Understanding how the social world works

The social world is an enormous and complex place. You, the interventionist, must first gain your own understanding of how the social world works before teaching social emotional learners. The next step is to explore how individual social emotional learners currently function in the social world. It is at this point that you can begin teaching social emotional learners how to work (navigate to regulate) in the social world to improve social competencies that impact self-regulation, based on individual strengths and challenges. The Social Thinking Methodology has specific components to teach interventionists about these aspects through free articles, products, conferences, eLearning modules, and free webinars.

Interventionists can explore the Social Thinking Methodology through these portals in this order:

For Interventionists

1. How the social world works

Social landscapes in the social world

Whenever we co-exist around others (e.g., share physical space, interact) or interpret others’ words or actions (e.g., YouTube, movies, TV, sports, literature, working in groups, history, social studies, face-to-face interactions), we are a part of different social landscapes in the social world.


Each social landscape requires social attention, interpretation, problem solving and responding based on the situation and context, and our social mind is the driver of this process. The Social Thinking-Social Competency Model serves as the methodology’s home base for making sense of the social world, and guides our understanding and how we teach social competencies. Furthermore, it reinforces that the social mind is active in both social interactions and self-regulation within a group (e.g., classroom, restaurant, etc.). We use our social minds to understand and engage in academic curriculum and related standards of education. We call this the social-academic connection.


How we use our social mind as a bridge to academics is explained in a variety of ways within our methodology, beginning with two conceptual frameworks: the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition and the Social Thinking Social Learning Tree. These frameworks spotlight core socially based critical thinking tasks (e.g., academic connections to social competencies, group projects, professional team meetings, etc.) that are critical for engaging across social landscapes. The book, Why Teach Social Thinking?, provides an overview of how the social mind develops, the social-academic connection, and why it is important to utilize a socially based cognitive-behavioral approach for social learning with social emotional learners who are expected to participate in sophisticated social contexts. The social world requires our brain to engage synergistically using a range of core social abilities (social skills) explained in the research using terms such as self-regulation and executive functioning (organizational and social), perspective taking/theory of mind, and central coherence, to name a few.


While many social skills programs assume that interventionists and social emotional learners understand how the social world works, we do not. Instead, the Social Thinking Methodology provides theory and frameworks for learning about the many social landscapes in the broader social world.

Practical ideas for teaching about how the social world works

The social world is all around us every time we are in the presence of others. When we're standing in line we are expected to know what to do and not do. The same is true when we're having a conversation with others or simply sharing space. Figuring out how the social world works is much more than understanding direct person-to-person interactions. While most individuals, beginning in infancy, evolve in their understanding of how the social world works, those with social emotional learning challenges require direct explicit teaching.


The Social Thinking Methodology includes multiple treatment frameworks for interventionists to explore key aspects of social competencies through a practical lens. The core book, Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME, guides interventionists in building direct strategies and lessons from these frameworks. The methodology also includes 25+ unique Social Thinking Vocabulary terms and mini lesson plans to help interventionists provide direct instruction about many aspects of the social world we largely take for granted (e.g., the group plan, thinking with your eyes, smart guess, expected and unexpected behavior, etc.). Some of our core vocabulary concepts have also been taught through free webinars. Complex feelings, emotions, and sensory processing, as well as how to learn to cope with resulting anxieties and sadness, are also addressed to help social emotional learners work (navigate to regulate) within the social world.

Evidence-based practices and the Social Thinking Methodology

The methodology includes components that are both empirically supported and evidence based. Our seminal article, "Research to Frameworks to Practice" is an essential read to get a big-picture view of the evidence-based methodology and understand the many levels of connection from research to practice through conceptual frameworks, treatment frameworks, strategies, motivational/developmental tools, etc. Components of the Social Thinking Methodology also align with the five core elements of social emotional learning (SEL) that contribute to social competencies identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning( For interventionists who are less familiar with different types of evidence-based concepts, we explain the difference between empirically supported therapies and evidence-based practices in this peer-reviewed article.

2. How a social emotional learner currently functions in the social world

Different learning needs for each different social emotional learner

Like any world, the social world is multi-layered and complex, not flat nor linear.


It is common practice in mainstream classrooms to place students into different learning groups for instruction based on reading or math strengths or challenges. Administrators and educators understand there is a broad range of learning abilities in learning math, written language, or reading skills and it is this understanding that allows customized teaching for different types of learners.


Yet the same is true for social emotional learning: different students within the same grade level (or age) will demonstrate different social emotional learning abilities across a broad spectrum of social cognition. Individuals considered to be on the autism spectrum represent only a part of the social learning spectrum. The spectrum of social cognition also extends to those who have more subtle but significant social emotional learning challenges such as ADHD, social pragmatic challenges, receptive-expressive language disorders, and others. This spectrum also stretches to include those considered to be typically developing.

