Unit Two: Using Language to Develop and Sustain Relationships



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Unit Two: Using Language to Develop and Sustain Relationships
*Taken from Michelle Garcia Winner – Thinking about Me, Thinking About You
Conversation is the foundation of social relationships. For many, the ability to converse is nearly as easy as breathing, a process that occurs spontaneously and intuitively. For individuals with social cognitive deficits, however, this is an incredibly complicated array of skills woven together with subtle precision. A conversation requires skills similar to those of a musician in an orchestra: The conversationalist must of reading, interpreting and responding to another person, just as a musician reads, interprets and responds to the music, his fellow musicians and the conductor. It takes years for the musicians to learn how to play their instruments, and then learn how to play in sync with a group. For individuals who show social thinking deficits, a conversation skill is not rapidly acquired. Rather, the person with social thinking deficits must first be taught the conceptual conversational tools that form the underpinning of conversation.
To teach merely the rote conversational skills is to undermine the client (student’s) capacity to generalize those skills outside the therapy room. When a child is taught the relevant strategies associated with conversation, however, the child is better able to develop the verbal and nonverbal skills needed for social relationships. Conversations that explore the interests of all participants are products of social knowledge.
The following is what we’re teaching our students in their social learning lessons:


  • Comments and questions create the social rhythm of language. Generating language to sustain a conversation (or even produce effective basic interpersonal communication such as asking for help) is based on an understanding of the types of comments and questions to help them learn the function of their communication.

Structure of communication:



  • Small Talk: Many conversations begin with a process of making quick inquires of a range of topics as conversationalists explore areas they can potentially talk further about. Individuals with social language deficits often have a strong disdain for this conversational phenomenon.

  • Asking questions: allows us to gain access to new information or probe deeper into the topic being discussed. Questions allow the listener to control the content of the information! Questions are fundamental about learning about others and our world

  • Classic Social Greeting Questions: Although many students with social thinking/learning deficits are familiar with “wh” questions, many lack the ability to use these questions to connect socially with another person.

    • Therapy: Place the “w” words on index cards to act as visual cues to the student. Practice choosing a topic and then exploring the interrogatives the student can think of to gain further information about the topic. This is a pre-cursor to using this skill during conversation.

    • Introduce concept that we use these questions to figure out what others’ think. (This is an extension of the “thinking with your eyes” lessons at the introduction of the therapy.)

    • Teach students that while seeking information about another person, you must simultaneously monitor how that person is reacting/responding (thinking about you) to what student has said.

    • Primary forms of questions used in day-to-day conversation.

      • Step One: Classic social greeting questions (small talk). Social greetings (small talk) is a language-based form of acknowledging “I am thinking about you and you should be thinking about me.” (Hidden curriculum)

        • If someone initiates conversation with “small talk” and you don’t respond, the person will think that you have little interest in him.

        • Hidden curriculum: While it is important to respond, it is not important to give an actual, truthful response!

        • When an acquaintance (teacher, principal an adult in the school) asks “How are you?” it is expected that you say, “fine,” or “ok” even if you feel worse than that

        • If a friend asks “How are you” you can tell how horribly you really feel (in less than three sentences!)

      • Step Two: Questions to initiate conversation: seeking information about the other person

        • Meeting others for the first time:

          • After the social greeting (small talk) initial questions to seek information about the other person.

          • What do you like to do?

          • Probe student for more questions seeking information

      • Step Three: Questons to probe for deeper information and sustain a topic – the follow up question.

        • Students with social thinking/learning deficits have difficulty questioning a person about a topic not of their own interests. Usually, one question will suffice. They need to be taught to follow up to learn more about the topic or person.

        • Our students also have limited ability to engage in social wondering. Rather they accept information at face value and don’t realize how little they know about another’s experience. Asking about another’s experiences implies that you’re interested in them.

        • When we question others we “share an imagination” by imagining another person’s experience, thoughts and emotions and asking questions about what we still don’t know

        • Mini Lesson: We don’t really know what other people think, but by asking questions we show an interest in another person’s ideas and thoughts.

        • These questions should encourage others to talk about topics they are interested in, not learn about topics you are interested in! (In other words, asking someone, “do you know how many Mario video games I have

        • Sample questions:

          • What movie did you go to see last night?

          • What did you do when you went to Lake Tahoe?

          • Others?

        • Conversation towers: Give each member of the group three blocks to build a “question” tower. Tell members of the group that you’re going to learn about each other by asking questions of another person in the group. When each student asks a question, he/she places his/her block on the tower.

      • Step Four: Baiting or Bridging Questions

        • These questions “bait” others to talking about what the speaker wants to talk about. The questions follow the intents and thoughts of the speaker, rather than the intents and thoughts of others in the group.

