are not alone! Consider a social skills program that is designed to help teach you and your child how to start these talks. For more on how social skills programs work and how to maximize the program’s benefits, please read this article (Link to Social Skills Programs: Can they Be Effective Article by Melanie Reader)

Step 3: Check understanding

This step is important if you took a more active role in brainstorming. Check your child’s understanding by asking them to work through a similar, yet new social problem. Resist the urge to jump in and offer the answer. If your child does not quite get it, go back to Step 2. Help your child think through how certain actions will impact their reputation. You may even need to go back further and work with your child on why social skills are important in the first place.

Step 4: Provide exposure to a low-risk and/or supported situation

Knowing and doing are two different things. We want to make sure we give our children a safe place to take some risks and try using the skills they are working on. If there is a big birthday party coming up, let’s not make THAT event your child’s first exposure. Large groups carry a higher social risk as things can get out of hand quickly.  Not to mention that there are more people around to witness any mistakes. Instead, help your child prepare by inviting one or two friends over who are also invited to the party. If possible, pick a location that leaves room for things going off track. If your child struggles in this setting, you will have more privacy to help them work through what to do next or even offer in-the-moment coaching. If your child is successful, you have given them a positive connection to another child. Bottom line, start small and work your way up!

Step 5: Use the teachable moments whenever possible

One of the challenges with teaching social skills is that a child may be unaware in the moment how others are reacting.  With kindness and gentleness, these children need help seeing how their behaviours are affecting those around them. Our memories of an event fade with time. So, giving feedback right away is more useful than trying to get a child to remember something that happened a while ago. Pausing in the moment to help diffuse a tense situation is ideal. But, this is not always possible!  Conversations move fast, and we are often limited by the timing of the situation. To help us quickly jump into a coaching moment, build a habit for you and your family to stop before things get worse and look at the situation from the outside. Label and identify what each person wants out of the situation. Then, come up with a plan that meets each other’s needs. Remind everyone that the goal is to find a solution together.  Pick a solution that also shapes us to be better at working together.

Step 6: Rinse and repeat: Practice, practice, practice!

Anytime we practice a new skill, we have to remember that we are not going to master it on the first try. Learning is a process. Learning takes time and purposeful practice. Help your kids rinse off any negative feelings that come with disappointments. Reframe what happened by saying that we are one step closer to figuring it out. Offer encouragement on what they did well (no matter how small). And, if someone has been hurt, do your best to help teach your child to restore the relationship when possible. No one can live a socially flawless life. This is why the art of apologizing is yet another social skill we have to continue to work on, even as adults.

With that, take heart! Be brave and start working on a skill with your child today. Need help or don’t know where to start? Reach out! You do not have to do this alone.

For more resources:

It’s So Much Work to be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success by Richard Lavoie

Social Skill Autopsies: A Strategy to Promote and Develop Social Competencies by Richard Lavoie

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes by Mel Levine.


Or, consider a social skills program!