Moving Beyond Social Skills Groups

ryan-wexelblatt-center-adhd-director-male-friendship-pyramidPicture yourself a 12-year-old boy in 7th grade diagnosed with ADHD (or any social learning challenge). Each day you go into school and see other boys who you were friendly with in elementary school who barely acknowledge your existence now that you’re in middle school. You are aware of the social hierarchy at your school and the fact that you fall towards the bottom. You spend most of your free time playing video games and watching YouTube because there’s not much else to do. You have some boys you sit with at lunch however you don’t know how to express that you’d like to be friends with them outside of school.

One day your Mom tell you that you’re going to a social skills group. You go to an office with several other boys around your age. A nice man or woman tells you that you’re there to help you learn how to make friends. You’re a bit intrigued because you desperately want friends.

Each week when you come to the social skills group you’re prompted to practice loosely scripted, socially appropriate conversations. After a few months the group ends and you still aren’t sure how to show others you’re interested in friendship. You don’t remember much from the social skills group because you found it to be boring. Some of the other boys in the group seemed like someone you could be friends with but you never really got a chance to know them because all your time together was spent sitting around a table with an adult directing the conversations.

Many of the boys we with work with at Center for ADHD have had this experience at the various social skills groups and camps they’ve attended. When asked to recall what they learned, the majority can’t offer much except for possibly a few Social Thinking® terms.

When Stephen (my co-facilitator)I decided to design our How to Hang Out program we had the natural advantage of being guys with a deep understanding of the nuances within male-male friendships. We decided the majority of our program time would be spent out in the community doing things that boys would enjoy. We knew that in order for social cognitive skills to be generalized across real life contexts and for the kids to develop a sense of connection with each other we needed to combine instruction with fun, shared experiences.

Some of the skills we teach in How to Hang Out include:

Perspective Taking: How to naturally show an interest in others so they know you want to be friends, understanding how you come across to similar-age peers, understanding others thoughts, feelings and intentions.

Cognitive Flexibility: Learning how to show an interest in other boys by talking about things they like talking about. We strongly emphasize that when you have the opportunity to socialize with other boys you age, you go even if you’re not interested in the activity because being part of a group is more important that the actual activity. Too often we find that parents allow their inflexible child to miss out on social experiences because their child is focused on the specific activity and misses the “bigger picture” which is about spending time together.

Understanding how male-male friendships evolve: Many of the boys we work with do not understand how to expand their social relationships outside of school. We teach them how to take ownership of the process to evolve their relationships from “school friends” to “friends”. Some of the boys we work with can come across as smothering to other boys. We teach them how to express their desire for friendship in ways that are palatable to their peers.

We even teach that using inappropriate language is fine when you’re not in school and there are no adults around because that’s what many boys do when they’re together.

Interestingly we find that boys who have spent many years in social skills groups often learn social communication skills that are not organic to the ways boys communicate with each other. In these cases, we teach them how to age-appropriately communicate socially with other boys and loose the formality they were taught in social skills groups.

The process to developing social competency is a slow process that requires consistency which is why we offer various social learning programs throughout the school year including Guy Stuff, our texting/social media safety program, executive function skill building day trips and our new Summer Travel Program. The most enjoyable part of facilitating our programs is when we are able to hang back and watch the guys joke around and enjoy spending time together.

How to Hang Out is based on Social Thinking concepts.  Social Thinking was created by Michelle Garcia Winner.  You can learn more about Social Thinking by visiting their website at www.socialthinking.com.  

Ryan Wexelblatt, Center for ADHD Director is one of the few professionals in the Philadelphia area to have earned a Social Thinking® Clinical Training Level 1 Certificate of Completion.

You can learn more about Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania by visiting: www.centeradhd.com.

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