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Teach Kids to Express their OpinionSome of the adult students I work with have not learned that they are entitled to an opinion.  Some do not realize that they can say “No, thanks” to something that are not interested in.  Instead, they always seem to answer, “Yes”.

It gives me pause to think, we need to reach kids with social language isms earlier in their development to ensure they learn the importance of having their own opinion and learn how to express that opinion in a socially appropriate way.

When children develop the skill of expressing opinions, they will be in an optimal place for self advocacy.  After all, each and every individual’s opinion counts and is relevant.  However, some of my adult students believe there is a concrete right or wrong answer to every question asked.  In actuality, often times, it is their opinion that is sought in the questioning.

“Yes” is not always the concrete and correct answer.  When asked, “Would you like to try ______?”, the response sought is a determination as to how they feel about _____.  The person asking the question is seeking their opinion.

An Opinion on the Weather

For weeks, I worked with one on one with Michael on getting his opinion about the weather.  Each day, we  would go outside to look up and observe the sky.

I would ask, “Do you think it’s going to rain today?”

He would always answer, “We need to watch TV to find out.”

Repeatedly, I would retort with, “I don’t care what they say on TV. I want to know what YOU think.”

Michael was afraid of making a mistake.  The concept that there was no mistake to be made since it was his opinion I was seeking, was too abstract for Michael.

On an overly cloudy day with a slight drizzle in the air, Michael and I had a breakthrough.

As usual, I took Michael outside and asked, “What do YOU think? Is it going to rain today?”

Michael replied, “Well, it just might.”

With an enthusiastic high-five, I responded, “Thank you for letting me know how YOU feel about the weather.”

Now, when I ask Michael about the weather, he gives his opinion.

We can now build upon that confidence to help him generalize other questions. Perhaps the next time someone asks him a question, he might make a smart guess based on what he thinks or how he feels about the subject rather than worrying about a right or wrong answer.

Tips to Encourage Independent Opinions

Chris Abildgaard, NCSP, LPC, NCC, Director of the Social Learning Center shares, “The steps to encourage children with isms to have independent opinions will be different for each child. We need to be aware of their level of anxiety, their perceptions of past issues around “being wrong” and their comfort level with whom they will be giving their opinion to.”  Abildgaard encourages promoting the concept that giving our perspective is not a bad thing and offers the following tips:

Make Smart Guesses

Teach children the concept of making a smart guess.  Encourage children to use the information they currently have and make a “guess” as to what may happen next.  Support kids in expressing their thoughts pertaining to the knowledge they have learned.

Balance Both Sides

Have kids practice the skill of showing evidence “for” a thought and possible evidence “against” a thought. It’s always a good idea to look at both sides.  We need to ensure that we teach the skill of being prepared for feedback on the opinion and then making a plan as to how to deal with that feedback.

Display Interest

Discuss the fact that when we do share our perspective with others, it helps others to know we are interested in what they are saying and we are motivated to be involved with them on this particular thought or conversation.

Abildgaard highly encourages, “Practicing all these steps with a “safe person” as a great first step”.

An Opinion on Cheese

I am working with another adult student, Katie, who rarely feels that answering “no” is a choice of hers.  Katie thinks “yes” is the answer to every question.

Katie hates cheese.  Each time she makes her sandwich, she is asked, “Do you want cheese?”

Katie always responds, “Yes.”

Katie will put the cheese on the sandwich and when she sits down to eat, she will remove the cheese. For weeks, we told her that if she took the cheese, she would need to eat the cheese. Not excited about it, she would nibble away at this undesirable food item.

We also worked on front-loading our question to Katie by shaking our heads “No” while asking, “Do you want cheese?”

Finally, after months, she is able to shake her head “No” when asked this question.

If the concept of opinions had been continuously addressed with her at an earlier age, she might have learned that “yes” isn’t always the right answer and that her opinion counts.

Teach the “How” so “What” is Heard

Abildgaard advises, “We need to also teach the “how” so people are hearing “what” we are saying not just “how” we say it.  The “how” might include the language to use, tone of voice, or body language, among others.  Abildgaard suggests that when children are giving their perspective or opinion on a topic, that we encourage the following:

Voice Volume

Using The Five Point Scale, keep voice volume at a 1-2.  See Tips for Adjusting Voice Volume and Tone

Start with “I”

In expressing opinions, use “I” statements often.

