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Understanding the rhythm of social interactions is something that comes naturally to many of us, but not to all.  Kids who don’t intuitively know when to “pass” a conversation along to another person run the risk of being socially isolated.  Once a child gets a reputation for going on and on and on, it can be hard for some friends to want to be with them.

Why Social Timing is Difficult to Teach
Over the past 15 years, I have been co-leading social skills programs. While I address a range of social challenges in our groups, social timing is one of the trickiest.  Here are some of the reasons:

  1. A conversation typically begins with an introductory comment and then flows back and forth.  Many of the kids that we see simply start in on a long monologue and don’t stop until they have shared every single detail.  For some, these monologues pertain to their strong singular interest, for others it is a matter of decreased impulse control.   Either way, they simply want to share too much.
  2. The amount of information shared in a conversation is dependent upon the relationship.  We share more information with those who have common interests or who know us best (like family and close friends).  Knowing how much to share with whom requires taking the perspective of the other person and this can be difficult for many of our kids.
  3. When social timing norms call for keeping things short and to the point, knowing the most salient information to be shared is critical.  While salience can be very personal, knowing what is salient to the rest of the world is a key social skill.
  4. Social timing is also moderated through the reading of nonverbal cues.  By tuning into these cues from others, we know when to cut our story short (because someone is looking at their watch), when to stop and provide clarification (because they are looking confused), or when to skip to the exciting part (because they are looking bored).  Many of our kids miss or don’t understand these critical cues.

So what can we adults do to help these kids?  For many of the kids we see, talking to them about the rules isn’t enough.  They need concrete strategies and rules and they need to practice these a LOT.  Over the coming months, I will share some of the strategies that we have found helpful.  Watch for my posts here on the 23rd of every month for the next 3 months.

“Hey, Guess What?”
The first strategy I will share is one of my favorites and seems to have an almost magical effect on this particular social challenge.  It is teaching the use of the simple catch phrase, “Hey, Guess What?” The amazing thing about teaching this strategy is that using it somehow sets up natural social timing constraints.  There is a social norm that goes with this phrase that seems to be universal.  One person says, “Hey, guess what?”, the other person says, “What?” and then the first person shares something quickly like “I went to a dinosaur exhibit and the T Rex was huge!”.  Somehow it taps into a social rhythm that is very hard to teach explicitly.

When we initially introduce this catch phrase to the group, we do so naturally.

  • One of the leaders comes to the table and says, “Hey, guess what?” and then looks expectantly at the group until someone says, “What?”  Using a dramatic and animated voice and facial expression really helps get the natural reaction going.
  • Once the “What?” is heard, she shares something exciting like, “I had ice cream for dessert last night!  I love ice cream.”
  • Once the kids chime in with their responses, we stop and talk about what just happened.  We explain that from now on when someone has something to share, they can do so by saying, “Hey, guess what?”
  • Then, at the beginning of each of our group meetings, we ask if anyone has a “Hey, guess what?” to share.  Each child who does, takes a turn and our “talking time” goes by much more smoothly.

But there is more… this catch phrase is also helpful for the kids who don’t realize the importance of being responsive to friends.  Many of the kids in our groups are so distracted by their own thoughts that they don’t respond when a friend begins to share a story with them.  Using the “Hey, guess what?” catch phrase makes it almost impossible for a friend to be unresponsive.  There is something about those words that compels us to do our part and say, “What?” and then, once we are engaged, we can’t help but listen to the rest.

While no one strategy is going to suffice when teaching social skills, this one is a great starting point.  I plan to share some more ideas right here over the next 3 months.  Part 2 will address “Getting the Hang of Social Timing.” See you then!


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Karen blogs over at She is a licensed and certified speech-language pathologist who has been co-leading social cognition groups at Children’s Therapy Associates in Natick, MA for over 15 years. She is also co-developer of a series of apps designed to support children with social learning challenges.