To begin thinking about social skills, let us visit one of the most significant social settings that students encounter nearly every day. For some, school lunchtime is a welcome break from classwork, a time to socialize, gossip and goof around. For others, it is a dreaded time of day, full of anxieties about where to sit or about being teased. Parents, kids, and teachers know that the lunchroom is a huge component of a student’s social world. The cafeteria is where kids can talk together and laugh together, where social roles and hierarchies are established, where kids become well aware of their status. It is a place where social skills are key. The social cues a student must observe or understand are endless. When a student enters her school cafeteria, she must know how to wait in line for her lunch, how to pay and thank the person at the counter. She pays attention to the body language of the people around her in order to pick a place to sit. She uses her own body language and conversation skills to talk with the people at her lunch table. Maybe she shares a cookie with her friend, or tries to trade her turkey sandwich with the kid next to her, whose food looks more appealing. Nearly everything she does during her lunch period relies on her specific understanding of social skills and the rules of particular social interactions.
While many of the activities described above may seem natural, the common social activities of students in a lunchroom or elsewhere are generally understood through visual observation and a perception of visual cues. When a student has a vision impairment, these social expectations may not be automatically absorbed because they are not perceived visually. Social interaction skills are a component of the Expanded Core Curriculum because students who are blind or visually impaired often require specific, intentional instruction to understand the intricacies of how to interact in the social world. Without particular social skills instruction, school lunch could be a particularly challenging and isolating time of day, even without the added orientation and mobility challenges that a cafeteria presents. Having strong social skills is crucial for students with vision impairments to avoid social isolation and to live a life that is rich and replete with connection to family, friends, and the community.
What are social interaction skills?
Social interaction skills refer to any skills needed to make social connections and build relationships. Social interaction skills enable an individual to interact with others, develop friendships, cultivate self-esteem, and become an accepted member of a society. Social interaction skills are a very broad category, but include many of the following:
Conversation skills: This includes skills of expressive and receptive language, understanding turn taking in a conversation, understanding how and when to use small talk, using follow-up questions, conversation topics, and ways to begin and end a conversation appropriately.
Nonverbal communication: This includes teaching a student with a visual impairment about the use of facial expressions and body language. This can also involve learning to perceive meaning in social situations without visual perception of nonverbal cues.
Cooperation skills: These skills can include the ability to share, take turns, handle disagreements, and be assertive.
Rules of social interaction: Social rules vary by culture, subculture, environment, and social group. These rules can include things like how to greet one another, rules of physical contact, and expectations of social roles. This can also involve the rules of specific social rituals (how to shake hands, how to behave on a first date, how to do the wave while in the stands at a favorite sporting event).
Social environments and boundaries: This refers to an understanding of how behavior should differ from one environment to another (i.e. the way we eat dinner at home may be different from the way we eat at a restaurant). This also refers to the social boundaries and rules of interacting with various types of people. For example, we may hug our friends but should not hug a stranger. We may complain to our family members about our job, but it is not appropriate to complain to our supervisor.
Social Interaction Skills and Transition
Social interaction skills are essential for a successful transition in all aspects of a student’s life, including work, education, home, and community life. These skills are equally important for students of all abilities and needs. A student with complex needs who is entering an adult day program will use social interaction skills in order to communicate needs and desires with family members and program staff. A student transitioning to work after high school will find that strong social skills are necessary to find and retain employment. Someone who is planning to go to college will need to understand how to get along with his roommate. Arguably most important of all, students with any and all transition goals need social skills to build healthy relationships. For students who are blind or visually impaired, finding and making friends can be challenging for a number of reasons. However, building strong social skills can be one of the key components of connecting with others, cultivating friendships, or finding a partner. The human need for social connection is universal, no matter how complex the students’ needs or what they plan to do in their adult life. Strong social interaction skills can open many doors, and for your student who is vision impaired or blind, they can lead to an adult life that is rich with joy and emotional well-being.