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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Misinterpreting Social Context

When kids are taught about “context” most classroom teachers are usually referring to the context of a story.  Middle schoolers, especially the ones who have Non Verbal Learning Disabilities, Aspergers or even just lack of social experience may often not understand the “context” of social situations.   Not understanding the context of a situation may cause misinterpretations.  This is where difficulties may arise.  Students may not understand when they are being teases or even bullied.  They may also not be able to interpret teasing and bullying from playing around.
With the new models in education suggesting less pull out (something I support when appropriate) these are the kids that are falling through the cracks.  These students are usually bright enough to pass standardized tests, they are usually doing well enough in the classroom to get by.  However, classroom teachers do not often recognize how many social cues these kids miss.  It’s important to look at manner of performance and observations in both structured and unstructured situations.  Administrators tend to say just put them in class where they can practice their social skills.  Unless you really understand children who have difficulty within the pragmatic realm you may believe they can do this on their own.  But the reality is if it was that easy and automatic we would have no kids with social skill problems because they have been in class all these years practicing their social skills.  The reality is that these kids need some therapy or if people are more comfortable with the word “coaching”.  Just like reading and math, awareness, learning and carryover of pragmatic skills is not going to happen without instruction.   
Over the years I have tried to get my kids to learn about social context, how to analyze it and how to read it.  You have to keep in mind this is probably going to be a weakness for these kids throughout their lives.  However, it’s important to give them the best tools possible.  Sometimes I will do this as a lesson and sometimes just interject as situations come up.
To figure out social context I work with the students to become more aware in the following areas:
  1. Relationship......Look at the relationship of the person or persons involved.  Is it a family member, a close friend, a stranger, a teacher or other respected adult.  We go ever several examples of how we might approach or react to different people.
  2. Tone.....What is the tone of the interaction.  What tone of voice are they using.  Is it a happy tone, mad tone, sad tone.     We also go over several examples of this.  Most children can tell what tone their parents are using so I often role play their parents.
  3. Sarcasm..........Are the people using sarcasm?  How do you tell?  Is someone joking around or are they serious.  This takes a lot of practice.  Even during role playing sometimes the kids aren’t sure if I am being serious or not.  To see the confused look on their faces tell it all.
  4. Facials Expressions....It’s important to know how to read those.  You actually have to be aware and know what to look for.  This come easy for most of us but for people who have difficulty with this or have difficulty making eye contact it’s hard.  You miss a lot of nonverbal cues thus contributing to misinterpretations.
  5. Gestures...same as facial expressions you have to look for them and interpret them correctly to help understand intent.
  6. Mood....What is the mood of the situation.  Did something just happen to make the person angry?  In that case you will approach the situation differently.  This again could invite a variety of emotions and all have to be figured out.  
Even people who don’t have a specific diagnosis that impacts the pragmatic realm may misunderstand or misinterpret situations within social situations.  These steps are just a glance and what it takes to understand social situations.  Children who experience pragmatic difficulty in social situations have to be walked through almost every situation for meaning and intent until they can start to do it on their own.  
Explain, explain and explain some more.  If you have a child who frequently misinterprets social interactions talk to them about it all the time.  Let teachers and other adults they come in contact with know about the struggles your child has.   Talk about how to handle situations and how to react to situations.  You are your child’s best teacher and advocate. 

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