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Social Skills Tips: Help With Executive Dysfunction

Executive Dysfunction - Social Skills TipsIf your child has trouble making friends and relating to other kids, executive dysfunction may be to blame. Social skills, just like academic skills, often must be taught explicitly—especially to children who struggle with them. Here are some ideas to help you help your child.

Problem Solving and Discussion You can use typical problem-solving steps to help your child with executive dysfunction become more socially competent. The following is one sequence, but the steps may be ordered differently depending on the circumstances.

  1. Get to the root of the problem. Watch your child in a variety of social situations (classrooms, team practices, club meetings, free play, birthday parties, family events, interactions with adults and peers). One way to do this unobtrusively is to volunteer your help in a classroom, on field trips, or during activities. Just observe, intervening only if your child starts fighting or seems in danger.

  2. As you observe, be sure to notice your child’s social strengths as well as weaknesses. Even if you notice something positive only once, remember to mention it to your child. Listen to your child and make sure you understand his side of things.

  3. Begin a conversation with your child. A good way to start talking is to say, “Let’s see if we can figure out (why that happened, why he said that, why you got so angry).” As you talk to your child, try hard not to respond judgmentally or angrily. Ask questions that show you value your child’s perception of the problem. Acknowledge your child’s painful, angry, or sad feelings.

  4. Decide together on one alternative way your child might handle a similar situation in the future.

  5. Invite your child to practice the alternative behavior with you. If your child is receptive, try role-playing. While this can’t equal the emotional intensity of a real encounter, it does allow your child to practice thoughtful responses to difficult real-life situations.

  6. After your child has a chance to discuss the alternative behavior in a real situation with his peers, discuss what happened. Did the situation end more satisfactorily this time? If not, what else could your child try?

Teach With Signals Once you and you child have discussed what social situations are challenging for her, try designing a simple signal by which you can let her know that a behavior should stop or change. For example, if you’re working on understanding when to stop talking about a subject because the listener is showing disinterest, quietly get your child’s attention and touch your nose with your index finger or cross your arms. When your child stops talking on his own, give him a thumbs up. While you won’t always be there, practicing these signals when you are can help your child learn how to put social skills into practice.

Generalize Skills Broaden the circumstances calling for a particular skill so your child can apply it more generally. For example, “You really did a good job controlling your anger when your brother borrowed your skates without asking. How would you control yourself if someone teased you at school?” This helps children who struggle with cognitive flexibility learn how behaviors can be applied in different situations.

Stay Nonjudgmental…Even When It’s Hard It can be hard to stay neutral when listening to your child complain about “unfair” treatment that you know originated with your child’s difficulty with social skills. But it’s crucial to remain nonjudgmental as you show your concern and offer to help. For example, instead of saying, “Why did you keep interrupting? Didn’t you see how annoyed Bryan was? You have to let other people talk! No wonder he walked away!” say, “I know you feel bad about Bryan’s walking away from you. Why do you think he did that?” Before you make any suggestions, listen to your child until you understand his perception of what happened. Then ask, “Do you think it would have helped if you’d let him finish telling his story? What could you do differently the next time you talk with him?”

Be There For Your Child Perhaps most important, provide consistent, ongoing encouragement and support. Recognize and reinforce even the smallest improvement. The child or teen with social challenges probably has declining self-esteem. Knowing that a person who cares is noticing progress can be very reassuring. Don’t over-praise because even young children sense insincerity. Simply show your child that you appreciate his or her efforts. “Nice job waiting your turn for jumping rope! I’ll bet you can do that more often.”

Get more tips to help your child find social success.



Bonnie Z. Goldsmith earned a doctorate in English from Ohio State University. She has worked in the field of education throughout her professional life, as a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in Minneapolis.

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