A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office with a group of 3rd grade boys. We were finishing up our session with a snack and a quiet activity – to the extent that doing anything with a group of hyperactive 3rd grade boys can be quiet. As I asked the boys what they wanted for snack, one of them saw the box of Oreos in my snack bin and got pretty excited about it. He expressed his excitement by blurting out “Oreo! Oreo! Oreo! Oreo! Oreo!….” After hearing him carry on for a little while I let him know that repeating “Oreo! Oreo! Oreo!” wouldn’t help him get snack any faster and then I asked him to stop. He stopped. For about 5 seconds. Then you’ll never guess what he did. He said “Oreo! Oreo! Oreo! Oreo! Oreo!….” At this point, a couple of the other kids looked at him and asked him to be quiet. So he did. About 5 seconds later, he shocked everyone (not really) and said “Oreo! Oreo! Oreo! Oreo! Oreo!…..” At that point, a few of the other kids looked at him and kindly and respectfully and with well-modulated volume (not really) told him, in no uncertain terms, to shut up!
After hearing this reaction, Oreo Boy looked at me and said “Did you hear that?!?!? They told me to shut up!!!”
My response was “Well, I asked you to stop saying ‘Oreo! Oreo! Oreo!’ The other kids asked you to stop saying ‘Oreo! Oreo! Oreo!’ That’s a pretty clear message. At some point, if you don’t respond, kids are going to get irritated with you and that’s what happened.”
Our friend just learned a valuable lesson about natural consequences.
Helping kids see the effects their actions have on others, right in the moment, is a powerful way of helping them improve their social skills. Kids with social skills delays come to Academy MetroWest with a range of cognitive, emotional, or psychological issues, but what most of them have in common is difficulty in recognizing and responding to social cues efficiently or intuitively. Using natural consequences as a teaching tool is a helpful way of showing kids the role they play in their own social difficulties. In the moment, the lessons can be painful. It’s not easy for people to hear that what they’re doing is rubbing others the wrong way. In the long run this new knowledge can be a big relief for kids as they learn that their problems don’t exist in a vacuum. Going through life believing that you’re being rejected or ignored for no reason or for unfathomable reasons can leave kids feeling helpless, depressed, or angry. Knowing the connection between what you do and the way others respond doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to change your behavior quickly or easily. But it can give you a handle on the situation and can be a great place to start the learning process.
Two of the most common issues associated with social skills delays are ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. The presence of either one leaves people prone to missing social cues but the reasons for missing them vary.
Let’s look at a hypothetical boy with ADHD but who is otherwise functioning normally. We’ll say that he’s in a group that has just finished an activity. I ask the group to move to a different activity area and sit down, so we can start our next activity. If I have a group of 6 kids, I might actually get 1 or 2 of them to comply right away with that directive. There might be another 1 or 2 who got sidetracked but when they see me walk in they think “Ooh! He’s coming, I’d better sit down.” I repeat the instructions again and another 1 or 2 kids move over to the bench and sit down. That leaves 1 kid who might still be kicking a ball around or otherwise straying from the course. Pretty soon, that kid’s bound to hear it from his peers. When he does, he and I might have the following discussion:
Boy:”Did you hear what they called me?!?!”
Me: “Yes I did. It wasn’t very nice was it? Any idea why they might have said that?”
Boy: “I know why they said it! Because they’re jerks – that’s why!”
Me: “Well you’re certainly entitled to see it that way but let me tell you what I saw. I made my expectations pretty clear. I asked everyone to come into this room and sit down so we could decide what we’re going to do next. What these guys were telling you – maybe not in the nicest way – is that they felt like you were wasting their time. Now you have a choice. You can keep doing what you were doing – knowing how they’re going to react and that there’s not much I can do about it or you can sit down and take part in helping us decide what to do next. That means you’re going to have to sit and focus, which can be hard, but it also means that they’re going to stop bugging you.”
Our hypothetical kid missed social cues because he was distracted and overstimulated. Had he been looking in the right place, he may have seen the other kids looking impatient, derived the meaning behind their facial expressions, and responded appropriately. For other kids, particularly those on the autism spectrum, they can be looking in exactly the right place and still miss the message.
For instance, let’s take another hypothetical kid – this one on the autism spectrum. He walks in with a joke he’s just learned and tells it to the other kids in his group. The first time he tells it, he gets a laugh from his peers so he thinks to himself “Hey – if they laughed when they heard the joke once, they’re going to think it’s hysterical if I tell it 10 more times!” He gets a laugh one or two more times but before long, the other guys start rolling their eyes. He continues telling the joke until they all tell him to can it. When I talk to him about it, I might ask him if he noticed when the other boys began to roll their eyes. The response I’m likely to get is either that he didn’t notice their facial expressions at all or that he did but had no idea what it meant. My response would be to say “When you see people roll their eyes like that, they’re letting you know they’ve heard enough and they’d like you to stop. When you didn’t respond, they got irritated and told you to cut it out.” In explaining it that way, I’m using a strength shared by many kids on the spectrum (concrete language skills) to point out natural consequences related to one of their weaknesses (recognizing and responding to visual cues).
Using natural consequences can be a great way for parents, teachers, counselors, or anyone who interacts with kids on a regular basis to help sharpen up kids’ interaction skills. They’re most effective when they’re used immediately after the interaction in question so that the critical events are still fresh in everyone’s mind.