Easy Tips to Teaching Social Thinking Vocabulary

Easy Tips to Teaching Social Thinking VocabularyIn that moment when I was trying to assess my student (who, mind you, was investigating the scrolled ring binders on the assessment book and looking everywhere around the room but at the sequence of pictures he was supposed to be tapping), loudly proclaimed “my brain is getting distracted”.

And in that moment, I didn’t care about standard scores or testing reliability. I mean, yes, he was stating the obvious, but I was so proud to hear him talking about his brain and understanding that it was doing something that was challenging for him.

“Yeah, I can see that your brain is getting a little bit distracted – can you think about our plan and try follow that?”

And just with that little nudge and mention of ‘a plan’, this student looked at his whiteboard that showed the subtests we were doing and we went straight back to testing.

Just like that.

Now, the old me (the one who didn’t have a bag of vocabulary up my sleeves) would’ve likely said something like:

“You’re not listening. Stop playing with the ring binder and point to the pictures please”.

Can you see the difference in what I said? The old me used words like ‘not’ and ‘stop’. The tone was a little tough and directive. The new me acknowledged and used ‘can’ and ‘try’. It sounds a lot more supportive and problem solvingy rather than negative.

Kids know that negative tone. It’s the “I’m in trouble again” tone.

I didn’t learn this vocabulary overnight and if I’m going to be honest, I didn’t begin the right way either. I started with everyone’s favorite terms ‘expected and unexpected’ and thought that those were the only words I needed to know (read this blog post about those pitfalls).

So here are my tips. Tried and tested. Failed and overcome. This is how I’ve changed my practice and become more confident as a result. This is how I get those warm fuzzy feelings that I’m on the right track, that I’m making a difference and that I’m doing it the right way.

Tip #1 You’ve Gotta Read

Have you ever looked at those long words in the newspaper, learned the meaning and tried to slip it into a sentence to sound smarter? It didn’t work, did it? Because you need context to truly understand what the word means and how and when to use it. The We Thinkers series introduce 10 core vocabulary concepts that have changed how I do therapy. And what I love most is that this series explains why.  They link the vocabulary to frameworks and research such as joint attention and eye gaze so that you understand the rationale behind the term. While the vocabulary is designed to be taught in a specific order, they build upon each other. They can be used flexibly and ‘in the moment’ as well. Bottom line is if you skip those first few chapters, you’re missing the big picture, missing understanding why you’re teaching that vocab in the first place.

Tip #2 Learn the concepts one at a time

This was one of my tried and tested methods because I wanted to use it all right away: weave size of the problem with flexible thinking and keeping your body in the group all at once because my students needed to know all of these terms. But my brain couldn’t do it. And I felt like I wasn’t really getting anywhere. I wasn’t teaching deeply to say that I was truly teaching. So I focused on one concept at time. I referenced the chapters one by one. I stuck example phrases such as “when I think with my eyes about you, you can choose what colored paper you want” around my room so that I could try out and use the vocabulary (I found these examples in the We Thinkers curriculum books: at the end of each chapter). And then it became natural and I didn’t need sticky notes. Social Thinking have also brought out some bright Visual Supports for 10 Key Social Thinking Vocabulary Concepts® that can be placed in a clinic or classroom can can help you consolidate your teachings. My thoughts: it’s not a race to use all the language at once, so just go slow.

Thinking With Your Eyes
‘Thinking with your Eyes’ is one of the We Thinkers books that I take my time to teach slowly and deeply.

Tip #3 Teach to different people

You’ve probably heard that when you are able to teach something to someone that it consolidates your own learning. By teaching the vocabulary to five year olds, teenagers, parents and teachers, I actually felt empowered that I could do this. That this was achievable. I can take Social Thinking vocabulary such as the “Group Plan” and explain it completely differently depending on whom I am talking to. And I tell you what, when you first hear a parent or a teacher use that term all by themselves in the right way, that feeling that you get is unbeatable.

But then your student’s grow up, or all of a sudden an 11 year old appears on your caseload and you go into panic, right? I remember being in these pickles and it was obvious that this student would really benefit so much from understanding about ‘thoughts’, but the Thoughts and Feelings chapter in the We Thinkers book were definitely not age appropriate and they would think that Superflex was too babyish.

Well I learned something recently that let me step back and see the big picture. This vocabulary is important regardless of the age. All YOU have to do is adapt and adjust. You don’t necessarily have to learn something completely new because the student is older, oh no, you just change how you teach it.  This was my revelation when I read through the Social Thinking and Me: book, which targets the 9-13 year old age group. It STILL teaches concepts such as ‘we all have feelings’ and ‘thinking with your eyes’, but in a way that reflects their age and social-emotional development – it’s like that ‘same same but different’ idea. So get your vocabulary foundations right from the get go and it will follow through, as your student’s get older.

Tip #4 Watch

I just love anecdotes. They stick in my mind, they help me relate to my clinical practice and many a times they facilitate a therapy ‘aha’ moment. While I’d love to follow the Social Thinking team around the world as they present, it’s just not going to happen as often as I’d like. I love hearing those real-life stories and by having someone talk TO me, just fits my learning style. So don’t mind me while I sit in my pajamas and do some eLearning modules from the Social Thinking website and get my fix, because I’ve done two conferences now coming off a 14 hour flight and it’s not the most fun let me say. I contacted Social Thinking to get their opinion on the best place to start if you wanted to dip into the vocabulary side of things (because I have other eLearning videos on my wishlist) and they suggested these modules:

 To understand the core teaching of Social Thinking – prior to using the vocabulary you can start with

The ILAUGH Model: Exploring Social Thinking & the Social-Academic ConnectionWhy Teaching Social Competencies Goes Beyond Social Skills Training

An Introduction to Social Thinking Vocabulary & Treatment Frameworks

Category: Teaching Our Vocabulary, Frameworks & Motivational Strategies

I love a good tip sharing session! If you’re learning how to apply Social Thinking in your workplace and found that something just ‘clicks’ for you and your learning (like sticky noting the walls), then please share.


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Hi, I'm Rebecca.
I encourage SLPs to feel more confident treating speech sound disorders, and make faster progress with their students.


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