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It’s something most of us don’t give a second thought. You arrive in a room to find friends or colleagues deep in animated conversation. You work out what they’re talking about and then join in. Soon, you’ve been absorbed into the group.

But what if that transition from bystander to participant isn’t seamless and you either remain on the sidelines, a silent onlooker unable to work out what’s going on, or blurt out whatever’s on your mind, unrelated to what everyone else is talking about, resulting in an awkward silence?

All too often, that’s the case for someone with learning needs. Lacking the social skills that the rest of us are fortunate in taking for granted can make routine contact with other people incredibly difficult.

Conversations aren’t inert blocks of dialogue but like tennis matches. They have a momentum with a give and take based on cues picked up and responded to. If you know how they work, they’re a doddle. If you don’t, they can feel as incomprehensible as a game with complex rules that nobody has told you.

Autism and processing difficulties

A difficulty with social skills is associated primarily with autism. However, children with other learning needs, too, can struggle to fit in. A child with processing difficulties, for example, may struggle to tell or react to jokes. It sounds such a small thing, yet the result can be teasing from their peers, or worse, just because they appear to be different.

As a result, when a child is experiencing difficulties at school, it is often not academic work, but their failure to cope socially, that creates the biggest problem and is the source of most unhappiness.

Informally, you could label it the birthday party factor. Popular children who fit in are invited. Unpopular ones are not.

Playground perils

When we think of school, we tend to think of it in terms of the structured side – lessons, assemblies, lunchtimes. While they can be difficult for children with learning needs – games where taking turns and accepting that you won’t always win are particularly tricky - the fact that they are led by a teacher and follow a recognisable structure makes them far easier to negotiate.

The difficulties for these pupils often come to light during the fuzzy bits in between. Lining up, moving round between lessons or playing games of ‘let’s pretend’ can all present problems.

Unstructured time is a misnomer. When the teachers aren’t in charge, pupils will immediately fill the authority vacuum themselves.

In each apparently random playground grouping, a strict hierarchy is at work. Friendships can be tightly formed and more exclusive than any private members’ club. You break in your peril.

Most children realise this and adapt. They may not enjoy being left out of a game but most, in the end, will seek out or set up an alternative group.

But while some children with SEN will have the ability to perceive the different social stresses at work, others will not.

They’re easy to spot in a school playground. They’ll be hanging on to the lunchtime supervisor’s arm, spinning round and round in a corner on their own, or perhaps attempting to impose their own games on others.

They may act inappropriately, pulling, pushing, prodding or snatching to get others to react or join in.

For others even the sound - the sheer volume of noise produced by hundreds of happy children letting off steam – can be overwhelming.

How can mainstream schools help?

If a child can manage in a school academically, or so the thinking goes, breaks and lunchtimes can be managed with the same ease. But many schools can’t comprehend or deal with a child’s inability to cope socially.

It’s one of the reasons that children with SEN can be so ill-suited to life in a mainstream school.

Some schools have taken this on board. One top-rated mainstream Catholic secondary school in south-west London, known for the excellence of its provision for autistic children, offers a ‘haven’ for these pupils. Operating at lunchtime and in mid-morning breaks, and housed in the learning support centre, it offers children a place they can go if the hustle and bustle is all too much.

In special schools social skills (sometimes called intuitive skills) is embedded in the curriculum, where playtime, like lessons, is supported so that children learn the basic language of give and take whether they are estimating weights in a maths lesson or choosing teams for a kickabout.

Mainstream schools, however, rarely have the staff or the expertise to provide this level of support. As a parent you might need to work with the SENCo to talk through areas a child finds difficult, and how to overcome them.

Ways to teach social skills

You can help a child to understand, for example, that if they want a toy, it isn’t acceptable just to take it.  Instead, they need to understand what to say and do, waiting for an appropriate moment before starting a conversation and making eye contact; learning not just to ask, but the appropriate language with which to frame the request – and practising the self-discipline required if the other child says no.

The Autism Society has useful guide:

You can also find worksheets and charts online. They often focus on the basics, helping younger children or those with more severe needs to interpret what other people might be thinking or feeling by showing faces expressing different emotions. One useful guide (written by an academic so requires a little decoding) brings together a number of useful social skills resources:

Groups where children can meet to practice their social communication skills – learning to talk and get on together with guidance from a trained mentor – are helpful, but thin on the ground.

Macintyre runs a regular youth group at its Wingrave School in Buckinghamshire for children with ASD, while the London Children’s Practice runs a weekly social skills group which caters for children with a range of learning needs. 

Above all, while social skills may not come easily to children with SEN, they can be taught. Your child may always find the fine detail of social interaction tricky but confidence, charm and good manners, even when acquired through practice and repetition rather than osmosis, will take them a very long way.

By Charlotte Phillips, special needs team, The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants

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