Social-emotional learning is more than just engaging in play, and it’s more than just chatting. It’s learning designed to develop a wide range of foundational skills – including emotional regulation, decision-making, self-awareness and problem-solving – that help children make friends and navigate successfully. in social circles. While some children develop these skills instinctively, many only master them with direct instruction – and, often, children with ADHD fall into the latter category.
Difficulty with social skills can take many different forms. Perhaps your child exhibits behavior that alienates peers, such as interrupting or talking loudly. Maybe your child suffers from social anxiety and has difficulty approaching new friends. It is possible that your child has a sensitivity to rejection and feels that his peers do not like him. If this sounds familiar, social-emotional learning might help.
The thing to know about the social skills needed to make friends is that they cannot be learned in a lecture. We need role models. We need to witness the desired (or unwanted) behavior in others, allowing us to notice it in ourselves. Then we use this information to rehearse new behaviors, correct ourselves, and try them out in real social situations.
This is where parents come in, playing the essential role of coach.
Start by having a series of fruitful conversations with your children about their social landscape and their relationship to it. From there, roll up your sleeves and help your child learn, through models, planning, and practice, the skills they need to make and keep friends. Here’s how to start.
[Read: 7 Executive Function Deficits Linked to ADHD]
The Social and Emotional Learning Coach: Activities and Strategies for Children with ADHD
Laying the groundwork: talking to children about social challenges
Ask, don’t tell
Parents who see their child struggling socially often have a well-meaning instinct to tell children what they should and shouldn’t do in these contexts, sometimes reminding them of past mistakes. The problem is that children often get defensive and stop this type of teaching. So stop narrating and start asking open-ended questions like these:
- What is difficult about going to the cafeteria? What does it do?
- What’s the most popular thing to do at recess?
- What happens in the homeroom between the different social groups?
It’s okay if your child doesn’t know how to answer your questions. You can help move the conversation forward by offering possible response options and asking if you understood correctly.
There are a few advantages to asking open-ended questions.
First, they strengthen your relationship with your child by showing them that you care about their perspective. Second, these questions give your child the space and impetus to think critically about the social landscape and to become more aware of their feelings about it. They build an executive function skill called metacognition. It is essentially the ability to take the big picture of a situation, to be aware of your skills and abilities, your challenges and your past. Maybe you find it hard to wait your turn to speak, or are often late, or maybe you find it difficult to walk down the hall and say hello to an acquaintance. If you know what your weaknesses are, you can work on them. If you know your strengths, you can build on them.
[Watch: Building Conversation Skills in Kids with ADHD]
Knowing how to ask the right questions is the first step. However, it is equally important to know how to react to your child’s responses. The key to success here is thoughtful listening. Simply repeat what your child said or, if you can’t remember exactly, repeat most of what he said.
Reflective listening allows your child to feel heard – literally – which is very empowering and opens the door to future communication. It also gives them the ability to clarify their thoughts, solve problems verbally, and hear their internal conversation. When kids start getting along, their wheels start turning. (Another way to build metacognition.) It may take a little time, but eventually they’re more likely to realize where they might be going wrong socially, without you having to tell them in a way that feels critical.
- Consider your child’s internal narrative
In addition to understanding the reasons why your child is having difficulty, it is important to understand the reasons why he think they are struggling (these may or may not be the same). To do this, you need to be aware of their internal narrative.
Maybe the story says, “I’m boring, so no one wants to talk to me,” or “Everyone at school thinks I’m weird,” or “It would be okay if daddy let me down.”
Open conversations will expose your child’s inner story not only to you, but, perhaps more importantly, to themselves.
Social-Emotional Learning Activities and Strategies
Be a social spy
New research shows that the more we watch actions and gestures, the more we remember them. That’s part of why Social Spy is such an effective way for kids to learn nuanced social skills. Social Spy is a technique that helps children increase their social awareness by simply intentionally watching other people engage in social situations.
Seventy percent of social information is non-verbal, so be sure to observe expressions, habits, norms, unspoken rules, body language, and other visual cues. The more casually you do this with your children in everyday life, the more they will develop this muscle and relate what they see to their own actions. Also, don’t hesitate to ask your child to observe people who exhibit problematic social behaviors. If they see other people displaying behaviors that they sometimes exhibit, they are more likely to see the impact of those actions and relate to themselves.
Build social infrastructure
Children who struggle socially need opportunities outside of school to form friendships. Make sure the structures are in place for them to share experiences with their peers and an excuse to get together regularly to explore a hobby or activity your child enjoys. It could be basketball or soccer, singing in a choir, performing in a theater production, playing chess or Dungeons and Dragons, or learning to code. The activity doesn’t matter, as long as it gives your child a reason to spend time with their peers. Pre-arranged activities create a low-pressure environment where kids can act as a social spy while bonding.
Troubleshoot in a safe space
Home is often the best place to help children with ADHD deal with tricky social challenges without the risk of consequences. Playing structured games with rules allows parents to provide a safe environment for children to solve a lot of problems that can cause problems in their friendships.
A great way to do this is with a game I call Build a Tower, where the whole family works together to design and build a tower out of blocks. It sounds simple, but play helps kids practice cooperation, take turns, tolerate frustration, and celebrate the abilities of their peers — all skills they’ll need to make their friendships thrive.
Social-Emotional Learning for Children with ADHD: Next Steps
The content of this article is derived from the ADHD experts’ webinar titled “Why Won’t No One Play With Me?” “Socio-emotional training for teachers and parents of children with ADHD”, [Podcast #418] with Caroline Maguire, ACCG, PCC, M.Ed., author of Why won’t anyone play with me? (#CommissionsEarned). The webinar was broadcast live on August 23, 2022.
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