Fearless Parenting

Speaking of Nuance: SEL Takes Strong Coaching
Ms. Tammy Fisher

Let's face it: We are all a bit socially challenged (but we all want relationship!)

Earlier last year I had a great opportunity (through the support of my school), to attend a riveting workshop by social thinking expert, Michelle Garcia Winner. This one-day training focused on the students (and adults) whom she calls Nuance Challenged Social Communicators (huh? what?). Wait. Don't stop reading yet. I promise to connect this to your own nuanced-world!

What is a nuance in social communication? Nuance is subtlety in tone or action. It is reading facial expressions and responding in kind. It is recognizing a pause in a conversation, a time to approach a person, a time to wait, a time to change the subject. As expert social beings (a.k.a. well-adjusted adults) we often take these social moments for granted, expected behavior/understanding. As someone who depends on communication and recognizes that behavior IS communication, I was intrigued to realize more clearly just how many of my students struggle with nuance.

St. Thomas School has been using Committee for Children's research-based Second Step® curriculum in all its classrooms from grades PreK to 6th. This curriculum uses direct instruction and age-based examples to teach social norms by modeling and role-playing (i.e. managing your strong feelings, apologizing, disagreeing respectfully, awareness of others, empathy, being assertive, etc.). Nailing these social skills are the crux of a child's ability to navigate the complicated world of peers and adults. Kids who struggle with social communication need more than just a story or lesson, however. They struggle to bridge the lesson taught into actual relationships and social expectations. They are unable to nuance one similar situation with a peer into the next one. Each stands alone as new learning. In reality, many of the social behaviors we expect kids to pick up intuitively (just by watching) must be taught directly to those who struggle with nuance. And taught again.

"So what does this have to do with me as a parent?" (You, who trusted in me and kept reading!) Awareness. You see when I was sitting in this large room at the Tacoma Convention Center, I found I was thinking about the adults in the room as well as the students I work with. I became aware of one woman across my table who was attempting to interrupt a conversation but lacked the timing. I was thinking about my own daughter, who can't seem to read the nuance that she is irritating her sister to a point where the sister will lose her temper, and she will lose connection and relationship (the very thing she was seeking.) I was thinking of some 4th Graders I am working with who struggle to grasp that the social norms and nuances change from one setting to the next; some 6th Graders that don't understand that if someone says, "just kidding," both people should be laughing; and some Kindergartners who don't yet recognize that feelings were hurt when they went to play a different game. I was thinking about my 2nd Graders who walk right into an office without waiting or knocking (still love them though!), recalling a 7th Grader who stands too close, and a friend who takes every look as negatively nuanced. I guess I am implying that sometimes we are all a bit on the spectrum of socially challenged, right? Communication is a subtle skill – something that must be practiced, coached, and celebrated (when it earns us positive relationship.)

In November, I will be traveling to Spain to visit my daughter who is studying abroad. I don't speak Spanish (we can save that story for another column) and I imagine my struggles to communicate will mirror a bit of what my Nuanced Challenged Social Communicators look and act like. I will stare too long at someone. Stand too close, misunderstand, say the wrong thing, and most likely alienate myself. But in the long run, I will be forgiven (well, forgotten) as a foreigner.

Perhaps, if armed with this awareness that most kids' (and adults') social blunders are not purposeful, then we may be more able to move to a place of acceptance, too. Not blaming a kid for not knowing, but trying again to teach her. Coaching our own children to be tolerant of those who misunderstand, knowing how hard it must be to falter through our complicated, social world with less success than others. I return, yet again to something I have said often, "If they knew what to do, they would do it." In this foreign land they travel, let's work to be the patient tour guide. In the long run, we all struggle a bit with the same thing: a bit of social paranoia ("Am I doing this right? Will I fit in? Will they like me?"). And we all want the same thing, too: validation ("I am accepted. I am included. I can get another chance."). Some of us just take more time to get there.