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Social Skills: Art or Science?


Rifka Schonfeld, Director S.O.S (Strategies for Optimum Success)

Leah is looking around the lunch table and trying to make sure that she doesn’t choke on her cream cheese bagel. Her stomach is hurting her again! The girls around her are chatting and giggling about the upcoming quiz and Mimi’s new backpack, but Leah can’t seem to get a word in edgewise. It’s always been like this for Leah. When she’s in a group of people, her palms get sweaty, her face gets red, and her heart beats a million times a minute. She can never figure out when it’s the right time to speak, laugh, or just nod.


Shlomi knows that he’s right. His classmate Dovid is trying to argue with him and saying, “Shlomi, you can’t leave your notebook on the window sill today because the window is open and it’s raining. Your notebook is going to get all wet.” But Shlomi knows that two weeks ago Mrs. Pearlman asked the students to leave their extra notebooks on the windowsill instead of on their desks. She even repeated it twice. Shlomi has told Dovid this many times, but Dovid keeps insisting that today is different than the last two weeks. Finally, Dovid shrugs and walks away, “You never understand what I say anyway.”


“Naomi, you’re not listening!” Batsheva shrieks at her older sister. Naomi turns towards Batsheva and shakes her head, “I am listening. I just got distracted for a minute,” Naomi answers. But, to Batsheva, it seems like Naomi is always getting distracted. They can never finish a game of checkers, let alone a game of Monopoly, without Naomi getting bored and walking away. They can’t finish a conversation or a meal. Sometimes Batsheva feels like it’s not worth starting a conversation with her sister since Naomi is bound to stop listening halfway through. “Batsheva, I am trying!” Naomi pleads with her sister, but this time, her sister has stopped listening to her.


I have changed Leah, Shlomi, and Naomi’s names, yet they are three children who I have encountered through my work. While they exhibit very different characteristics, they share something in common: difficulty with social skills. Their difficulties manifest in different ways and have different consequences, yet the core of the issue is a lack of social skills that impede friendship and relationships. We will get into the details of Leah, Shlomi, and Naomi’s situations later in this article, but first, let’s lay out a little about what we mean when use the term social skills.


Put simply, we use social skills to communicate and interact with each other, both verbally and non-verbally. Social skills or interpersonal skills include verbal language, as well as our tone of voice, volume, inflection, and choice of words. They also include body language, gestures, and other non-verbal communication methods. 


According to psychiatrist Gabriella Lancia, PhD, there are four key components of healthy social skills:

  • Social awareness. The ability to pick up social cues, such as knowing when it’s your turn to talk or when it’s time to end a playdate or meeting.
  • Social cognition. The ability to recognize what other people are thinking when they communicate with us.
  • Social communication. The ability to reciprocate and respond when someone communicates verbally or non-verbally.
  • Social motivation. The ability to recognize the importance of friendship and social interactions. 


While many people develop social skills naturally, there are children who need to be explicitly taught. And, like Leah, Shlomi, and Naomi, there might be other factors that contribute to children not inherently learning social skills as they grow. Additionally, though social skills can always be learned, the earlier we learn them, the smoother and more enjoyable our lives will be as they are essential for daily interactions.


Social Anxiety


There are several characteristics of Leah’s behavior that indicate she may be dealing with some form of social anxiety. Social anxiety, or social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that can cause fear in social situations. Those with social phobia have a strong fear of being judged by others or publicly embarrassed. People with social phobia are afraid of doing common things in front of other people. For example, they might be afraid to eat or drink in front of other people, or order a drink at a coffee shop. Sometimes, they end up staying away from places or events where they feel there is a potential for embarrassment. Generally, this condition is diagnosed in teens, but it can be interpreted as shyness in children and only get diagnosed later in life. Children with social phobia may get very real headaches, stomachaches, or diarrhea on school days – but the pain comes from their brains, not their bowels.


Asperger’s Syndrome


Shlomi’s concrete thinking and inability to compromise could potentially be symptoms of being on the spectrum. Asperger’s Syndrome was first described in the 1940s by a pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who noticed that he had many patients with deficient social and communicative skills even though they had normal language development and cognitive abilities. While many children on the autistic scale have trouble functioning socially, they also tend to develop language skills later; therefore, Dr. Asperger felt these children stood in a class of their own.


Children with autism often seem aloof and uninterested in others. This is not the case with children with Asperger’s – they usually want to fit in and interact with others – but simply do not know how to do that. They may be socially awkward, not pick up on social cues, or show a lack of empathy. In terms of non-verbal communication, children with Asperger’s will seem uninterested in a conversation, not understand the use of gestures, and feel invisible. While many children with Asperger’s have excellent memory skills for statistics and rote memorization, they have trouble with abstract concepts. Because of the many strengths of children with Asperger’s Syndrome, often, as a parent or teacher of an affected child, this syndrome can be especially frustrating. We know that the child is cognitively capable, so we ask ourselves, “Why can’t they just act like everyone else?” While this frustration is a common phenomenon, it is important to understand that children with Asperger’s would love to function the way their siblings and family do. They simply cannot figure out how to act “normally.” It’s our job as parents and educators to give them the tools to grow their social skills.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder


Naomi’s inability to focus on conversations with her sister, and her sister’s insistence that she never listens, could be a sign of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Current research shows that ADHD children are often socially immature. Their interactions with others often appear unfriendly, awkward, remote, abrasive, domineering or insensitive. They tend not to be able to read social cues and to be rebuffed by peers for inappropriate behavior. Social rejection provokes negative behavior that triggers more rejection, which in turn, reinforces the child’s social isolation. “ADHD children may become demoralized, believing they are little more than a nuisance,” notes an article in Eye on Education. “Feelings of low self-esteem begin to emerge. These children tend to compare themselves unfavorably with their siblings and peers. They may believe that their families are disappointed in them,

and begin to feel unloved and unappreciated.”