Eye Contact

Although eye contact may be a challenge for many, it is important to find a way to share our eyes with our conversational partner.

All of these cues tell the conversational partner that you are invested in the conversation.  With an appropriate voice volume and while looking at the teacher who asked Katie if she wanted cheese, Katie could calmly state, “No thank you, I do not like cheese.”

Upgrade “No”

Karen S. Head, MS, CCC-SLP of All4MyChild shares, “For very young children, expressing an opinion can be challenging as well. While some kids will often say “yes” in the spirit of “go along to get along”, there are also kids who are more inclined to just say “no”! While we want kids to feel comfortable saying “no”, doing so too often can also be challenging when it comes to making friends.”  In an effort to reinforce that saying “no” is okay, it is important to consider the following:

How About?

Help kids see that only answering with “no” can put off friends.  Offering an alternative can keep the conversation going. We encourage kids to use the phrase, “No thanks, how ‘bout…” and to share a different idea.

Friendly Voice

Like Albildgarrd suggested above, tone of voice is also important when friends disagree. Modeling a “friendly voice” when saying “no” or otherwise disagreeing can help kids begin to modulate their tone. We often role-play a negative tone and have the kids say “cut!” when they feel uncomfortable. We then ask the kids to demonstrate a friendlier way to say the word so they own the new tone.

Watch First

Some kids say “no” frequently because they are afraid to try new things. In this case, we encourage kids to “watch first, then try it once.”  When adults give permission for kids to watch something new before trying, some of the resistance often dissipates.

Head additionally expresses, “Learning to share an opinion is an incredibly important social skill. It is a fine balance to stay true to oneself while also maintaining a collaborative relationship. Helping kids to negotiate these subtleties early on may pave the way for smoother friendships later in life.”

Social Thinking Perspective

Andrea D. Cherry, M.Ed, BCBA of Navigating Behavioral Solutions offers additional insights, “From a social thinking perspective, there are two categories of kids that need to learn to self advocate and express their own opinions – those with emerging perspective taking skills and those who are nuance level.”

Emergent Kids

Cherry explains, “Emergent kids with isms are typically instructed using Applied Behavioral Analysis derivatives to learn language and more abstract concepts like “yes” or “no” questions.  However, some never make the jump to understanding that other people, like their mom or dad, have separate thoughts, ideas and experiences that affect their behavior.

These are the kids, like Katie, who usually do not know how to say, “no thank you” to food they do not like. This is because they have always been instructed to say yes or to “try it”, especially if they were involved with food shaping exercises.  Therefore, they were never taught that they could say “no”.

For these kids, systematically teaching them how and when to respond with “no” is an important skill for self advocacy and safety purposes.  To build the skill beyond a simple “yes” or “no”, they must be instructed next to consider perspectives.”

An Exercise on Perspectives

I have a picture of a dog.  The child has a picture of a cat.  I pose the question, “Do I have the cat?”.  The child has to:

1) understand that “I” refers to the speaker

2) shift eye gaze from his own card to my card to determine my perspective

3) provide the answer “No, I do not have that card,  you do”.

Nuance Kids

Cherry continues, “Nuance kids do not typically have difficulty with sharing their opinions because they have the ability to think abstractly and understand perspective taking, in at least a basic sense. For them, the trick is sharing their opinion in a polite manner.

Encourage nuance kids to use “no thank you” polish rather than respond with a rude tone and facial expression.

Nuance kids need to work on filtering their unkind and unfriendly comments when a peer or friend wants to do something they don’t like or enjoy. These kids would benefit by using the “How About?” or the “Friendly Voice” as suggested above.  Work with kids on learning the social fake with the flexibility to respond with opinions that are respectful to others.”

In Summary

If you have encountered similar scenarios with a child, consider focusing on only one specific opinion query. Work on obtaining that one opinion until you finally are able to get a legitimate individualized opinion as you have seen here with Michael and Katie.  From there, start to generalize by working on the same skill in other areas and adding on the social finesse needed for success.  Perhaps start with opinion on a food or activity that is undesirable. Remember, teaching this multidimensional skill takes time and work.  Be patient as it might take more than a month to master eliciting one opinion.