Make Social Learning Stick: How Parents Can Help Children

By creating a "social learning diet" at home, parents can help children succeed.

Posted Feb 25, 2015

For our anxious, gifted, twice-exceptional (2e), and special needs children, many daily activities and experiences like getting ready for school, going to the doctor, having a play date and celebrating birthdays are very challenging.  The good news:  these events can become opportunities for teaching and reinforcing expected social and emotional behavior.   Today I’m sharing my eye-opening interview with Elizabeth A. Sautter, MA CCC-SLP about her new book MAKE SOCIAL LEARNING STICK!.  In this well-written and essential parenting guide, she explains how by making a "social learning diet" part of everyday life, kids develop verbal and nonverbal language, listening skills, executive functioning, understanding hidden rules, perspective taking, emotional regulation, and so much more.

Dr. Dan: What is Social learning, why is it important, and why did you write this book? 

Elizabeth:  Social learning supports children’s social and emotional competence and participation across social experiences, situations, academics/school and life.  All children benefit to learn and develop their social and emotional skills!

When it comes to social learning, many children struggle to carry over learned skills from therapy or school to their home environment. Parents and caregivers are in a perfect position to help practice and facilitate those skills and help make them stick! I understand how busy parents are and this was my motivation for writing the book Make Social Learning Stick! How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence Through Everyday Routines and Activities.

For example, if a child is planning to attend a graduation for the first time, parents can explain about caps, gowns, and diplomas (and why students toss the caps into the air) as well as how much sitting still and listening time the child can expect.  If the child hasn’t yet attended a July 4th celebration, parents can prepare the child for a big crowd and loud noises and discuss in advance how to make the event more enjoyable and comfortable for the child, perhaps by bringing earplugs or asking for a break when feeling overwhelmed for example.

By providing simple suggestions for teachable moments parents feel more comfortable being a social facilitator at home and in the community.   This is all Social Learning.

Dr. Dan:  What are some examples of social situations parents should help children navigate?

Elizabeth:  Every social situation and experience can be a rich learning moment.   When parents begin to think like social detectives, opportunities will appear including:


·      Getting Ready for School

·      Chores

·      Phone Calls

·      Watching TV


·      At the Mall

·      At the Playground

·      At the Grocery Store

·      At the Movies


·      Mother’s Day or Father’s Day

·      Halloween

·      Birthdays

·      Vacations

Dr. Dan:  How can being a Flexible Thinker lead to social success?

Elizabeth:  Being a flexible thinker is part of emotional regulation and is essential to social success for so many reasons. Flexibility of thought means being able to monitor and modify oneself to new situations, understand and adapt another person’s perspective, and “go with the flow” as unexpected challenges or obstacles arise. 

Here are a few tips from my book Make Social Learning Stick! to help children learn and practice the art of flexible thinking:

1.    Plan of the Day: Discuss or write out a list of events coming up that day and how you expect your child to act during these events.  Describe events that might be challenging, such as waiting in line at the grocery store or not being able to go to the park if it is raining.  Try to include tools for increasing flexibility and managing these situations and come up with a backup plan in case of a change, like going to the movies instead of the park if it rains.

2.    Can’t Always Get What You Want: Help your child develop flexibility by following someone else’s plan.  For example, family members can take turns deciding on a destination for the family’s Sunday outing.  And, when your child has a friend over to play, they can take turns selecting the game and choosing who will be the leader.

3.    Hidden Rules Change Depending on the Situation: Take your child to different locations like the library, the grocery store, and the park, and observe how people act in each place.  Talk about how rules are different depending on the setting, and ask the child to predict some of the rules for each place.

4.    Toolbox of Calming Strategies: Use an old toolbox or bin to represent a toolbox, and fill it with “tools” or strategies to help your child respond more calmly and flexibly to challenges.  With the child, select the items that should go into the box, such as a favorite stuffed animal, photos of certain favorite people or places, fidgets to squeeze, and visual reminders about deep breathing.  The child can turn to this box when feeling anxious, angry, or inflexible.  Consider keeping this box in a handy location or a place that is known for relaxation and calming (e.g. a calming corner).

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of flexible thinking.  Things are constantly shifting, and life is full of curveballs.  Being able to adapt and compromise at school, at work, and with friends, family, and neighbors is essential for social regulation.  There is a lot that we can do to help children understand their emotions and learn how to use tools to manage both emotions and behavior.  This type of support can be mapped out or planned in advance and provided through teachable moments that come up throughout the day.  When caregivers have the tools to help a child through difficult situations, it builds confidence and can put everyone at ease.   And lead to social success!

Dr. Dan:  How can parents Make Social Learning Stick?

Elizabeth:  Children need consistent exposure to social examples, as well as explanations, modeling and practice throughout the day to build social and emotional competence.   Social Learning happens best when children learn at school, in therapy, at home and other natural settings.

In my work, I always tell parents that there is strong evidence to support infusing social/emotional learning into everyday activities.  A blend of Teachable Moments, Modeling, Social Briefing (or Priming), Prompting, Play, Role-Play/Rehearsal, and other strategies will empower both parents and children.

Leading experts in a variety of therapy and development fields such as Michelle Garcia Winner, Kari Dunn Buron, Sarah Ward, Leah Kuypers, Pamela Wolfberg, and Emily Rubin (all contributors to my book) confirm that when parents/caregivers help their children to build comfort and skills in social settings, from the dinner table to the schoolyard, to the greater community they help the entire family and their community, too.

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Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing how we can all help our children Make Social Learning Stick!.