Social Learning Starts Young

Learning starts young

By Jynette Oji

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”

– Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977

The point Bandura makes applies to learning (and teaching) social behaviors.  Many students with special needs require additional support to be able to engage socially.  You may recognize some of these students. They are the ones that wander around the classroom or playground.  They zone out while kids are playing and or talking around them.  They have no concept of personal space as they put their face nose to nose with yours or that of a classmate’s.  They obnoxiously interrupt play and often get into trouble for their effort to join in. These are the kids that don’t know the social rules of engagement.

For a student on the Autism Spectrum, with ADD or ADHD, and many other disabilities, being social is a very difficult task. Throw in the challenge of being a young learner between the ages of 5-10 – overwhelming! This is where educators come in handy. Many organizations are realizing the huge social deficit children with special needs can have and are working to meet that need.  Some of these programs include Social Thinking, founded by Michelle Garcia Winner, Social Stories by Carol Gray, and Sandbox Learning (a site that allows you to personalize social stories that have already been created). Schools like Hope Technology School are working to equip students with the tools they need to be able to effectively engage in various social environments.

So how do I do this in my class?  Any way I can.  For younger students, short stories, plays, and skits about social behaviors work the best.  With so many media outlets today, there are numerous possibilities. Doing something as simple as recording students and allowing them to watch and observe themselves is eye-opening.  I have my Kindergarteners create short skits demonstrating social behaviors while paying attention to details (eye contact, body movement, and body position).

The students’ absolute favorite activity is when I demonstrate inappropriate behaviors such as how NOT to sit or stand or how NOT to greet someone. One example is role-playing talking to someone without looking at the person.  Well, some of us actually do this as we multi-task but kids haven’t graduated to that level yet!

Another successful activity in my classroom has been play groups.  I pair up students who work well together. This pairing usually is a typically developing student who is patient and outgoing with a student who is working on social skills.  I then establish a goal for each student and take note: these goals do not have to be complicated.  For the typical child, a goal can be learning to be understanding, learning to value the other student for a talent he has, or just learning to appreciate a quality about the other student, like her sense of humor.  For the student working on social skills, the goal may be as simple as making eye contact with his classmate for a certain amount of time. The next goal may be to respond to a question her classmate asks her.

I have also found that structured activities like board games work very well for learning social skills and the rules of social engagement. Try it out in your class and let me know how it goes.