By Jordan Sadler, SLP
Last week, a post at the blog From Here to There and Back prompted me to suggest that the blog's author create a visual map of a challenging situation her son experienced at school. The subsequent off line conversation about this with the writer - and comments from her readers showing great interest in the topic - led me to think that perhaps this is a topic worthy of further explanation.
There are many ways to use visual strategies to map out a social situation for children. What I do in my work is ultimately a combination of ideas I have picked up over the years at numerous workshops given by Michelle Garcia Winner, SLP, who runs The Center for Social Thinking and Carol Gray of The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding. I give both of these amazing women full credit for the way I approach the teaching of social understanding and social thinking to children. Their work fills gaping holes in what is considered best practice for kids with social-pragmatic difficulties right now.
The ideas proposed by Ms. Gray and Ms. Winner make perfect sense once you've heard them explained, but are not, apparently, intuitive to many therapists because so rarely are children (or adolescents or adults) taught this way. In effect, we - therapists, teachers, and parents - are encouraged to approach social-pragmatic awareness not as a series of skills to be trained (as has been done in social skills groups and traditional ABA-type therapy), but as a process in which we help people to understand why we communicate the way we do. We want children to understand what kind of impact their behavior and language has on others. We don't say, "Look at my eyes!" to teach eye contact but rather explain, "People's eyes are a window into what they are thinking about - if Ben is looking at the clock, he might be wondering if it's time to go home." Non-verbal communication is explained in such a way that it carries meaning and becomes motivating to our clients. Of course, there is so much more to this, and I highly encourage those interested to seek out books and workshops with the experts in this field.
I am going to provide an example of a behavior map, and in order to maintain confidentiality for my clients, I will use an experience from my own family.
When my neurotypical older son was about 4 years old, we were at a neighbor boy's home. Now the neighbor boy's parents were both early childhood educators, and there was no place in the world as fun as their house. They had a big climbing structure right in their living room! It is no surprise that my son didn't want to leave. Ever. On one occasion, after ample warnings (the "5-minute countdown", I call it) it was time to depart. My son refused and became quite belligerent. After trying every strategy we well-trained adults could think of, I ended up carrying him home as he kicked and screamed; I was hugely pregnant, exhausted, and incredibly frustrated. I know we've all been there in one way or another.
When we got home, I was at my wit's end. We were infuriated with each other. I did all I knew how to do in that situation, which was to sit silently on the floor and pull out paper and a marker. I quietly started to draw. Now, let's get something straight: I am no artist. That is not a requirement for this! In this situation, I sketched out the scene like a cartoon, and my son immediately sat down to watch. It started with two boys playing happily. Always show emotion on the faces throughout a social map! In the next frame, there was a smiling mother giving a 5-minute warning and the boys were still smiling. As we got down to the 1-minute warning, I showed the expression on my son's face start to shift into anger.
When the stick-figure mother announced in her little "speech bubble" that it was time to go, I drew a boy with the angriest face I could muster and limbs out of control. But I think what was critical here was that I also drew the neighbor boy and his parents - all with concerned, sad faces - and myself looking angry. In the midst of a tantrum, our kids are not generally aware of how their behavior is affecting anyone else. If you can represent visually to a child the ways in which his actions affect how others think and feel, you are giving him the key to social thinking, or theory of mind. I pointed out to my son that he did not say "thank you", nor did he say "good night" to our hosts and that when we left they were all feeling sad. He was really impacted by this. I explained that when you leave nicely, you are more likely to be invited back soon.
I then pulled out a new sheet of paper and we started with the same beginning but recreated the sequence of events as he would like them to unfold in the future. He decided that he could say, "I don't want to leave!" and he could feel as angry as he wanted to, but that he would leave without a tantrum, and we drew the whole thing as he described it. This sounds like a very long process but we really only spent about 10 minutes doing it. It's not about the art - it's about keeping the child's attention focused on the unfolding events - so it can move fairly quickly, depending on the situation and the child's processing speed.
We went back to that friend's house a great many times after that night and we never, ever had a problem leaving again.
There are as many ways to create a visual map of a social situation as there are different social situations for our kids to experience. There is no required format for this. Depending on the situation and the age of the child, you could create a cartoon strip, a flow chart, or any other picture that shows a sequence. The important part is that you visually and simply represent the ways in which the child's actions impacted other people's feelings and how they thought about him, and led to a specific outcome. Having the opportunity to remap the situation is critical! Your child will not learn enough from simply seeing the unsuccessful scenario portrayed; he needs an opportunity to think through an alternate ending in order to use different behavior the next time something similar arises.
Michelle Garcia Winner has a recent publication called Social Behavior Mapping which will undoubtedly provide many terrific strategies, and Carol Gray (who came up with the concept of Social Stories) has a great little book called Comic Book Conversations which outlines another means of using visual support to aid understanding of language within social situations. There is always more to learn about helping our children and clients improve in their social thinking; we are so fortunate to have these experts as resources.
Those of you in the Bay Area might be interested to know that Michelle Garcia Winner and Carol Gray are running a workshop together December 4th and 5th in San Francisco. They are very parent-friendly speakers!