How to Support Social-Emotional Development in School Settings

To understand the importance of rich and developmentally appropriate social and emotional activities for children with ASD, it is helpful to first consider what experts refer to as “theory of mind.” Proposed mainly by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, “theory of mind” is a concept that refers to a specific cognitive ability: that which allows us to understand that others have different feelings, beliefs, and intentions from our own. It extends also to empathy, which is the awareness of other people’s feelings and desires without injecting our own. Most children acquire these skills around the age of four. However, children with ASD may lack the innate ability to see things from another person’s perspective. In other words, they may not have a strong “theory of mind.” These children may struggle to develop interpretation skills and the know-how needed to understand other people’s actions, feelings and intentions. It is for this reason that it is critical for children with ASD to be given opportunities to learn these social cues and acquire knowledge of other people’s emotions through experience. While these empathic traits may not appear on their own, repeated exposure to a wide variety of situations can help children with ASD train themselves to understand other people and the feelings they experience.

School: A double edged sword

Schooling provides children the opportunity to learn invaluable skills beyond academics. Unfortunately, without careful planning and adjustments, this environment may not be suitable for all children. Children with ASD especially can sometimes feel socially alienated due to overstimulation or a lack of shared interests with other children. This makes maintaining friendships and learning important social skills a daunting challenge. To avoid this, parents and school staff can take some steps to integrate them and help them thrive.

Supportive and gentle integration

Children with ASD must be treated like they are an integral part of school life, but the school environment may make them nervous. Instead of isolating them or shielding them from all school-related experiences, help them ease into the new environment before school starts. It is okay to take small steps and begin slow. Show your child the classroom and the location of essential places and things like the lunch room, the water fountains and the bathrooms. Teach your child that they belong in these spaces, just like any other school children. Once your child feels more acclimated to the school environment, they can begin to focus on their peers.

Routine and predictability are important for children with ASD, especially at first. Special attention should be placed on the classroom. It is very effective to divide everything up into areas. If there is an area for resting, an area for working, an area for eating, and so on, children are much more likely to read a situation efficiently. For example, if a sleepy child moves to a resting area, it can be inferred that the child is sleepy. These connections are essential for children with ASD as they learn to understand their peers.

If you work with teachers to provide a comfortable environment within reason, repeated experiences, as well as compassion and guidance, will allow children with ASD to learn from the behavior of their classmates and thrive.

For more information regarding sensory therapy, cognitive skills, behavior therapy, developmental disorders, and early intervention, please contact Stepping Stones Center. We emphasize on acquiring new and appropriate behaviors, while also working on helping the child achieve developmentally age-appropriate milestones through evidence-based practices.

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