Reality and Misconceptions About Helping Kids Improve Their Social Skills
by Ryan Wexelblatt, MSS
As the Director of an overnight summer camp designed for children with social learning needs I always welcome the opportunity to speak with fellow Camp Directors. Inevitably the focus of our discussions often turns to how they manage campers with social learning needs (typically those who present with ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism) in their camp environment. I am always curious to hear from my colleagues as to why they think the parents of these campers are not interested in sending their child to a summer camp designed to help their child be successful.
While these parents know there is a risk their child may be unsuccessful in these more typical camp settings, they believe that the best way for their child to improve their social skills and provide their child with a feeling of normalcy is by having their child interact with neurotypical peers. This well-intended approach often backfires for the child, particularly as they get older and social expectations increase and become more abstract.
This has led me to question the widely held belief that children who present with social learning needs can improve their social skills by simply being around neurotypical peers.
The term “peer modeling” describes the concept of social skills development whereby children are expected to emulate the language and behaviors of other kids, and thus learn how to improve their social skills. Many of the children I work with have tried very hard yet have been socially unsuccessful in camps and recreational activities designed for neurotypical children. This is not due to their lack of effort, but to a lack of understanding of what children need to successfully develop their social cognition (the ability to think in a social context and apply social skills relevant to the situation) or as I call it learn social. I use the term learn social because I believe that in order for a child to improve their social skills they need to first develop the foundational skills of social learning that they have not developed intuitively like their neurotypical peers.
So why does this common misconception about developing social skills through peer modeling exist?