        • Baiting questions are not “illegal” conversation maneuvers, but students must balance them with socially relevant initiating and follow up questions. These are the last types of questions taught. (After learning that social communications carry the hidden intent of thinking about the thoughts of others in the group, students are usually thrilled to know that language can also be used to talk about what interests them!)


Comments: Creating the Conversational Glue!


  • Making related comments to sustain a topic requires the speaker and listener to maintain a shared point of reference and appreciate each others’ perspective.

  • Start by teaching how and why we use questions as an initial tool in interacting with others. After the lessons on questions, however, it is important to contrast questions with comments. Teaching about the different forms of comments becomes intertwined with lessons on asking questions.

  • Types of comments:

    • Supportive comments: communicative signals made by the listener to show the speaker she is following or appreciating what he is saying. They can be non-verbal as well as verbal.

      • Listener’s comments must demonstrate support for the content or topic

      • If the speaker is talking about something pleasant, the listener’s supportive comments can show happiness.

      • If the speaker is saying something sad, or upsetting, the response should demonstrate support for that content.

      • Supportive “comments”

        • Nodding the head in agreement

        • Smiling at funny parts of message

        • Frown during the sad parts of the message

        • Verbalizing little comments to connect with the speaker’s message (“wow”, “cool”, “oh, no,” “uh,huh.”

        • Help students appreciate the power of small signals to the speaker that demonstrate the listener is engaged in the topic.

    • Add-on Comments: These are comments that maintain the current topic; they add information to what is already under discussion.

      • Example: A speaker is talking about watching Toy Story 3. An add-on comment might be “I saw that movie too.”

      • These comments share the listener’s knowledge of the topic, but do not shift the topic to the listener’s own thoughts.

      • Helps others learn about your knowledge of the topic while still respecting the other’s experience or ideas.

    • Add-A-Thought

      • These serve the purpose of moving a conversation beyond a particular topic or idea that a person wants to discuss, which is still related to the topic previously discussed

      • Add-a-thoughts allow participants to demonstrate they are partaking in the speaker’s topic, yet enable them to spin the topic in a direction they choose.

      • Sample add a thought comments

        • “I rented Toy Story 3 last night.”

        • “I like that movie.” (Follow up comment)

        • “I do too. That Buzz Lightyear is fun”

        • (Add a thought) I like Toy Story 3, but I think Toy Story 2 was better. (transitioning the topic to Toy Story 2)

      • Whopping Topic Changes!

        • When a student adds a thought that is not logically connected to the current topic under discussion, we refer to it as a “Whopping Topic Change.”

        • Our students might understand the link in their own mind, but if no one else can understand the connections in their own minds, it is unexpected.

        • Avoiding whopping topic changes requires the student to “think about you”

        • Whopping topic changes usually occur when a student’s mental thinking path has moved three or four thoughts away from the original topic

  • Comments Game

    • Prepare five index cards for each student by writing “Add-A-Thought” at the top of each one.

    • One student introduces a topic. The next student adds a thought related to the first comment and places one of his cards in the middle of the table. Each student adds a thought, placing his or her card in the center of the table each time he/she adds a thought.

    • Placing each on top of the other demonstrates that all comments connect to each other.

    • Comments:

      • Last night I went to see the movie Toy Story.

      • Threads: Last night, went to the movies, saw Toy Story

      • Possible Add a Thoughts:

        • Last night I stayed home and did homework

        • I went to the movies last week and saw Mario

        • I saw Toy Story last year

      • Each comment adds to the conversation but turns it slightly

      • We develop conversational threads that link our thinking around related topics



The Conversation Tree

  • The conversation tree is a concrete strategy developed to help students visualize the conversation concepts discussed above. The goal of the conversation tree exercise is to physically grow the conversation tree form across the therapy table. This helps students visualize concepts such as turn-taking and maintaining threads of conversation to link topics while applying the different language forms described above. Components used in building the tree also help students monitor less desirable behaviors such as interrupting, abruptly changing topics, or failing to participate with appropriate nonverbal skills during the communicative exchange.

  • The use of the tree is very straightforward, but the deeper social understanding behind it is important for caregivers to grasp as they work with their students.

  • Tree Structure

    • Base – represents perspective of all participants

    • Top – represents growth of a relationship

    • Tree Trunk – gradually grows with student participation

  • Game

    • Each student is assigned a colored set of trunk pieces. Every time a student participates in an interaction using the language structure to be practiced, the trunk extends in length

    • Example:

      • Student asks a supportive question, and places his/her piece on the trunk

      • The other student must answer the question, but cannot add his/her piece to the trunk until he/she asks a supportive question back to the initiating student or another in the group

      • If a student responds to a question with a long-winded answer, but does not turn the information around to ask a question to someone else, the child is providing comments but the tree is not growing!