Now What?


The truth is that you can’t teach what social skills are for every situation. Instead, we need to teach children how to read the situation and then adapt to it with an appropriate response. Michelle Garcia Winner, a social worker and early pioneer of promoting social skills, labels this type of social skills education as “social thinking.” In her many books and workshops, Michelle Garcia Winner, discusses the concept of “social thinking.” According to Garcia Winner:


Our social behavior is the end result of a complicated and very fast thought process called social thinking. Our behavioral response in every social context is informed by our consideration of the thoughts and feelings of the people around us as well as how we intend to influence them. This means that in the context of going to the doctor’s office…our behavior may be slightly different each time depending on who is around us and what we perceive they are thinking and feeling in that moment.


There is no one correct way to act in a doctor’s waiting room because the social context is always a little bit different! Sometimes the receptionist may be happy to answer personal questions about herself, especially if you notice a new engagement ring on her finger. Sometimes you can converse with other patients, if they are showing certain signs that they are interested in talking to you. With this in mind, it suddenly becomes clear that for students to “behave well” requires that they be sensitive to the situation and the people in the situation in order for them to socially problem solve how to produce the “expected behavior.”

The following are core philosophies of social thinking:

  • People “think with their eyes” to figure out other people’s thoughts and emotions.
  • Our thoughts and emotions are connected. Thinking affects feeling and feeling affects thinking. 
  • Our actions are constantly governed by thinking about other people, even if we are not with them.
  • We always try to act in a way that other people will not think we are “weird.”
  • All people engage in these thoughts and behaviors.
  • Social thinking continues to be necessary for adult life. To keep a job, we must understand what the people around us think and expect.


Social thinking therapists explain that there are three parts of the process of effectively socializing with others:


Engage in social thinking. This step includes thinking about your thoughts and the thoughts of those around you. This means that you must learn self-awareness (to recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are) and to examine other people’s perspectives (to attempt to understand what others are thinking about you and themselves). Social thinking does not end in childhood; each time we enter a new stage in life, we are forced to engage our social thinking. 


Adapt your behavior. Once you successfully engage in social thinking, you then need to practice appropriate social skills. Therefore, you need to adapt your behavior to consider the thoughts and feelings of others, and communicate your own intentions in the situation. 


Be aware of others’ reactions. People will respond to your social skills (or lack of) quickly, feeling that you are rude or polite, awkward or friendly. These reactions from other people are in fact emotional reactions that cannot necessarily be put into words. Watching other people’s reactions to your social skills is also part of social thinking – and learning to adapt after those reactions continues the cycle.


There is no silver bullet for social skills, but with time and effort, children and adults have the ability to learn and grow – and eventually develop long-lasting friendships and relationships.




Five Habits for Kids’ Social Health


  1. Voicing emotions.

Sometimes it might feel easier to just go along with whatever your friend is doing, but it’s also important for you to share your feelings. If you are upset about something, even if your friend is happy, you should share your feelings. Think about a way to share those feelings without making your friend feel bad, but without erasing your own feelings too. You can even test out voicing your emotions with your parents if you feel you need practice.


  1. Setting boundaries.

It’s important to decide how you want to be treated and how you would like to treat others. And when someone steps over the line of treating you the way you feel you should be treated, you should try out healthy habit #1 for emotional health. Let the person know that that interaction did not feel good for you and why.


  1. Expressing gratitude.

When you are thankful to other people and you let them know, you are actually recognizing the goodness that is in your life. This allows you to feel better about the experiences you have had, to feel more positive emotions, and relieves stress in the future. So, by saying thank you and meaning it — you are actually giving yourself a present.


  1. Utilizing techniques for dealing with strong feelings. 

Sometimes we are all hit with big feelings: we want to scream, cry, or jump around. It’s not always easy to react to strong feelings with calm habits. That’s why it’s important to learn tricks to deal with these strong emotions. Some tricks include counting, others include breathing, but they all help you deal more calmly with the big feelings that you are having.


  1. Listening to others, both with your mind and heart.

Sometimes we think it’s easy to listen. We just need to sit there. But, the truth is that really listening to both what the other person is saying and what they really mean is hard work. Make it a habit to listen to what your friends are saying — and also to what they are not saying — you will both be a lot happier.


Tips to Help Children Gain Empathy


Empathy is a key component to positive social interactions and is comprised of several components: an awareness of a “self” that is separate from other people, the ability to recognize another person’s perspective, the ability to regulate emotional responses.


  • Support children in times of distress. When children feel that their own emotional needs are met, they are better able to recognize the emotional needs of others. Therefore, helping your children recover from their own emotional setbacks will help them have empathy for other people.
  • Talk to your kids. When parents talk to their children as if they have a mind of their own and treat their children as individuals, they encourage children to look at others as individuals with their own feelings and emotions.
  • Point out commonalities. Studies show that children are more likely to feel empathy for those that they feel are similar or familiar to them. Teach your children to find similarities with people – even if they are very different. Explain to them that everyone has certain things in common.
  • Role-play. Children can learn a lot from stepping into other people’s shoes for just a few moments. Help your children role play how they would feel if someone reacted to them the way they reacted in the past.  Even books and stories can help children understand other people’s perspectives.
  • Smile and give lots of hugs. Children are more likely to be generous and kind if they feel secure and loved. Therefore, smiling at your children as a way of signaling approval and giving lots of physical affection will help your child feel self-confident. 



An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools.   In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness.  She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com. You can view the web at rifkaschonfeld.com


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