Virtual Learning Can Cause Social-Skill Glitches
Welcome to the “new normal,” or whatever that is supposed to mean!
Working as a speech-language pathologist at MOCO Movement Center, I’ve been talking to families regularly during our telehealth check-ins and have heard a consistent theme:
Children are having difficulties using video technology in a socially skillful way.
These kids are not experiencing computer glitches; they are experiencing social-skill glitches. For many youth, connecting virtually is second nature and quite normal. These virtual communication pros are operating like it’s business as usual because they are already used to connecting with friends via Google Duo and FaceTime, so transitioning to using a Zoom classroom is no big deal. But for some kids, using these virtual communication platforms is anything but normal because they fall outside of their social skills repertoire. Social communication didn't feel normal to them in the “old normal” of in-person learning. Now, with virtual learning, they have to learn a new set of communication skills.
For socially-challenged kids, the “new normal” means having to engage with instructors and other students through a computer screen for long periods of time. Consequently, these kids are having even more difficulty than usual with common social cues including making virtual eye contact, reading facial cues and modulating their tone of voice. Participation and turn taking -- big challenges prior to virtual learning -- are now more complicated than ever.
Video technology also requires the executive function challenge of staying focused and paying attention, absent the physical proximity of the teachers. To help kids succeed in the new normal, we need to explicitly teach them how to effectively communicate in the new age of virtual learning. Here are some areas for parents, teachers, and therapists to keep in mind:
Checklist for Successful Virtual Social Skills
Greeting and ending conversations appropriately: Knowing when and how to greet others at the beginning of a virtual conversation and say farewell at the end in a virtual classroom setting is not obvious for many children. If it’s a large class and everyone is muted, you may want to work with your child on waving as a way to say “hi/bye”. If it’s a small class, it may be more appropriate for your child to greet others verbally. Have them watch for others’ cues if they are not sure.
Interjecting: Appropriately joining or interjecting into the conversation can be challenging for anyone, especially a child with social challenges. Practice with your child before class on appropriate and effective ways to enter the conversation, such as “Excuse me, Ms./Mr. Teacher, may I add…”. Also work with your child on giving the right clues that let others know when they’re finished, such as “That’s all.” or “Thank you.”
Demonstrating interest: Advise your child to nod their head to show you are following the conversation or make a relevant comment so others or your teacher know you understand the topic.
Showing comprehension: Children should be encouraged to use thumbs-up gestures if the teacher asks if everyone understands the lesson.
Making “eye contact” when you can’t actually make eye contact: Children should be coached on aiming their eyes at the screen and not around the room. This can be an enormous challenge for kids who are shy, have difficulty maintaining attention, or have a lot of energy. If using a phone, have your child hold it toward their face. (MAYBE CLOSE TO THEIR FACE??)
Interpreting nonverbal cues: For some children, reading facial expressions and being aware of the instructor’s tone of voice can be a challenge under normal circumstances. Many kids are used to virtual communications, such as texting, that make it difficult if not impossible to detect tone of voice such as sarcasm, anger, or humor. (That’s why emojis were invented!) Video offers more opportunities to pick up on the 93 percent of communication that is nonverbal. With video instruction, children are being asked to pair nonverbal language (gestures, body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice) with the verbal message, all while participating virtually. It’s a difficult task to say the least, and many kids need prompts to watch for clues in the speaker’s facial expressions and tone of voice such as confusion, enthusiasm, sadness.
Participating appropriately: Participating in a Zoom class can be challenging in a variety of ways. For example, maintaining attention and listening is harder when it’s not in person and there isn’t the proximity control of the teacher. If a student misses information that the teacher says, they may feel shy about asking for clarification. Help your student practice self-advocating. To help them feel less nervous about asking questions in front of everyone, children can take advantage of the function to make comments in the chat box, which can be directed to the group or the teacher directly. They can take turns speaking by either physically or virtually raising their hand.
Role playing and practicing virtual social skills: Practice these skills by spending some time each week video-calling best friends or relatives.
MOCO Movement Center is offering speech-language therapy sessions that specifically address these needs with explicit instruction and role-playing. These little steps you take to improve your student’s virtual social skills on the bunny slope today will help them “zoom” down the expert slope tomorrow. That’s all for now...Have a good day...I’m exiting the meeting! By Kim Hughes, MA, CCC-SLP