In Part I, I gave an overview of a book that, despite its 10-year anniversary, is still highly relevant. Kids Need Love When They Deserve It Least: A Review of It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend, by Rick Lavoie. As I concluded, “Social miscues become “teachable moments.” Or, to quote, Mr. Lavoie, “Kids need love most when they deserve it least.” This sentiment, as well as the use of the term friend in the title, reflect Mr. Lavoie’s deep compassion and understanding of children, seeing issues from the perspective of the child, for which he has earned fame and respect in his early PBS videos, How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop and When the Chips Are Down.” In Part II, I covered how Mr. Lavoie explores why these children with learning disabilities and accompanying social skills deficits “do the things they do.” In Part III, I discussed social skills on the home front, especially dealing with siblings. Part IV reviewed social skills in school settings. In this, the final section, Rick Lavoie examines social skills in other public places, along with how to meet, make, and keep friends.
Appropriate Social Skills in Public Places
Every day, a child interacts with many people in the community, from family members to adults and peers in school to total strangers. Each setting has its “social contract,” a Hidden Curriculum of unwritten rules. One of the greatest challenges children with social skills deficits face is dealing with transitions, which is why these are the times of the greatest number of behavioral problems. This problem is present in school; in the community it is even greater. It is important for children to have the opportunity to interact with people in the community to practice and develop skills, gaining greater confidence and flexibility in novel and unfamiliar settings. However, it is important to prepare the child for the novel situation and outline expectations and guidelines.
Meeting, Making, and Keeping Friends
Making and keeping friends require many social skills, especially equity, sharing, and mutuality. Most important, starting and nurturing a friendship is a process, not a product. This process involves three stages:
- Exploratory phase – Two people recognize they share interests, skills, or backgrounds
- Trust stage – The two people have to have confidence in each other during this fragile phase.
- Compatibility stage – Acceptance becomes solid and the friendship becomes one of mutually beneficial sharing.
Parents can help children in various role situations; playing board games is a particularly effective way to demonstrate negotiating, taking turns, following rules, sharing, having patience, strategizing, and being gracious in both victory and defeat. Moreover, parents must take the time to talk with their children about this important topic. In this respect, parents need to be supportive and nonjudgmental, creating a space in which the child feels safe to undertake that difficult step of sharing feelings.
Children with weak social skills often need assertiveness training: Mr. Lavoie has conceived of the ASSERT method:
A Attention: Have the other person’s attention.
S Soon, Short, Simple: Be quick and succinct.
S Specific: Explain what act is of concern.
E Effect: Explain how the act effects you.
R Reciprocity: Define what roles both parties play.
T Terms: Arrive at an agreement as to the responsibilities of each party.
In every school, there are children who are popular; most of the others strive to be like them or at least be in their circle. However, the largest group of children in school comprises those Mr. Lavoie call the controversial children. These children have a group of friends but rarely go beyond that circle of peers with similar interests, neighborhoods, and activities. Then there are the isolated children, those who are on the periphery of most social gatherings, and the rejected children, those spurned and bullied by others. In a large survey, boys prefer those who participate in sports, though athletic prowess is not a requisite. They value trust and responsibility. They enjoy peers with similar interests and hobbies. Sports and girls are popular topics of conversation; personal topics are not. They do not like peers who are bossy, or aggressive. Girls talk about school and confidential matters. They value humor and friendliness, the last presenting a significant challenge to girls lacking social skills. Girls place a high value on sensitivity and sincerity, among one another and in boys.
Positive and negative behaviors, whether actual or perceived as such, translate into reputation, either positive or negative. Here, the guidance of parents and teachers can be especially valuable; these adults should show public acceptance toward these rejected children, highlighting their hidden talents.
The concept of friendship is often foreign to these children with social skills difficulties; in fact, they may have trouble understanding the definition of friendship and all it entails. They need to start with comprehending the levels of friendship, starting with acquaintance, the casual relationship. The second level is companion, those who share common interests. The next level is genuine friendship, which involves reciprocity, the “give-and-take” of a balanced friendship. The last level requires care and cultivation and avoiding pitfalls, such as being overly possessive, jealous, or demanding. The assistance and support one demands must, in time, be “repaid.” And a friendship must never be merely a source to acquire or borrow money or valued objects. Among the challenges in genuine friendships are the following:
- The ability to read a social situation
- The ability to understand and complement the emotions of the other person
- The ability to pace relationships, avoiding being overly aggressive
- The ability to recall earlier experiences one should have learned from
- The ability to predict the consequ3ences of social behavior
- The ability to compensate for social miscues and admit to one’s mistakes, apologizing appropriately, and taking the necessary steps to correct the error and assure that it won’t recur.
Children with social-skills deficits will need the support and understanding of the adults in their lives.
Among adults who have been able to build successful lives, having overcome childhood challenges in their social lives. The traits and attitudes by which these individuals have succeeded in achieving lives of stability and fulfillment include the following:
- Self-awareness—an understanding of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses
- Proactivity—the steps one takes to achieve social or vocational goals
- Perseverance—being goal directed and not giving up in the face of obstacles.
These individuals had effective emotional coping strategies. Even given all that, they had strong support systems. They were able to cultivate these networks. However, children with learning disabilities and social skills deficits will need such support systems to start them on this difficult, yet critical path.