Social Skills Start in PreSchool
A pervasive problem keeps rearing its ugly head in today’s society……kids with severe social problems are taking extreme measures to make their points.
Why is this happening so often these days??? Many kids are being shunned or bullied by their peers and growing up without any friends. Some of these kids are so shy that they’ll stare at the ground rather than make eye contact as they pass you on the sidewalk. Many become resentful about the bullying or teasing they must endure and are forced to develop pastimes other than hanging out with friends.
Less fortunate kids often develop unhealthy interests. They may start drinking or taking drugs; that’s one way to overcome your anxiety or to quit caring what others think. Other kids vent their pent-up anger and anxiety through violent video games. Still other social misfits experience lives of peer rejection and become severely depressed.
How do these angry, socially inappropriate kids solve their problems when they grow up? Rather than throwing little temper tantrums, they often seek revenge, in their attempts to return the suffering, humiliation and pain.
Frightened parents and proactive politicians have proposed solutions ranging from drug counseling to gun control. But maybe the answer is prevention? Maybe we need to get these kids in social thinking groups from a very early age?
Could early social thinking intervention possibly prevent these problems? By teaching these kids to read social cues and respond appropriately to peers, could we prevent socially awkward preschoolers from becoming angry, frustrated teenagers and dysfunctional, violent adults?
How old were these misfits when their social problems began to surface? Many would guess junior high when hormones are raging, and kids are agonizing over their growth spurts, bad complexions and social cliques.
Surprising as it may seem, social problems begin much earlier. They begin as early as preschool. It is the preschool age when children are first expected to play cooperatively with other children. They are expected to share their toys, take turns and line up without cutting in front of one another. They are expected to compromise and negotiate to solve problems. This is when it all begins.
Melissa had communication difficulties from the start! She spent the first year of her life in a Russian orphanage, where we can assume she received minimal social interaction and spent a good deal of her time crying for attention.
At age one, she had the good fortune to be adopted by a lovely family who brought her to San Diego. They loved her, met her basic needs, lavished her with toys and clothes and nourished her soul.
But Melissa had a communication delay. She was speaking only in nouns and verbs….which made it difficult to understand her wants and needs. And when people didn’t understand her, Melissa became upset. She resorted to crying or making herself sick to her stomach. Then, all the attention would go to Melissa’s breakdown, and alas, she would be rewarded for her temper tantrum when her parents/teachers/therapists would dote on her and bend over backwards to find out what was wrong.
That mode of operation worked for Melissa until age 4; those behaviors became her learned reactions to stress. And not only did she employ these behaviors when adults didn’t understand her, she learned to use them in response to peer conflicts as well.
Her parents had the good sense to enroll Melissa in our preschool social thinking group. She was grouped with one or two other preshoolers, and they learned what behaviors are expected in a group. For example, they are expected to keep their bodies in the group and not wander off. They are expected to keep their eyes in the group and look at the person speaking. They are expected to keep their brains in the group and talk about the topic at hand. If they do the expected, others will react positively to them and they, in turn, will feel positive about themselves.
If they do the unexpected, wander around the room, look out the window, or talk about wacky things, others will have a weird reaction to them and will not want to play with them. Erin, Melissa’s speech therapist, always chose the most entertaining 4-year- old games, so her little clients would do everything expected to be included in the group.
Another part of Melissa’s social thinking group was learning to negotiate and share. Each child got to choose a game, and even at age 4, Melissa’s choices were quite different from the games chosen by her buddy, Dylan.
Didn’t matter! Each child had to participate in the other child’s game to get their turn.
Then they had to decide whose game would go first. Melissa was more assertive than Dylan, so she always insisted that her game be played first. Erin intervened and reminded Melissa that her game had been first last time, so it was Dylan’s game first today. The first time she heard this, Melissa had a temper tantrum and briefly left the group. But fortunately…when she heard how much fun Dylan and Erin were having, she decided to think about others again, so she could rejoin the group.
Melissa has been in her social thinking group for 2 months now. She hasn’t shown us a single temper tantrum in the last month. She no longer insists that her game be played first, and she uses language instead of tears or temper tantrums to express her desires. She is learning great social thinking skills!
Can you imagine how much smoother it will be for Melissa in kindergarten now? Erin and Melissa’s parents are reversing some negative social behaviors. If all goes well, Melissa should have these skills for life.
If you know a child who is being bullied, getting into fights on the playground or displaying other socially inappropriate behaviors, call us at 858.509.1131. We can help these kids at any age, but the earlier the better.
Kids who learn to play cooperatively in the sandbox should have these skills for life.