Social thinking or thinking socially refers to a process we all go through in our mind as we try to make sense of our own and others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions in context, whether we are co-existing, actively interacting, or figuring out what is happening from a distance (e.g., media, literature, etc.). Our ability to think socially is part of social emotional learning that begins at birth and evolves across our lifetime. Social thinking, in this context, is also referred to as social cognition.
The social thinking methodology is a developmental, language-based and thinking-based (metacognitive) methodology that uses visual frameworks, unique vocabulary, strategies, and activities to foster social competence. The methodology has assessment and treatment components for both interventionists and social learners. The methodology includes components of other well-known and evidence based interventions such as Social Stories, Hidden Curriculum, 5-point scale, and others, etc. Social Thinking™ shares ideals with self-regulation, executive functioning, central coherence issues, and perspective-taking.
The social thinking methodology was originally developed by Michelle Garcia Winner as an intervention and assessment framework dedicated to tackling the complex social emotional learning needs of individuals with social learning challenges. At its inception 20+ years ago, there were relatively few treatment-based research studies available to guide" interventionists in how to teach individuals about their own social learning process. This relative lack of treatment research, while not as stark today, continues to be limited. The underlying motivation for the creation of the Social Thinking Methodology was, and is, that of, for to, individuals with social learning issues should have access to interventions and strategies based on both individual learning abilities and the demands of the community within which they participate. While the tools and strategies within the methodology were developed while working with mainstream students in a high school district, Michelle Garcia Winner‘s practical approach to teaching social competencies was quickly adopted by parents and teachers working with those in the ADHD community and autism spectrum community.
The social thinking methodology teaches social learners to consider the points of view, emotions, and intentions of others. In this methodology, social thinking and social skills are dynamic and situational. So, the decision to use discrete social skills (e.g. smiling versus “looking cool”, standing casually versus formally, swearing/speaking informally versus speaking politely) are not based on memorizing specific social rules (as often taught in our social skills groups), but on a social decision-making mental process.
Social thinking and evidence base
The social thinking methodology embraces what the literature tells us about working directly with individuals who have social learning challenges (e.g., ASD, social communication disorder, ADHD, learning disabilities, twice exceptional, etc.) and promotes the use of visual supports, modeling, naturalistic teaching, and self-management. Also, the methodology anchors to the research in fields that study how social learners evolve and develop to function in society: anthropology, cultural linguistics, social psychology, child development, and others. Many of the components of Social Thinking fit well into the multi-tiered research-based implementation framework of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS). And while PBIS is not an approach, it is a framework that encourages schools to consider the uptake of a variety of practices where the "mutually beneficial relationship between academic and social behavior student success is highlighted (Chard, Harn, Sugai, & Horner, 2008; Sugai, Horner, & Gresham, 2002). In the same vein, CASEL's five Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Core Competencies (http://www.casel.org/social-‐and-‐emotional-‐learning/core-‐competencies) are reflected within and throughout the social thinking methodology.
Social thinking theorizes that successful social thinkers are able to consider the points of view, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge and intentions of others (this is often called perspective-taking). Social Thinking™ also demonstrates the link between one’s social learning abilities and his or her related ability (or disability) when processing and responding to school curriculum based in the use of the social mind (e.g., reading comprehension of literature, some aspects of written expression, etc.). Winner and colleagues argue that individuals who share a diagnostic label (e.g., autism spectrum disorder) nonetheless exhibit extremely different social learning traits, or social mind profiles, and should have unique treatment trajectories, such as those based in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
The social thinking methodology is not a single entity. It is not a set of behaviors that one can teach. It is not a step-by-step “cookbook”, nor is it one single program or approach. Social Thinking is a language and cognitive-based methodology that focuses on the dynamic and synergistic nature of social interpretation and social communication skills, both of which require social problem solving. The methodology is developmental, utilizing aspects of behavioral and cognitive behavioral principles, as well as stakeholder input as a way to translate evidence-based concepts into conceptual frameworks, strategy-based frameworks, curricula, activities, and motivational tools.
The methodology addresses the fact that first we, as interventionists (both professionals and parents), need to build our own knowledge about the social learning process and what it means to engage “socially” before teaching individuals with social challenges. Remarkably, understanding how people share space together and engage across context, culture and varying ideas and opinions, motives and intentions is absent from most social "skills‐based” approaches. The methodology ascribes to the notion that the key to understanding our clients/students’ individual social learning needs requires that interventionists gain insight into the variables that contribute to their own “social self” as well as the related expectations of others. This unique view toward social treatment, combined with the many layers of the methodology, means that the components of Social Thinking do not fit neatly into any single traditionally defined social skill intervention. Nor is Social Thinking linked to a specific diagnosis (e.g., ASD), but rather addresses specific needs in those with social learning challenges (ADHD, Mental Health Challenges, twice exceptional, gifted, no diagnosis, etc.), regardless of the diagnosis.
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