Supporting Children with Social Communication Difficulties in School
- Being aware of themselves and others, for example understanding cause and effect situations, such as: If I kick this ball at Luke, it might hurt Luke; if I push Luke, Luke might cry. Some children are so unaware of others that they will walk into children on the carpet to get to the teacher, oblivious to the fact that they have just trod on one child’s hand, hurt another, and knocked a third over!
- Knowing what they look like. Some children with social communication difficulties don’t have a clear idea of what they look like, which can lead to problems with sense of identity.
- Having an awareness of social norms (expectations of how to behave in a social situation), for example personal space, talking over others, following your own agenda rather than the teacher’s, using inappropriate language such as swear words in the classroom.
- Understanding that we are all separate individuals with different knowledge, experience, thoughts and feelings. Some children assume that you know what they know and this can affect what and how they communicate with you. For example, a child I was working with recently was eating some fruit from his snack box, which had pictures of Minions on it. He said, “What’s on my snack box?” I said, “Minions.” He repeated the question quite crossly, “No! What’s on my snack box?” Once again, I replied, “Minions.” He then said, “No! Ask me what’s on my snack box!” He had assumed I would know that he wanted me to ask him the question, and he was frustrated when I did not respond in the way he had anticipated. This is not a language difficulty, this is a social communication difficulty.
- Lack of interest in others. Some children have some topics that they are really interested in, e.g. extreme weather conditions or superheroes, and like to talk about these. This is not a two-way, reciprocal conversation; it is often a monologue. The listener is not given the chance to join in and is usually ignored if they try. I recently observed a child when I was on holiday, who swam over to two other children and starting telling them about a computer game that she liked. Initially, the two children tried to join in and to move the conversation on, but they were not able to do either. The girl talked about the computer game for 45 minutes.
- Difficulty starting conversations, and keeping them going. Some children do not feel interested in others, so they are not curious about other people’s thoughts, feelings, experience or knowledge.
- Difficulty understanding and using non-verbal communication, e.g. facial expressions, eye contact, gesture. More than 50% of communication is non-verbal. Between the ages of 5 and 8 months, most children start to use a narrow range of non-verbal communication, e.g. looking in the direction of an action that interests them. By the age of 8 to 12 months, many children use a wide range of non-verbal communication.
Activities and Strategies to Help With Social Communication Difficulties in the Classroom
1. Helping To Understand Emotions
- Talk about how characters in books/every day life, etc. are feeling, and why and how you know this, e.g. from their facial expression. Copy the facial expression with the child/class. Label how people are feeling and how you know, e.g. “Mrs Wright’s really tired. Poor Mrs Wright! Look, what a big yawn!” etc. to help children understand and recognise emotions.
- Sort situations by how they would make you feel, e.g. put on a sad face and an angry face. Read a situation and have the child/children say whether it would make them feel sad or angry, e.g. “Someone in your class ripped your painting up.” You can do this as a group activity, one to one or as a whole class activity.
- Make a feelings board – you can decide how many different feelings to put on, as you know the children and which emotions they are already aware of, and how many they can cope with. Make it part of the class routine that, for example, in the morning when you do the register, children take a picture of the facial expression that matches how they are feeling, e.g. happy, tired, hungry, worried, angry, etc. and they tell the class or their partners how they are feeling and why.
2. Helping To Understand Cause and Effect, And Awareness Of Others
Making situations visual can make it easier to understand what happened from everyone’s perspective and develop an understanding of self and others, of emotions and of cause and effect situations.
Comic strips conversations are a great way to do this, see the example at autism.org For example, when there is an incident or something happens that a child has difficulty understanding, you can:
- Talk about what happened with the child and he can draw what happened to show what happened and who was involved.
- Ask the child what everyone was saying in each picture and draw a speech bubble and write in what they said (you can do this bit if writing is hard for the child)
- Then ask the child what he was thinking in the pictures and what he thinks the other people were thinking. Draw thought bubbles and write what everyone was thinking in the bubbles.
You can ask the child to think of something else that they could have done in this situation to help them develop the ability to think of alternatives.
3. Helping to Develop Attention and Eye Contact with Looking Games
These can be played as whole class activities, in groups or one to one:
- Try playing looking games in a small group, e.g. play pass the nod or pass the smile – everyone looks at you, you nod or smile at one person in the group, everyone then looks at that person and they nod or smile at someone else, and so on.
- Play Looking Detectives in a small group. This is where a child is picked to be the looking detective. They have to look at everyone to see what they are wearing, then they have to leave the room. When the looking detective has gone, everyone puts on extra clothing (you will need to get a bag of hats, scarves, glasses, etc. to use in this game). Then the looking detective comes back in and has to look at everyone and say what is different, e.g. “Tina is wearing a hat. Connor is wearing a scarf and sunglasses,” and so on.
- Play simple games of charades – instead of film titles, use actions, such as riding a horse, catching a fish, skiing, cutting someone’s hair, etc. Play it in pairs so that an adult can support children who need help by telling them what they have to act out and helping them plan and rehearse it. Amazon sells Charades games, e.g. Charades for Kids Game (Paul Lamond Games).