The character Sheldon Cooper from the CBS TV show “The Big Bang Theory” is a familiar example from popular culture of an individual who has achieved impressive academic success but experiences difficulty and conflict in his relationships and work life due to his social limitations. While this show provides comedic entertainment for its audience, it also demonstrates a very real struggle for many children: social development and success.
Social development is an ongoing, lifelong process, but the social learning that occurs in childhood is essential for building and maintaining fulfilling relationships, receiving social acceptance, and ultimately achieving a successful career as adults.
What is social learning?
When we think about social learning, we typically focus on social skills, or the specific behaviors that are expected given a situation (e.g., staying on topic when making a comment during a conversation). Michelle Garcia Winner, a speech language pathologist, created the concept of social thinking, specifically the cognitive processes of figuring out the thoughts, feelings, motives and beliefs of those around us and adjusting our behavior accordingly to ensure that everyone in the social setting is comfortable. Via social thinking we are able to assign meaning to the words and actions of others and read the contextual cues of the social environment, which are critical for social, emotional and academic success, as well as professional fulfillment in the long-term.
How social learning influences academics
Simply being in a classroom is a social situation with expected behaviors that are conducive to learning. The behavior of a student with social-thinking difficulties can interfere with the academic learning of self and peers. For example, interrupting others and lack of volume regulation can both disrupt the attention, processing, and understanding that are required for learning. Social learning also has a direct bearing on the ability to work in a group and engage in cooperative learning.
Social learning can also influence specific academic areas such as reading comprehension and writing. Successful comprehension of the curriculum, particularly as students advance in school, requires social inferencing, understanding figurative language, and engaging in perspective taking. The task of writing requires social thinking in order to take another’s perspective while formulating a persuasive argument or describing a character’s emotions, beliefs, and intentions during narration.
Social difficulties that may affect students with learning differences. Because many types of learning disorders can yield social learning difficulties, students with learning differences may require social thinking intervention to help them with:
- Perspective taking
- Relating to peers
- Making and maintaining friendships
- Conversation (e.g., initiating and maintaining topics, using comments and questions to expand the conversation, and avoiding the interruption of others)
- Working with peers in groups
- Reading contextual cues of situations to guide expected behavior
- Understanding the words, actions, and nonverbal cues of others
- Social wondering
- Emotional regulation
Fostering social learning alongside academics
Students with social learning difficulties that require additional social thinking intervention can benefit from knowledgeable educators who can address social challenges as they occur in the classroom, on the playground, and at the lunch tables. For instance, a student may need his teacher to help him notice and interpret the contextual cues of the classroom situation (i.e., test papers on desks, students working independently, and silence in the classroom) in order to identify and execute the expected behavior, which is to sit down quietly and begin taking the test.
While public schools are not required to teach social skills, there are other solutions such as external social-skills classes, private speech/language therapy and private schools that serve students with learning differences. Academic achievement alone will not lead to success in life without healthy social skill development. Adequate social learning during childhood can yield great professional and personal success.