If your child has trouble reading social cues, try storyboarding: a hands-on, interactive technique for teaching social skills.
Parenting differently-wired kids can feel like a life of “if only’s.”
If only chore completion were as simple as memorizing the periodic table.
If only brushing one’s teeth or getting dressed were as simple as cracking the password on the family computer.
If only climbing out of rabbit holes were as simple as flicking off a light switch.
If only social situations were as simple as sitting down to devour a book.
The dichotomy between our kids’ strengths and weaknesses can be mind-boggling, to say the least. It can also result in a number of uncomfortable, frustrating feelings:
Is this child somehow broken?
Is this a behavior or difficulty I’ve caused?
Why Do Smart Kids Struggle With Social Cues?
In truth, the stark contrast of ability comes down to wiring, specifically the way a child’s brain is made. While areas of the brain responsible for processing speed and memory may be more active and developed, other areas might lag behind.
As for what this might look like, it really depends on the child. In some cases, for instance, a child might struggle with executive function. In others, a child might struggle with inference and social cues.
My eldest daughter is a good example of this phenomenon. She’s twice-exceptional: gifted and on the spectrum by a thread. She loves to read. She excels in drawing conclusions from her reading. Social situations and their subsequent subtle cues, however, have been harder for her to comprehend.
Contrary to what many people think, kids on the spectrum aren’t the only ones who struggle in social situations. The skills necessary for reading body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions can be difficult for many children to develop, including those who are anxious, impulsive, or shy. Ultimately, navigating social cues is really just a matter of making inferences: forming conclusions based on information presented to you. When a child is preoccupied with a difference in wiring (feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or consumed with controlling impulses), recognizing and responding to social cues will be a difficult task.
Reading Books – and Social Cues
Kids who struggle with social cues can learn social inference skills. In fact, it’s very similar to a skill required when reading. When we make inferences in literature, we’re also making conclusions based on the provided information. Instead of making social decisions, however, we’re making decisions about the meaning behind the words.
If you’ve ever paid close attention to the technique of an author you’re reading, you might have noticed her holding certain information back. Authors often use subtle clues to communicate to the reader, employing dialogue, description, or even illustration to help the reader form independent conclusions. This happens often in picture books.
Illustrations in pictures are one of the primary ways children learn to make inferences. Take a look at this page from one of our old favorites, Olivia Saves the Circus, Falconer’s art reveals more about Olivia’s personality than his words can say:
In his text, Falconer writes that Olivia is a “big help to her mother” for making breakfast for her younger siblings. But the accompanying illustration paints a different picture entirely. Olivia believes she’s being helpful. In reality, she’s making an absolute mess.
Here, drawing conclusions easy: you’ve got the picture right above the text. Picture books are designed this way to help emerging readers learn to read and reason.
It gets harder as kids get older, for both reading and social skills.
The Reading Skill/Social Skill Connection
While real-life does, in a sense, provide us with illustrations, our kids must learn to
- recognize the signs
- internalize them
- make an evaluation and decide to act
Then, just to make matters more complicated, it has to happen quickly.
That’s a lot of added pressure for a kid trying to keep it together in a group.
Teaching Inference Through Storyboarding
Because illustrations play a valuable role in the development of reading skills, and because most kids are used to using them in such a way, we can use illustration to help our children develop social inference skills. I use storyboards for this reason; the comic-book styling appeals to a variety of age levels and adds an element of fun.
First, practice by creating a reading storyboard:
Choose a favorite book, with or without images. Read through the text together and list the main parts of the plot (if you are working with a developing reader, ask the child to re-tell the story and make notes about what they say).
Divide a piece of paper into eight sections. Turn the paper to landscape orientation (horizontal) and fold top to bottom. Then fold right to left, and right to left once more. Unfold and spread out.
Each of these sections is a panel designed to illustrate one portion of the plot. It is usually best to proceed chronologically, beginning with the first event in the top left and ending with the bottom right.
Illustrate each part of the plot in its corresponding section. Avoid using words, as the goal is to show the elements of the story through pictures alone. Don’t worry if you are not an artist – stick figures are perfectly fine!
Once the illustrations are complete, talk about why those particular moments stood out. What, if anything, do they reveal about the story beyond the words on the page?
Ask your child what conclusions she made about the story, and why she made those judgments. Ask questions like:
- Why did you decide to draw this character that way?
- What did you notice about the story when you were drawing that you didn’t notice before?
Once a reader has done a storyboard or two, he’ll begin to see the internal connections made between the words on the page and the things left unsaid.
The next step is to transfer this skill to social situations: use the storyboard technique to map out the events and reactions of people in a group setting. Talk about how a particular person may have acted, why that person did so, and how you can tell.
A few tips:
- Use candid or family photos to jog memories of events in the past
- Consider body language and facial expressions (for example, ask questions like, “Why do you think your cousin is sitting by himself?”)
- Explore possible scenarios of events that will occur in the future (so your child will have some idea of what to expect)
If your child has trouble reading social cues, don’t worry – you aren’t alone. It’s not easy for adults, much less a child whose brain is super busy. Help cut through the confusion with storyboards and teach valuable inference skills.
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