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While many parents homeschool because they know that customizing their child’s education is critical for their child’s success, other parents may decide to homeschool after their child has been bullied at school. What causes bullying? Sometimes it happens because another child is mean—and sometimes teachers can be shockingly clueless about the problem, unwittingly making it worse. But sometimes a child is bullied because he or she doesn’t understand how to navigate the social world. A kid with a social communication disorder, nonverbal learning disorder, ADHD, or autism can struggle to connect with other kids; the repercussions can be devastating and long-lasting.
Gifted kids are not immune. Even as an adult, though they may be trustworthy, punctual, and detail-oriented, gifted people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome will still struggle with the social component of employment and with adapting to new work environments (Burgess & Gutstein, 2007). Most kids learn the rules of social communication indirectly by observing normal social interactions and through trial and error, yet kids who cannot learn social skills this way must be taught explicitly.
These kids are good at learning what to do, even when it is complex, but they may struggle to naturally apply and adapt that knowledge. Excellent at learning facts and procedures, applying rules, and telling right from wrong, they might find it challenging to engage in more dynamic processes like developing coping strategies or accepting a result that, while not perfect, is good enough. Some of these children struggle to remember what has happened previously, making it difficult to use prior experience to formulate effective strategies should the situation arise again. While these kids are able to recognize emotions, they don’t always use that information to guide their actions. And their communications can sometimes be scripted or demand-focused, with less of the normal back-and-forth typical of conversation.
The most common approaches (e.g., Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum) teach social skills using a structured curriculum that first explains the skills, and then helps the child to practice in increasingly unstructured situations. Making eye contact, taking turns, scripting interactions with new people, and interpreting correctly facial expressions—all these skills can be taught in this way. The focus of these approaches is on teaching the “what” of social interaction.
This strategy can backfire with gifted kids, especially those who are irritated by being told to do something, without an explanation of why it is important. For these kids, it’s critical to understand why they should care about eye contact, why it’s important to take turns, and why facial expressions matter.
Through the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI™) program, parents learn how to effectively teach their child both why these skills matter and how to develop them. This process re-establishes the neural pathways that failed to develop during early childhood, along with a more normal guide/apprentice relationship between the child and his or her parents.
The RDI curriculum begins by teaching parents about the core social skills: social referencing, co-regulation, experience-sharing communication, flexible dynamic thinking, and episodic memory (Gutstein, 2009). The consultant and family work together to develop a highly-customized plan for restoring the child’s feelings of competence and healthy functioning, and then collaborate to systematically guide the child through the process of learning the skills he or she is missing. RDI is particularly well-suited to homeschooling families, as it’s possible to integrate instruction into the fabric of your everyday life in a way that is not possible when your child attends a school for seven hours a day.
The best way to illustrate the process is through example. To teach a child the importance of co-regulation, the RDI consultant might start by asking the family to take a walk together, as a way to teach the child to closely monitor his parent’s reactions in order to know how to proceed. While walking, the parent might stop, and wait for his child to stop and look at him. Once his child looks at him, he might smile, nod his head and start walking again. Or, a parent might want to teach the child to match her pace by holding the child’s hand while walking, and then quickening her pace while encouraging the child to catch up. Later, the parent might slow down or stop or turn to the left. With each change, the parent might indicate the next action with a nonverbal cue (looking to the left or gesturing to the child to speed up by waving her hand, beckoning the child to move faster). The purpose of the exercise is not to get some exercise. Rather, the purpose is to teach the child to watch you to determine what to do next, and to learn that it’s more fun when you match your movements to those of your partner.
Through this process, families can restore a healthy dynamic. The majority of caregivers who have participated in RDI report that their children are more able to accept their guidance, more interested in interacting with people, and more interested in the feelings of other family members. The children take more responsibility for themselves, and are more thoughtful and creative when problem-solving; all characteristics of a successful adult who will be able to successfully navigate the social world.
Sarah Wayland, Ph.D., is a certified RDI consultant and a special needs care coordinator. She helps parents of children with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, and other diagnosed and undiagnosed challenges. You can learn more about her at www.guidingexceptionalparents.com. For more information on RDI, read the article she wrote for the 2e Newsletter.