Whenever I have the opportunity to speak with fellow Camp Directors who run camps designed for neurotypical children the topic often leads to discussing their campers who present with social-cognitive challenges. In other words, their campers who struggle socially in the camp setting.
Through my discussions with camp colleagues as well as professionals who work with children who present with social skill challenges I often hear that many parents are not interested in sending their child to a summer camp that is designed to meet their child's needs. In some cases the child may not want to go to a camp designed to meet their needs as they understandably want to see themselves as no different than their neurotypical peers despite the fact that they are frequently met with rejection from the same peers who's acceptance they crave. While these parents know there is a risk their child may be unsuccessful in the camp setting they believe that the best way for their child to improve their social skills and provide their child with a feeling of normalcy is through having their child participate in recreational settings (like summer camp) with their neurotypical peers. Often this well intended approach backfires for the child, particularly as they get older and social expectations increase. This led me to question as to where this widely held misconception comes from that children who present with social skill challenges can improve their social skills by simply being around neurotypical peers.
The term "peer modeling" is often used to describe the concept that children with social skill challenges will look to their neurotypical peers as role models and will improve their social skills by observing their peers social language and behavior.
The idea of children improving their social skills through peer modeling makes several unfair assumptions on behalf of our kids who want to fit in, have friends and be able to participate in social settings with their peers. I speak with many parents who often have learned the hard way that peer modeling doesn't work. Many of the children I work with have tried very hard yet have been socially unsuccessful in camps and recreational activities designed for neurotypical children. This is not due to their lack of effort or their parent's lack of effort. It's due to a lack of understanding in our educational culture of what children need to successfully "learn social". I use the term learn social because I believe that in order for a child to improve their social skills they need to first develop the foundational skills of social learning that have not developed intuitively like their neurotypical peers.
So why does this common misconception about developing social skills through peer modeling exist?
When the inclusion model of education began to gain widespread acceptance it served a great purpose-to help kids with various challenges be amongst their peers in school and other settings where they may have been excluded from in the past. I think it's safe to say that any child with some level of self-awareness wants to feel accepted and included and of course they deserve to be fully included in their school and home communities.
If we look at how current educational models work we know that students who need support in math or language based academics such as reading or writing can get their needs met through a variety of interventions. Some of these interventions include in class support or what's commonly referred to as "pull out" help where they go to another classroom for the academic subjects they need help with yet are included with the general education population for the majority of the day. This model works fairly well for most students in public schools which leads me to my next question.
If a child needs help learning math we would not assume that their math skills will improve by being around peers who have stronger math skills so why do we assume that that children who have social learning challenges will improve their social skills by being around their peers who have more developed social skills? Learning social is a significantly more complex learning process than learning math or other academic subjects and only becomes more complicated as social expectations increase with age.
I believe the answer to my questions is that learning social is typically not considered a subject that warrants intensive instruction like academics, it's assumed that the process will just happen naturally. Granted there are plenty of school districts that are doing great work with students by integrating a social learning component such as Social Thinking into the school day however when it comes time for summer camp (or other recreational environments that require a significant amount of social navigation) this need is often disregarded.
Placing children into recreational environments where they will be faced with unattainable social expectations is no different that placing a child with a math disability into a mainstream math class without support. They are most likely going to get lost as they try to process information that is presented to them in a format that often doesn't work for their learning style.
If the way to help children improve their social skills would be as easy as just having them spend time with their neurotypical peers who they are supposed to be looking at as models then there wouldn't be a need for the work I and many of my colleagues in this field are doing. It's critical to understand that just because a child has strong academic skills and/or a desire to be social does not mean that they can be expected to successfully learn social on their own or solely by prompting them to use appropriate social behaviors.
In order for children to improve their social skills they need to have a well developed ability to understand how they are perceived by their peers and how to quickly adapt to various social situations in order to elicit a positive response from their peers. A foundation of social-cognitive deficits is a weakness in perspective taking ability which makes it challenging for almost all kids with social skill challenges to accurately understand how they are perceived by others, let alone understand how to constantly adapt their words and behaviors to gain acceptance of their peers.
Secondly, the ability to successfully adapt in social situations requires an extremely quick response. Kids who struggle socially have difficulties with reading social cues and understanding the "big picture" of what's happening in social situations. In order to be able to read social situations accurately it's necessary to take in various pieces of information (understanding how to enter social situations appropriately, interpreting body language, tone of voice and facial expressions, etc.) and to process all this information together in an extremely fast period of time. To assume that kids who struggle socially are able to take in this amount of information at once and organize it in a way that makes sense in a matter of seconds is presumptuous as best.
The last piece I think is important to consider is the fact that the majority of kids who struggle with social skills also struggle with issues of attention and focus. When kids are in social settings with peers they often struggle with paying attention to the conversation or activity at hand. Their brain's may also become distracted by external stimulation happening around them. If we look at a soccer game as an example it requires one to pay attention to where the ball is in the game, where the other players are in proximity to oneself and to tune out anything that's happening outside of the game. While some kids have the ability to hyper focus on a task at hand, many do not have the ability to focus or sustain the level of attention required to be successful in situations like team sports or unstructured play settings. Is it any surprise that many kids who struggle socially spend their time at recess alone or avoid playing athletic games with the other kids?
It's time that a shift occurs in our understanding of how kids can actually improve their social skills. It's not going to happen just by sharing space with more socially competent peers but through providing them with education, support and the structure they need to be successful. Learning social needs to be thought of with the same importance as learning math or writing. It requires an approach tailored to their social learning needs and taught by people who understand how to work with the foundation of social-cognitive challenges. Being that much of social learning happens outside of the classroom we need to address our children's needs not just in the classroom but also in social and recreational settings such as summer camp.
As children age and social expectations become more complicated the gap in social competency will inevitably increase between our children and their neurotypical peers without effective social learning interventions. I encourage parents and professionals to think about learning social as a complex learning need that requires a unique approach which focuses on developing social thinking skills, not just surface skills required for social appropriateness. As with any subject it will take time, effort, patience and building blocks to learning yet will pay off in the long run.
About the author: Ryan Wexelblatt, MSS is the founder and Director of Camp Sequoia, an innovative overnight camp in Pottstown, Pennsylvania for children who need help with social skills. Most Sequoia campers are diagnosed with one or more of the following: ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders and Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NLD). Having began his summer camp experience at age 3 Ryan worked in a variety of roles throughout his camp career. Ryan spent a good portion of his time during the winter working as a therapist and School Counselor at both public and private schools for children with L.D. profiles .Ryan is also the parent to a child with Learning Differences. During the school year Ryan is active with the American Camp Association and presents at their largest yearly conference on topics pertaining to children with L.D. profiles and social skill needs. He lives in Narberth, Pennsylvania with his son Austin and their two dogs.Contact Ryan Wexelblatt: Phone: 610.771.0111 Email: email@example.com Web: www.camp-sequoia.com