Levels of the social mind – another way to understand social emotional learners

Once we, as interventionists, understand how the social world works, we need to explore how individuals currently function in the social world to better gauge their treatment needs. The Social Thinking Methodology includes assessment tools to explore where a student functions on the social learning spectrum. We have two developmentally-based scales. The first is a scale for early learners (ages 4-7) called the Group Collaboration, Play and Problem Solving Scale (GPS). The second scale is for older individuals (ages 8+) called the Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile. The latter is best explained in our book, Why Teach Social Thinking?. Both scales help the interventionist better understand what we refer to as the "level of the social mind" and expose helpful details about how social emotional learners function across a number of categories identified within each scale. This allows the interventionist to figure out where to begin the treatment process and how to place social emotional learners into groups around common goals to maximize learning opportunities.


The Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile also offers a general prognosis for each of the six different levels of the social mind. This can be helpful to families as they prepare for their child's social emotional learning needs beyond the school years and across the lifespan.

Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment

The Social Thinking Methodology provides ideas and tasks for engaging social emotional learners in specific social activities during dynamic face-to-face interactions as part of the assessment process. This information, which is almost always lacking in standardized testing, helps interventionists better understand social processing and responses in real-time social situations. The tasks in the dynamic assessment are designed for the interventionist to explore how efficiently social emotional learners process and respond to socially based information they are likely to encounter in their daily experiences in the social world. These qualitative assessment tasks make up the Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment Protocol and the protocol has been helpful to interventionists across the globe since it was first introduced in 2002.


Interventionists can use information from the dynamic assessment to describe how a social emotional learner functions in a more meaningful manner, beyond saying “the individual has poor social skills.” When we can explain how social emotional learners currently function in the social world (strengths and challenges), we can then begin treatment planning in earnest.

3. How to teach social emotional learners to work (navigate to regulate) in the social world

Supporting how one navigates to regulate in the social world

Many social emotional learners are described as “bright” if not “gifted”—yet they struggle to understand how the social world works and to work (navigate to regulate) within the social world. Typically-developing children can also benefit from very explicit social teaching. So, how do we make intangible social concepts teachable and learnable in a concrete and relatable way? Our products, conferences, On Demand, and free webinars provide information that is developmentally-based and created to be used with social emotional learners across and within different age groups. Our frameworks and teaching strategies go beyond simply using language to "explain"; they break down socially abstract information into more concrete elements via Social Thinking Vocabulary and treatment frameworks. Our materials actively engage social emotional learners through visual supports and teaching scaffolds. No matter the age of a social emotional learner, structured, visual supports in addition to language-based explanations are critical to learning and moving towards independence.


We also go one step further and disregard assumptions about what a person understands about the social world and how that person feels and functions within the social world. This includes understanding that strong academic test scores, IQ, or ability to explain complex scientific or other fact-based ideas does not always equate to knowing how the social world works or how to work in that world. In fact, there is relatively little overlap between a person's social cognitive abilities and academic proficiency. Our introductory ILAUGH eLearning module explains this in more detail.

Compassion as our guide

Interventionists tend to assume social emotional learners will figure out—mostly on their own—how to behave across an enormous range of social landscapes. When social emotional learners are young, behavior plans are commonly used to correct or direct social behaviors in lieu of teaching about how to self-regulate in the social world. Educators are taught how to teach the academic curriculum but are given sparse information about how the social world works, yet are expected to use classroom management skills to teach how to work (navigate to regulate) in the social world. The Social Thinking Methodology takes a different and more compassionate approach: the complexities of the social emotional world require further explanation and demonstration. Rarely do social emotional learners choose to be socially out of step unless they are under stress or feel like a failure in a particular context. Our Methodology embraces social emotional learning differences and includes neurodiversity in its outcomes. There is no "end point" to learning social concepts and no "mastery" of skills but rather continuous social emotional learning to improve social competencies. Our frameworks and materials include rubrics and goals to gauge social emotional learning over time and celebrate achievements big and little.


Many interventionists ask how the Social Thinking Methodology helps individuals to generalize their social emotional learning. Given that language and visually-based information is carried in our mind and travels with us wherever we go and given that the Social Thinking Methodology relies on both language and visual scaffolds, social learning (i.e., generalization) happens as part of the social emotional learning process. Our behaviors and responses are tied to a specific context, but the thinking we use, and what the methodology teaches, can be applied across a much larger range of contexts. The Social Thinking Vocabulary and frameworks are portable; they naturally go with social emotional learners across a multitude of social landscapes.


Finally, our methodology makes connections: to interventionists, interventionists to social emotional learners, and social emotional learners to social emotional learners. The foundation of our work explains why we all engage in social behavior and helps individuals understand this is something we all do. At some point we all struggle in social situations. Engaging in a social emotional thinking/feeling based process can be difficult at times for everyone in the social world. Our role as interventionists is to help motivate social emotional learners to "do the work" and explore how we all share social expectations, thoughts, feelings, make mistakes and try again as we learn to navigate our way toward our social goals. The practical nature of our teaching and the concrete way we explain social concepts helps engage students in social emotional learning not only about themselves but about others.

Resources to Guide Interventionists

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