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Social interactions and conversations have rhythm and flow.  Just like a beloved melody or a good joke, timing is everything.  And yet, for some kids, this is just another one of those social nuances that is not salient to them.

“Hey, Guess What?”
Last month, I began a series of posts dedicated to promoting a sense of social timing; that is, knowing how much information to share in a given situation.  In Part I, I described the “Hey, Guess What?” strategy.  This catch phrase is great for helping kids engage friends by sharing just one main idea.  But what about the times when its okay to share more than just one thing?  Like when someone asks, “What did you do this weekend?” or “Tell me about the field trip.”  In these situations, it is important to share enough information so that the conversational partner is informed without sharing so much that they lose interest.

Keep Stories Short
To this end, I have found it helpful to teach the concept of keeping stories “short and exciting” and I support kids visually with a Topic Train.   I made it using a whiteboard and black tape and it looks like this:

This simple tool serves as a visual support for:

  1. introducing a topic (engine), 
  2. adding three important details (one in each car) and then 
  3. passing the conversation along to a friend with a question (caboose).
  • To teach the use of this tool, I ask a child a question; such as, “What did you do this weekend?” and add the word “WEEKEND” to the train engine to remind the child of the topic at hand.
  • As the child begins to describe his weekend, I simply add line drawings (or words) to each component of the train.  For example, “apple picking”, “ice cream”, “train ride”. I then reinforce the fact that friends are staying interested because the story is “short and exciting” and then (hopefully) the child gets to experience natural positive reactions from friends like lots of questions and comments.
  • But sometimes the other kids in the group are not the best responders.  So, I motivate them to participate by adding a puff of steam to the sky around the engine every time someone asks a question or makes a comment.  Kids love to try to completely fill the sky.
  • Finally, I remind them that they need to pass the conversation along to a friend with a question like, “What did you do this weekend?” and I visually prompt them by putting a question mark or question word in the caboose.
  • Once the child asks the question, I erase all of the train components and begin again with the next child.

I have found that introducing this structure of sharing just three details is very helpful for promoting a better understanding of what it feels like to take just the right amount of talking time.   As kids begin to internalize this feeling and to master this early understanding of social timing, I slowly begin to introduce more advanced concepts.  Stay tuned next month for another strategy.  See you then!

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Karen blogs over at all4mychild.com. 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.