Social Thinking
in the Classroom

April 17, 2020

By Alexander Burr, Lower School Head Teacher

In the spring of 2019 I received a grant from the MMFS Parents Association to create a series of lessons based on the Social Thinking methodology for teaching social competencies. My goal was for these lessons to further enrich the social emotional curriculum already taking place at MMFS.

While the importance of developing academic skills is easily recognized, the acquisition of social skills is key in promoting students’ functioning both in the classroom and out. The development of social skills supports students’ ability to more successfully engage in play, form relationships with peers, and participate as members of a community. Social skills are based on our awareness of a situation and on our ability to recognize the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others to determine how best to respond. Social skills are intended to affect how others think about and respond to us, with the goal of making others feel comfortable in our presence.

Often, social skills are taught as a series of discrete behaviors to be memorized. For example, we instruct children that when talking to someone it is important to make eye contact. While this is an appropriate social convention, more meaningful instruction seeks to develop students’ underlying understanding of why this convention is important. A goal is to help students think socially about how the act of establishing eye contact makes others feel and thus shapes how the person thinks about you.

During the 2018-2019 school year I was able to attend a three-day Social Thinking conference led by Michelle Garcia Winner and some of her colleagues. The Social Thinking Methodology was developed by Winner to “provide treatment frameworks and strategies that encourage individuals to focus their social attention, interpret the social context, and socially problem solve to figure out how to respond.” I found the extended immersion in the Social Thinking Methodology to be highly informative.

Upon returning from the conference, my goal was to integrate what I learned into my daily practice. However, much of the Social Thinking work described at the conference took place within a clinical context. Therefore, I was interested in adapting this content into lessons that could be taught to a whole group in an academic setting. Additionally, I was interested in exploring how some of the Social Thinking vocabulary could be incorporated throughout the day to support ongoing learning.

Last summer I was grateful to receive a Parent Association grant to create a series of lessons, to be shared with colleagues, around what I learned at the Social Thinking Conference. I delved deeply into a range of Social Thinking resources, including material received during the conference, a variety of webinars, and several articles. My goal was to identify the key concepts that I thought would be most relevant for kindergarten to second grade students at MMFS. Ultimately I decided upon Thinking Thoughts, Feeling Feelings, The Group Plan, Expected and Unexpected Behaviors, and Flexible and Stuck Thinking. I then worked to adapt these concepts into a series of whole-group lessons. Each lesson included a variety of interactive components to support students’ engagement and understanding of the material. These lessons have been distributed to my colleagues in the lower school, along with related independent work and suggestions regarding means by which the Social Thinking vocabulary can be used throughout the day.

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