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Enhancing Social Awareness: Strategies for Teaching Perspective Taking

Updated: Mar 3

March 2, 2024

Understanding Perspective Taking

When working with neurodivergent populations such as Autism, I often find that students are challenged by learning perspective taking in both structured and less-structured activities. Simply put, perspective taking is the idea that others have thoughts and feelings about what you say and do. They form opinions about whether one’s comments and/or actions are attractive or repelling.

Michelle Garcia Winner, a well-renowned expert in the area of social skills training and program development, created the Social Thinking® curriculum and framework to teach individuals with Autism about social awareness, social understanding, and social problem-solving. She coined the terms “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors to help children and adolescents learn that sometimes actions and comments are neither good nor bad—removing the judgment from choices made. For instance, if I take my shoes off in a classroom and everyone else is wearing shoes, my behavior is unexpected but not hurtful or ill-willed. Students may make comments about my socks, whether my feet are smelly, or why I chose to do this action. When I get home and choose to take my shoes off, this is an expected behavior and therefore aligned with the setting. If I choose to keep my shoes on and the carpets were newly cleaned, my behavior may be considered unexpected; same action, different settings.

The Concept of "Reading the Room"

The idea of “reading the room” means that children need to learn how to match their behavior and vocal responses to their setting. For example, when I walk into a quiet setting, such as a library, I need to use a quieter voice, wait in a specific line to check out my books, and decide where I might want to sit if I am studying for a test. If I need to make a phone call, I should move to a location that is not disrupting others who are working quietly. If I am at a sporting event, I need to find my seat but can use a louder voice (especially if I’m cheering) and eat food. If I am yelling insults at the opposing team and sitting near fans who are like-minded, then fans seated around me may smile at me or make similar comments. If I am sitting at the same stadium but near fans from the rival team, they may view my jeers as “unexpected” and have uncomfortable thoughts and feeling about me and respond differently.

Strategies for Teaching Perspective Taking

How do we teach children perspective taking in order to develop greater social competence? There are several strategies that can be explicitly taught and practiced. However, the goal is to have generalization of skills: teaching children to not only learn the social skills, but also authentically apply them across various situations. Generalization is like using a new recipe you learned to bake cookies. Once you learn the recipe and how to follow it, you can use those same skills to bake other types of cookies or even try baking a cake.

"Hidden Rules" for Social Communication

         One way to support neurodivergent individuals is to teach them the concept of “Hidden Rules:” The unspoken or implied guidelines that govern social interactions and behaviors within a particular culture or social group. These rules are often not explicitly taught but are expected to be understood and followed by members of a group. Here are some common examples of hidden rules for social communication:

  •          Personal Space: Understanding appropriate distances between individuals during conversations and interactions. For instance, I stand at a different level of closeness when talking to close family members than unfamiliar peers.

  •          Turn-Taking: Knowing when to speak and when to listen in a conversation. This includes taking turns speaking, not interrupting others, and allowing everyone to have a chance to participate. When children shout out of turn, their teacher and classmates are going to feel frustrated, even if the child’s comments were informative.

  •          Eye Contact: Recognizing the importance of making eye contact during conversations to demonstrate attentiveness and engagement. In some cultures, direct eye contact is encouraged, while in others, it may be considered rude or confrontational. In most schools, teachers look for eye contact as a component of attention and active engagement.

  •          Body Language: Interpreting and using nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and posture to convey meaning and intentions. For instance, rolling your eyes at someone, turning your back to someone, and balling up one’s hands into fists all communicate something, not necessarily matching the words imparted by the speaker.

  •          Tone of Voice: Being aware of the tone and intonation used when speaking, as it can affect the interpretation of the message. Tone of voice can convey emotions, attitudes, and emphasis. Students may not understand how their tone or volume communicate an unintended message.

  •          Humor and Sarcasm: Recognizing and understanding humor, sarcasm, and other forms of non-literal language. This includes knowing when it is appropriate to use humor and how to interpret the intentions behind sarcastic remarks. Choices of humorous comments need to be time-, audience-, and setting-sensitive.

  •          Social Hierarchy: Understanding the dynamics of social hierarchies and power structures within different social contexts. This includes knowing how to show respect to authority figures and navigate social relationships based on status and rank. Knowing where to sit in the school cafeteria is an example of understanding social hierarchies.

  •          Cultural Differences: Recognizing and respecting cultural differences in social communication styles, customs, and traditions. This includes being sensitive to cultural norms regarding topics such as personal space, body language, and directness in communication. Students need to demonstrate flexibility when others dress differently, eat different foods for lunch, or practice different daily rituals.

Addressing Challenges Through Engagement

Parents and educators may become discouraged when children do not learn perspective taking naturally, resulting in social errors or poor decision making. Learning how to read others' emotional and behavioral choices are influenced by developmental levels, experiences, social interactions, and exposure to diverse perspectives. In early childhood, children begin to learn that others have opinions that differ from their own. Teenagers begin to refine their perspective taking skills and become more adept at understanding complex social dynamics. However, neurodivergent populations may require more time and explicit instruction in learning perspective taking. To become more aware, training opportunities should include the following:

1.    Modeling Behavior: Demonstrate how to observe and interpret social cues by narrating your own thought process aloud. For example, point out body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to help children understand how to read others' emotions and intentions.

2.    Role-Playing: Engage children in role-playing scenarios to practice reading social cues and responding appropriately. Create scenarios based on real-life situations they may encounter, such as joining a group conversation, asking for help, or recognizing when someone is upset.

3.    Explicit Instruction: Provide direct instruction on specific skills, such as what to say when meeting someone for the first time and how to introduce yourself; how to take turns in conversations by asking a question or making a comment; or how to ask someone if you can join a game on the playground. Break down complex social interactions into smaller, manageable steps and teach children specific strategies for navigating each step.

4.    Visual Supports: Use visual supports such as social stories, cue cards, or picture schedules to help children understand and remember social expectations in different situations. Visual supports can provide concrete examples of expected behaviors and help children anticipate and prepare for social interactions. Verbally previewing environmental expectations also helps children understand the behavior needed for others to feel comfortable and ready to participate.

5.    Facilitate Dialogue About Empathy: Encourage children to consider others' perspectives and feelings by asking questions like, "How do you think she feels?" or "What might he be thinking?" Discuss how your child can “socially repair” a situation in which he or she has caused someone to feel discouraged or sad.

6.    Reinforcement and Encouragement: Offer praise and positive reinforcement when children demonstrate awareness of social cues and respond appropriately in social situations. Acknowledge their efforts and progress, and provide encouragement to continue practicing and learning.


Improving Social Competence: Cogmotion Learning Can Help!

By incorporating the aforementioned strategies into daily practices and activities, you can help your child or adolescent develop perspective taking skills to navigate different social contexts and complexities. Cogmotion Learning is available to help guide students, parents, and educators to strengthen problem-solving and social skill development!


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