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What is Social Thinking?


June 29, 2017

What is Social Thinking® and Is It Appropriate for Your Child?

Many children struggle with social learning challenges for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there is no official diagnosis for their inability to effectively communicate and connect with their peers. In other cases, it may be the result of a nonverbal learning disability, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Regardless of why children struggle to connect with others, Social Thinking® is a methodology that can help to increase their awareness and improve their ability to interact with others at school, at home, and in the community.

What Is Social Thinking®?

Social Thinking® is based on the innovative work of Michelle Garcia Winner, who created the Center for Social Thinking. Social Thinking® is a methodology that is used to help children effectively interact with others, helping them figure out the best way to think when they are in social situations. Social Thinking® trains your brain to figure out what people around you might be thinking. It helps you realize that each time you are around others, your behavior will cause them to think a certain way about you. Social Thinking® teaches our brain to do and say the things that will make others feel positive thoughts about us, and make them feel good as well.

How Do I Know If My Child Would Benefit From Social Thinking®?

Social Thinking® can help your child if they find it difficult to:

  • Think about other people’s feelings
  • Ask about other people’s personal experiences
  • Work in group setting at school
  • Make and keep friends
  • Play with peers in an age-appropriate way
  • Keep schoolwork organized
  • Stay calm in stressful situations
  • Read the social cues of peers

How Will My Child Benefit From Social Thinking®?

As children develop, they learn the “rules” for navigating social situations and forming friendships. Some children have more difficulty picking up these cues from their natural environment, and are sometimes perceived as odd by their peers. Social Thinking® can help children succeed in social and academic situations. It will teach them social expectations, to explore the thoughts and feelings of themselves and others, and to learn how to form connections with their peers. Social Thinking® teaches children how to share space with others, and how to work as part of a team.

How Will Social Thinking® Benefit My Child at School?

Group Learning: Your child needs to be socially aware to successfully navigate group learning situations at school. Understanding group dynamics when working on a group project is critical in the classroom setting. This includes learning when to offer opinions and insights, and when to listen to peers. Group learning requires your child to be able to consider the position and opinion of each member of his or her group and communicate respectfully at all times.

Social Thinking® professionals will sometimes work with children before putting them in a group setting. This includes “pre-teaching,” where children will learn how to listen, take turns, and manage their personal space. Some children will start with a mini group comprised of one other child who is a good role model for proper social interactions in group settings.

Reading and Writing: Social Thinking® is also important as your child begins to read books with deeper meaning. Your child must understand the feelings and actions of characters, as teachers will start to ask for written responses that predict outcomes and discuss characters’ emotions. If a student has poor social thinking abilities, it will become difficult to take the perspective of characters, figure out how they are affected by others, and understand why characters act and feel the way they do. Social Thinking® will help students think about what to write and how to structure it. According to Michelle Garcia Winner, “Many of us use brainstorming to help organize and sort out main ideas from related thoughts/details. We learn to do this thinking in our heads. Unfortunately, for many of our students who have difficulty staying focused and holding their thoughts together, their thinking easily becomes a destructive storm - quickly becoming fragmented or tangential.” Social Thinking® gives students the time and space to organize their writing and learn the difference between main ideas and supporting details.

Social Skills at School: Successfully navigating peer-to-peer interaction in the classroom, cafeteria, and on the playground will improve how your child is perceived and how they are treated in these school settings.

When to Start Social Thinking®

Social Thinking® can start at any age, but classes are typically broken down into early learners, elementary school , middle school, high school, and adult learners.

Early Learning: At this age, social learning opportunities are usually in small group settings. Young children benefit most by exploring social thinking in a fun, play-based environment. Some of the concepts that children learn at this age are using their eyes to make observations and to learn about others, using their bodies and words to communicate and play with others, initiating interactions, adding to pretend/imaginative play, and dealing with frustrations.

Elementary School: In Elementary school, Social Thinking® concepts begin to develop further and more vocabulary is added to help children navigate social situations, both inside and outside the classroom. According to Michelle Garcia Winner, "We encourage students to be detectives who have to learn to observe the people and the context within which they are communicating to help them make more well-educated or ‘smart guesses’ about the nature of the communicative exchange."

Middle School: In middle school-aged children, Social Thinking® is successful when matching mentors with like-minded learners. Matching a mentor to a group with similar social thinking skills is essential to both the mentor's growth and the group viewing their mentor as a peer leader. Consistency is also imperative at this age, as social and emotional distractions are common in this age group. Feedback from the mentor and the student’s parents is also critical at this stage of development to make sure there is carryover at home.

High School: Mentoring continues into high school, but it is important to understand that this age group does not appreciate programs that appear to be "preachy." According to Parenting Science, games such as Awkward Moment andBuffalo: The Name Dropping Game, developed by George Kauffman and Anna Flanagan, have been very successful in helping teens learn Social Thinking® skills. Both of these games offer a more subtle approach to Social Thinking® techniques in that they incorporate key messages into fun, interactive, and enjoyable games.

Adult Learners: When students transition into adulthood, their need to thrive in academic settings decreases. However, they do need to learn how to gain a sense of independence and have confidence in their abilities. Even though Social Thinking® techniques become harder to implement in adulthood, evidence suggests that adults can be strong social learners. Adults are far less likely to blame their challenges on a peer, a teacher, or a parent, and often have high motivation to work on honing the skills needed to become more socially accepted.

A Social Thinking® approach to treatment can help a child consider the points of view, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge and intentions of others. It can also greatly benefit students with social learning disabilities, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD.

Author: Team Member

More information can be found at:

Social Thinking-Social Learning Tree

Michelle Garcia Winner Thinking Social Learning Tree

Social Learning Affects Life Outcomes: So Why Call It Non-Cognitive?

Michelle Garcia Winner

More articles and resources can be found at:

Social Skills Attention problems Autism Spectrum Disorder Depression/Sadness Language Disorder

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