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Social thinking workshop changes educators’ mindset

It’s been a passion of Carol Miles — since she began her career in speech pathology at the Plumas Unified School District some 35 years ago — to help her students better navigate the social world.

Helping students achieve positive social interaction, and teachers and administrators understand the anxiety and mindset of their students, often with special needs, has been a long-term goal.

On Saturday, Oct. 20, Miles with her husband Tommy, and with generous support from the Scott Schwartz Memorial Scholarship, put on a daylong training at the Town Hall Theatre in Quincy called Social Thinking ILAUGH Workshop.

Miles had 50 registered sign-ins for the workshop, many from outside the area. Some came from the PUSD and several came from the Chico Unified School District.

The workshop featured renowned Bay Area-based Social Cognitive Therapist Ryan Hendrix. Hendrix mentored under Michelle Garcia Winner (as did Miles), the founder and inventor of the term “Social Thinking.” On the Social Thinking website the concept is explained as a way to “help people develop their social competencies to better connect with others and live happier, more meaningful lives.”

In a school setting that can mean many things for students on the autism spectrum, or with other learning  challenges that don’t always line up with mainstream societal expectations.

Miles explains that humans don’t all think the same and have the same reactions to the same social contexts. There are many hidden rules with social expectations that are never explained. She gives the example of eye contact.

In American culture, eye contact shows trustworthiness and directness and we, generally expect it. But a student with a learning challenge might not realize they are being judged for not giving direct eye contact. They need to learn that there’s this hidden rule that exists. Social Thinking training provides a pathway to that unspoken hidden rule. And not all cultures feel that way about eye contact.

On a high school campus a group of friends stand in a circle, shoulders closed to the outside world and people. In order to be part of the group, someone has to make room in the circle for someone else to join. Then that person also stands shoulder to shoulder. It’s a cue that most people are not aware of — it’s automatic for most — but it’s also a social skill that can be taught.

Not all students can stand in a lunch line either. Social Thinking training provides scripts sometimes that students can follow. It sets expectations — rehearsals, if you will, for real world experiences. The concepts Carol Miles works with are ideal for Asperger’s students and others on the spectrum, who might not always pick up on the everyday social cues.

For teachers and administrators it provides a unique opportunity to understand what students like these go through. They might be witnessing a meltdown of a student and thinking in terms of behavioral correction when what’s really needed is for the student to understand the social situation and the teacher to mitigate unforeseen changes in a way that makes the student less anxious.

“[Social Thinking is] not going to change a person’s nature. I wouldn’t want it to. But it can help them to be more comfortable and social in the world,” said Miles.

“I would be so appreciative for the opportunity for all of our staff to have the Social Thinking ILAUGH Workshop training and to go deeper with the Social Learning Tree content. We are grateful to Carol and Tommy Miles, Scott Schwartz Memorial Scholarship, Ryan Hendrix, Laura Blesse, community and volunteers for making this day happen and for the staff who attended the Saturday event,” said PUSD Superintendent Terry Oestreich.

Oestreich offered a stipend to certificated and classified staff that attended the workshop.“That was a huge support,” Miles said.

Carol Miles took this project on herself and hopes to see more of these kind of trainings in Plumas in the future. She was inspired in part by her former student, Scott Schwartz, who she taught for many years into adulthood until his death from the flu. Along with his parents, she’d traveled down to the Bay Area to do clinics as early as 2002 to learn to treat the whole person with Social Thinking  strategies. They had him evaluated and used these techniques. “He went from meltdowns to being fully included in the world, reading, and doing fine,” Miles said.

Miles also sees the value in these trainings to address cultural expectations that homogenization might sometimes overlook. For example, an ethnic group where silence or quietness is a norm, might appear as unknowing to a teacher without training in how to navigate students of different cultures.

“I hope this [workshop] stimulated interest and maybe PUSD will want more. I hope this planted a seed,” said Miles.

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