You know how when we were little, and you wanted a sleepover with a friend, and one of our parents would come home, and we’d know instantly if we could ask for that sleepover we wanted or not. Right? Just the way your dad put his keys down, or your mom sighed, you knew if you were going to ask for something special or not. If you did this, you were exhibiting social awareness.
One of the most popular articles on this blog is my list of Social Skills IEP Goals. And yeah, it’s a great list. But, it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
When looking at that list of goals, most adults familiar with the student can tell you whether or not that student exhibits that skill. If not, teach it. Right? Mmm, not really. What many IEP teams fail to address are the underlying or prerequisite skills a child needs to exhibit those skills. And, they go about trying to teach the child how to do something (like initiate a conversation) without getting into the why first.
Or, perhaps the child does understand the ‘why’ but is unable to communicate it effectively. When you have social awareness (and some kids, let’s be honest, have hyper-social-awareness) it’s a skill that we often take for granted.
What is Social Awareness?
In a small setting, it’s the ability to “read the room” if I was going to use a cliché. Even if that room has only one other person in it.
Defining social awareness can be simple. It is an individual’s ability to see from the perspective of another person, group, or community.
Social awareness is sometimes referred to as EQ, for Emotional Quotient. (as compared to the IQ)
The level of social awareness that one has directly affects how they interact with others. Everyone’s favorite person who lacks EQ? Sheldon Cooper.
It is a long process to acquire the skills. Kids begin to develop social awareness in their formative years and then it grows as we age, as we are exposed to new experiences. New experiences give us information that help us understand the standpoints and views of other people.
This is why little kids sometimes say some really funny things. They have not achieved enough social awareness and make inappropriate statements at inappropriate times.
Empathy and social awareness are two different things, although some people mistake them to be one and the same. Empathy paves the way for individuals to build social awareness, and initiate connections with other people. By understanding what others are feeling and thinking, you are able to appropriately respond in social situations. Empathy and social awareness complement each other.
Understanding Social Awareness and Its Importance
As we grow older, your social awareness skills help you to recognize how one person contributes and fits into the community in particular, and the world in general. You understand what you need, and how you can get it from the world. This is not just a social or emotional skill, but a math skill too. If a child struggles with things like sequencing skills, or matching skills, then they may also struggle here. Matching a person to their societal roles is a complex matching skill.
Thinking long term, our social awareness skills will help us with professionalism at work, make it easier to share and provide information, and collaborate and communicate with others. From a personal viewpoint, social awareness is an essential component in forging relationships and friendships.
Redefining Social Awareness
What I have talked about above only refers to traditional social awareness skills. In addition to ableism and a zillion other reasons, the inability to reciprocate traditional social awareness is one of the reasons our kids get left out.
Since social awareness skills are still in development during the school years, it is a real missed opportunity if we don’t educate all students. Not just the students who lack the ability to exhibit traditional societal expectations. (read: the different kids)
Young children easily adapt to changing environments and evolving societal expectations. An occasional lesson or circle time chat about this could do so much for disabled students. And, in-the-moment teaching during real-life scenarios could be such a game-changer. Explaining to the non-disabled child that yes, the disabled child does want to play with you, he just cannot find the right words to express it, would help break down barriers.
My point being: Let’s not just focus on the autistic students and those are largely believed to “lack social skills.” Let’s teach everyone.
In-School Examples of Social Awareness
The school is the ideal place to monitor social awareness development. So much is decided during school hours–who are the cool kids, who are not, and so on. (and yes, let’s just call it what it is here–this crap exists)
Imagine two kids quietly seated while working on a school assignment together. A third kid watching nearby wants to join them. In Sheldon Cooper like fashion, he marches up to the pair and begins to list all the errors in their work.
The third child thought he was helping, but his inability to “read the room” only resulted in the other 2 students thinking that he was annoying, and that he thinks he is smarter than they are. He did not recognize how engaged they were in their work, or understand that his words may offend them.
If the first two kids also lack social ability, this type of behavior may be understandable and even acceptable. However, if they have a bit more developed emotional skills, the actions of the 3rd child will most likely be deemed as rude, insulting and inappropriate.
Even if the first two kids do not show any negative feelings towards the 3rd child right away, it will most likely reflect in their social decisions in the future. And in most cases, this will also affect how others treat the 3rd student. When others see a student being ostracized, they may trust the first 2 students that this must be due to a valid reason.
Types of Social Awareness Skills
Examples of social awareness skills include:
- Emotional self-awareness – When you are emotionally aware, you are able to understand what another person is feeling, and you appreciate how various moods can have an impact on the people around you.
- Self-regulation – This is the art of controlling how you will respond to emotions. You anticipate results in your own effort to be emotionally reactive in social and personal situations.
- Motivation – When you have the motivation, you understand how you can use emotional factors in learning and achieving your personal goals.
- Empathy – To be able to show empathy means you have the skills necessary to consider the circumstances and emotions of other people.
- Respect – Probably the best definition of respect is to have a concern for the experiences, rights, emotions, and wishes of another person or group.
- Kindness – The idea of kindness is being considerate and friendly to other people.
- Listening actively – Listening actively is the skill to show that you are all ears to the speaker. You pay attention to what is being said, and you actually take time to understand everything.
- Cooperation – The act of cooperation is crucial in coming up with a resolution or an effective way to work with other groups or individuals. While it typically involves making a compromise, it helps in achieving shared goals.
I think that in looking at that list, most of us would agree that everyone has areas that could use improvement. Not just disabled kids.
How do you teach social awareness in school?
Schools that help kids build the above-mentioned social skills witness significantly less incidences of violence, bullying, substance misuse, and other disciplinary problems (WHO, 2008). It benefits all students when we actively develop their social awareness skills.
It is crucial to first understand each child’s current EQ. Each child comes to the classroom from a different background and a unique set of experiences including trauma.
Teachers or counselors should be prepared to discuss emotions with the class. As much as possible, the discussion must be without any form of judgement. This is because there will always be the tendency to label emotions as good or bad. When my son was in elementary school, one of their Specials Rotations was “Guidance” where a school guidance counselor led the sessions.
The truth is, there is no right or wrong in terms of how a student feels. There are simply proper ways to express the child’s emotions, instead. These often depend on the circumstances or the environment. And, a child should be given many repetitions and opportunities to practice.
To successfully acquire a skill, it must be used across all environments. Too often, our kids are “taught” social skills in a pull-out resource room type setting, then miraculously expected to apply the teachings in their next social interactions. This approach is largely unsuccessful. (and if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why our own Dept of Labor reports an almost 80% unemployment rate for autistics)
Taking the Next Steps in EQ and Social Awareness
There is not one magical lesson to help child put together all the vital EQ components, and make the child learn the skill in a snap.
To be clear, this is complex. This is a big ask. It will take a mindset shift from a school, and buy-in from the IEP team.
But, important societal changes rarely come easy. Stick to it, our kids need this.