NLD: Teach Social Understanding

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D


Although kids with NLD have many strengths, they often have social skill deficits • There are some simple techniques you can do to help your child develop the skills she needs to manage social situations effectively

Many kids with NLD struggle in social situations. And since social skills are fundamental to your child’s quality of life, it’s important to help build the skills that will help her succeed.

There are two kinds of social skills that children need: instrumental skills and social understanding.

Instrumental skills are often taught in school. They include nonverbal cues (looking at someone, smiling, posture), greeting, introducing yourself, asking questions on topic and staying on topic, showing interest and taking turns. These skills are applicable in many situations, but what happens when things don’t go as anticipated? For example, what if your child walks into a room where people are silent and the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife? Or she comes across two friends who are arguing?

To know how to manage those situations requires social understanding. In fact, using instrumental skills appropriately depends on social understanding, which is why children often can use instrumental skills in structured situations but fail to use them in real time.

Big-Picture Thinking

Think of social understanding as “big-picture” thinking. It involves observing and processing the larger social environment. For real-time social interaction, social understanding is crucial, but processing the rapid flow of social information is incredibly difficult, which is why you and your child should work on this intentionally.

I teach social understanding using multiple techniques, depending on what works best for the child. I talk through specific social situations that frequently challenge that child; usually it’s the same issue over and over.

I often diagram the situation on a whiteboard. Younger children enjoy drawing it out like a cartoon. I also use social stories with different choices in the narrative. For example, when Marie in second grade was upset that her friend didn’t want to play, she pushed her. We made up stories that included her feelings and thoughts, and the feelings and thoughts of the other girl. Marie needed to think about how she felt when someone pushed her. We then made up a second story about the same incident with her handling it differently.

For kids of all ages, watching videos together can be helpful. We see a social situation, pause action and talk about it. Most social situations turn up in shows that involve people, so any TV show or movie your child likes (ideally with real people) will serve your purpose.

Stop, Look, Listen

Most NLD children are self-focused and personalize situations rather than taking in the w’s: the who, where, what, and why of a situation. I call this “having a box on your head,” only seeing what relates to the child at the expense of everything around her.

To broaden her view of situations, I explain the value of asking herself questions:

  • Who is involved here? Are these friends, acquaintances, authority figures? What do I know about these people? What can I expect?
  • Where are we? What is the context?
  • What is happening/what are people doing? It’s important to verbally go through who is doing what.
  • What do the others feel, and what might be their points of view?
  • What’s my role here? Is this personal to me?
  • What’s likely to happen?

The following examples show how applying these techniques can turn a negative situation into a positive one, saving a lot of heartache in the process.

Laura was focused on a small group of peers who alternately accept and reject her, leading to tears and meltdowns. She needed the big picture: these girls can be expected to turn mean, and they’re that way to everyone. The “mean girls” are actually a small group and there are other children in the class. Good time to see who else is available as friends.

Mark rode his bike to the park with other boys, and left the group to go talk to someone. The other boys left the park and Mark was angry. He didn’t see the big picture: the boys were together to go for a ride, and he had chosen to leave the group. He rejoined his friends the next day. But without processing the situation, he would have stayed away because he was mad.

Alexander walked into a classroom before class started, went over to some peers and told a joke, not noticing that everyone was sitting and silent. The teacher had just reprimanded the class and was obviously in a bad mood. Time to be quiet! His joke received glares rather than the giggles he was hoping for.

In each of these situations, looking beyond themselves and thinking through the “w” questions was critical. Like crossing a street, kids need to stop, look, and listen before plowing ahead.

Children with NLD can use their strong language skills to learn how to pause when coming into situations and think through what’s going on. Just the awareness of “stop and think” can improve difficult social situations, and over time your child will experience more success and more self-confidence, which is just what every child needs.

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.

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