Think about when you learned to drive. It was exciting and a bit scary, but you were confident that you could get behind the wheel and go. You'd been watching your parents drive for years, and even played driving video games. You were totally ready? Right?
Your parents told you to drive slowly, use your turn signals, and follow the road signs. And maybe you listened to everything they said - when they were watching. When they aren't watching? You explored the limits of your car and the road.
Now as an adult, you are a better driver than you were at 17. What changed over time? Practice. Experience. Observing those around you and thinking about how you can drive to fit the social norms. Maybe having kids changed your driving because you truly cared about your special cargo. And most likely, somewhere around the way you got some real-life feedback, like getting a ticket, getting into a fender bender, or even a more serious car accident.
Just being told to go slow once - or even many times - did not work for all of us. If it did, our court systems wouldn't be so clogged with traffic court. Yet we often tell our kids something once and expect it to stick.
"Ask a friend if they want to play."
"When you are angry take a deep breath to calm down!"
We give lots of verbal directions all day, but our verbal directions do not always translate into our children remembering to follow through in the moment. These verbal instructions are the equivalent of the Drivers Ed class before getting behind the wheel. I don't know about you, but I don't remember much of that class other than where I sat and how I figured out how to pass notes without the teacher looking.
It was not until I was behind the wheel that I started to get a sense of what all of that talk had meant, and even later when I put together why it was important to not drive fast or fiddle with the radio while driving. There are things we can identify intellectually as important, but it isn't until we experience them that we truly understand them.
Social skills are like this for our children. Some children may hear the Driver Ed teacher's warning about driving slowly and follow through, but many are going to need to experience it for themselves and need real-time coaching. Some children need direct instruction on what social skills are, how to share, how to greet others, and how to calm down when upset. But that direct instruction is just like our classroom Drivers' Ed time. Without the immediate practice afterwards, all that content is not going to stick.
Our kids need more. Just like we did, they need real-time coaching to help them see when to apply these new skills. While driving they need someone to help them recognize when to hit the breaks, when to speed up, and which road signs to pay attention to, and which can be ignored. Sometimes they need to have the car pulled over to the side of the road for a quick re-grouping before getting right back onto the road.
Navigating social skills can be much harder than driving. Our road signs are color coded so we can easily figure out what those signs mean. Our facial expressions are not. No matter how much we talk to kids about emotions, some kids need real-time coaching to help recognize their peers' social cues, and how to navigate around them.
It can be hard to understand this distinction between the direct instruction and practice when it comes to our kids. We want them to learn something once we teach it to them, and we often think they know something because they can orally describe it. But we could orally describe driving a car from just watching our parents drive a car - that didn't mean we could take the keys and drive without crashing it.
My partner and I mulled over this problem for awhile, because although we loved the social skills group we did this past year, we felt like we were really just being the classroom driving instructors. We hadn't gotten kids out on the road yet. Yet we could see how happy and engaged the kids were with our craft projects - and where our classroom lessons could lend themselves to more.
So we came up with our Tinker Social Skills group. Each group will start with a quick social skills focus, before getting into the time for actual practice. The kids will be given the assignment of creating a model playground out of re-purposed materials like paper towel tubes, straws, strings, and boxes. This project is going to require them to form an idea in their head of what they'd like to create, and then come up with a plan to do it. This first step will work on their executive functioning skills, and we will be there to coach them through this. As they work they will be sure to face challenges when their plan does not turn out as expected. This too, will create great opportunities for us to coach them on how to recover from disappointment and develop a new plan. Because we will be working in a group, we will also have lots of opportunities to work on sharing materials and space. As the children show us they are ready for greater collaboration, we will assign open-ended partner projects to continue to challenge them.
And because none of us learned how to drive just from the behind-the-wheel period in Drivers' Ed, the end of each class will bring the parents back in so that the parents can learn what we did, the language we used, and ways to continue coaching their child through these social skills at home.