Social Skills in the Age of Peer Pressure

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The Problems with Expected vs Unexpected Behaviors

Recently, I’ve been  teaching my social skills groups about expected vs. unexpected behaviors.  We sometimes run into the problem of “expected” vs “right” behavior.  Students will sometimes say certain behaviors, like not listening in class or saying mean things to a peer are expected behaviors because they are common or even the norm in their classrooms.  We’ve been talking about how “expected behavior” doesn’t always mean “what everyone else is doing” but what makes another person feel happy, comfortable, and safe.  In this way, behaviors like “listening to your teacher”, “assisting a peer”, and “cleaning up your materials” meet the definition of an “expected behavior” even when the majority of the students in the classroom are not engaging in similar choices.

Yet I can still see how there’s a lot of confusion and potential for danger in teaching concepts like “expected behavior” and particularly “social chameleon”; without exceptions or caveats, these concepts can put our students in danger of following unhealthy, danger, or bullying patterns of behavior in the schools.  Is it “expected” behavior to belittle another student in the class? It might be commonplace among certain peers, and while it is not “expected” for the targeted victim, our student may see it as being expected and evoking positive or “happy” reactions from their other peers.  Social chameleon as discussed sites like everydayspeech runs into a similar or even more significant problem: blending in isn’t always what is best for our students in various situations such as hallway fights or unsupervised parties.  In the worst case scenario, teaching our students to engage in behavior that pleases others can put pressure on them to engage in experiences they do not want and/or are not yet ready for like sexual intimacy.  Given the higher rates of sexual abuse that experienced by children with disabilities, we need to be extremely careful that our social skills framework is not setting up our students for disregard their own safety and well-being in favor of pleasing others.

Teaching Social Skills in a Healthy Way

So how do we teach social skills like blending with one’s surrounding and following expected behaviors without it conflicting with our lessons on privacy, autonomy, and self-respect? I think the answer is to bring questions about values and safety to every discussion about social decision making.  We shouldn’t be separating “social skills” from “values lessons”; part of being a social being is knowing when to blend in or follow peer models and when to stand apart from the crowd.  It is important for our students to not just see bodily autonomy, violence, or high-risk behaviors as “exceptions” to the rules of social interaction; instead, values are an intrinsic part of social problem-solving and hold the ultimate say in what we decide to do in any given situation.

Social Decision-Making Framework

I’ve decided to create a framework that embeds questions about values and safety into the decision-mapping process.  The first activity is one in which we have a list of values and their definitions; we would discuss what each of these terms mean and which ones are part of the student’s values (what qualities they think are good to have and make someone a “good person”).  We might ask the student to list their top five or top ten values from the list to get a better sense of the person they wish to be.

Then, we go through a social scenario or problem, which can be anything from what to do at the end of class to what to say about a friend’s outfit.  We lay out possible responses to the problem of scenario.  We go over whether the response aligns with the student’s values or not?  We should ask  a few key questions to clarify this:

  1. does it hurt you? (we need a “no” here)
  2. Does it hurt someone else? (we need a “no” here)
  3. Is it dangerous? (we need a “no” here)
  4. Does it align with any values I have? (If the answer is yes, list the value and discuss why)

Next, we would go over how it would make other people feel in the next column (happy, sad, angry, just neutral and why?).  Afterward that, our next column says what other people might actually *do* in response to our student’s choice.  It’s important for us to be very realistic here in this part of the discussion.  For example, a lot of times people will not do much of anything in response to an unexpected or unusual behavior, even if they find it off-putting.  Other times, the reaction might be something that is “not allowed”.  For example, a peer who is being teased or touched by another student might hit or punch, even if this course of action would get them in trouble.  We should make sure our students are fully informed of these possible consequences when making a decision.

Our last step is for the student to make a decision about what they would do and why they would do it.  Our students should use all the information available to them: choices, values alignment, people’s feelings, and people’s likely actions to make the best decision available to them.  It’s important for the student to discuss and explain their reasoning aloud in this final step.

So to sum up, here are the steps of the framework:

  1. Identify the problem/scenario
  2. Identify choices/possible courses of action
  3. Ask if the choices align with my values
  4. Identify how others will feel about the choice/action
  5. Identify what others will do in response to the choice/action
  6. Make a decision based on all of the above

Here is the values and social decision-making worksheet.  The social decision-making framework comes with two examples of social scenarios and the resulting decisions.  The examples are written with quick notes rather than full sentences and explanations; I think this is the most efficient way to go through this framework with a student.  Let the main focus of this activity be the verbal discussion of the problem/solution rather than the writing down of discussion points.  Hope this is helpful to your students working on social skills, social problem-solving, and decision-making!

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