    • If one student dominates the conversation his/her colors will prevail. Stopping and looking at the tree is a concrete way for a student to see dominance

      • Work with student to demonstrate non-verbal interest in what others are saying without saying anything him/herself.

      • Head nodding, “uh huh”, head shaking (This is a difficult lesson for our kids to learn)

      • Monitor over-active, minimal behaviors

  • Tree Branches

    • A branch (reflecting the student’s color) is placed next to the tree trunk when a student’s unexpected behaviors have temporarily halted the tree’s upward growth, causing the tree to branch outward. The branch signals a student’s verbal or non-verbal communicative blunder that distracts from the healthy growth of the conversation

      • Unexpected behaviors include: staring off into space, physically leaving the group, whopping off topic remarks

      • Branches are removed from the tree when the participant say why he/she received it and student views or corrects himself to use correct social interactive behaviors.

      • This helps students self-monitor their unexpected communicative behaviors

    • Using the branches with students who demonstrate uncooperative group behavior

      • Student blames others for his difficulties

      • Tries to manipulate any activity so he/she gets all the attention

      • Leave branches on tree to show student how his/her behavior affects others over time

      • If student receives three branches (in a group) then the student is not able to participate in the group-thinking activity for two minutes

      • During his break, he is asked to think about what it means to be part of the group

      • This is applied only to students who choose not to cooperate, not to those who are making momentary lapses

    • Conversation tree: expect students to learn piece by piece to build toward a more successful conversation

    • (Some students with significant social cognitive deficits will question the concept of branching on the logical premise that trees do have branches, so branches shouldn’t be construed as a “bad” thing. Response: this is a tree cared for by a gardener who trims the ugly branches that grow straight out of the trunk to allow for more growth on the top of the tree.

    • Students who participate minimally: give more conversation trunk blocks (encourages participation/encourages verbose students to give others a chance to talk and teach them to be better listeners

    • For students who are highly verbal and have trouble controlling their blurting teach being a thoughtful active member of the group: predetermined set of time when student must show non-verbal support through body language.

  • Points to make about conversations:

    • Topic cards are kept near the tree and students can choose from them. These help students engage in topics that are not always of their choosing or liking. To become a proficient conversationalist, students must practice speaking about topics that are randomly introduced and possibly not of interest. In conversations, topics are often boring. However, by adding Add-A-Thought comments, we can learn to shift the discussion to a topic more of our choosing.

    • The developing relationship is more important than the actual language being exchanged.


Beyond the Conversation Tree: Improvisational Games


  • What’s My Thinking? (Groups)

    • Requires students to refine question/comment skills

    • Using the topic cards, one player needs to ask questions and try to get the other player to talk about the comment without directly revealing the topic

      • For example. Student chooses “Thanksgiving.” He could ask, “What do you like to eat on Thanksgiving?”

      • The teacher then gives another card to the second student who is answering the first student’s question. The second card might be “what do you hate to do most?” The second student then has to answer the first student’s question, then skillfully offer bridging questions about the newly introduced topic. The second student has to learn how to bridge to the second topic subtly

        • Provide comments relevant to the old topic, but bridge to the new to get the student to talk about the new, unknown topic

        • For instance, the second student could say: “I love the filling my grandmother makes, it’s the best. And I love to visit grandma, but I hate it when she makes me play the piano in front of my whole family. What thing do you hate the most?

        • Kids have fun working on transitioning from one topic to the next when given two unrelated topic starters.

    • Keep it Connected (Groups)

      • All students have cards with their names in the center of the table. The first student takes a conversation card and begins to talk about the topic. When the teacher picks the name of a second student, she points to him/her and that person has to continue talking about the topic.

      • The game continues until all students have been able to talk about the same topic and “keep it connected.”

    • Paper Clips and Thumbtacks: Teaching toward Generalization

      • Arrange therapy sessions outside the therapy room to promote independence and encourage social self-evaluation

      • Have students work on their social pragmatic concepts in different environments with same-aged peers

      • Identify those skills that the student is demonstrating in the environment

      • Students receive a paper clip each time they successfully show a skill

      • They can then make paper clip chains to represent the connection we make through our communication

      • If a student makes a blunder in conversation, the teacher holds up a picture of a thumbtack and explains what went wrong!



  • The special case of “why” questions: Many children with social learning deficits understand the use of questions to gain information about their own particular interests with the exception of why questions. Why questions require a “big picture” understanding of the topic in order to provide a complete response.


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