Joining the Conversation
Daily conversation unites individuals and groups. We establish social bonding and friendships through every day, seemingly trivial, exchanges. Many children with pragmatic challenges (impairments in social language) may have difficulty joining a conversation. Sometimes children have an underlying pragmatic deficit, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, which affects perspective-taking (understanding others’ thoughts/feelings). requiring specialized treatments. Sometimes children have intact (unimpaired, neurotypical) social perspective-taking, however, they may have social-emotional behavioral disorders and limited experiences navigating positive interactions.
Some children with behavioral disorders habituate to negative, maladaptive interaction patterns, (negative attention seeking). For example, if two peers are talking about a ball game they played at recess, the child might do one of the following:
• Interrupt with a comment: “I played tag at recess!”
• Change the topic abruptly, “I got a new videogame.”
• Make a negative comment about the speaker, “You can’t catch the ball.”
• Making a negative comment about the topic, “Four Square is a stupid game.”
• Make a positive comment about oneself, “I can throw the ball really high!”
• Make a positive statement about oneself with a negative comparison, “I can play ball better than you.”
When a comment is pro-social, the speaker may be invited to join in the conversation, however, pro-social comments carry significant socio-emotional risks, because they show a desire to engage. Pro-social comments could be ignored. The visible manifestation of longing to be part of a group is a sign of vulnerability. These feelings are part of humanity and exist for children and adults. Think about whether or not you would approach an unfamiliar person at a social event. You might think: What if my greeting is ignored? Maybe it's better not to say anything at all.
When a comment is negative, responses may appear more predictable. People tend to react in expected ways (getting angry/defending oneself). A child might respond, “Four Square is not stupid,” or “I can to catch the ball.” Negative conversational initiations tend to elicit a response more frequently, which reduces the risk of being ignored. Making a negative comment may help a child feel in control of a situation. In some cases, watching others’ strong emotional reactions may be stimulating to a child. Negative comments involve a person in a conversation, though not usually as a new friend.
Intervention may include activities to increase resiliency and the ability to manage frustration, along with teaching specific pro-social language. Partnering with counselors, occupational therapists, teachers, families, and others may help foster a child’s emotional self-regulatory growth. Providing role modeling, scaffolding interactions with supportive peers, and facilitating positive “natural” consequences through environmental changes may increase a child’s ability to take risks. As clinicians, we can teach vocabulary for pro-social comments. A positive strategy with a high response rate is asking specific, related questions that show interest:
• “Who won the game?”
• “What happened after that?”
• “Did you play with the red ball?”
• “Did (insert peer name) play, too?”
Changing pre-existing patterns may require multidisciplinary support. As a team, we can help children experience the rewards of collaborative peer partnerships and strong social bonds, and manage the fears related to belonging.