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PFA Tips: The Art of Being Social

By Nikki Stewart, MA BCBA, Director of Verbal Beginnings

Download a printable version of “The Art of Being Social”

As parents, we recognize the importance of socializing our children. We understand the necessity of group learning and successful playdates. We hope our children are able to strengthen some of their acquaintance relationships into true friendships. Friendship building is a process.

The Friendship Pyramid
The Art of Being Social

In the book Socially Curious and Curiously Social, Michelle Garcia Winner refers to the friendship building process as a Friendship Pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the friendly level. It is the most basic level of a greeting. It is the quick small talk in the hallway; it’s the short greetings you deliver in the morning; it can be simple non-verbal communication exchanged by connecting eyes and giving someone a smile.

The acquaintance level

The next level is an acquaintance. These are the people you are in class with, work with, or ride the bus with. You may have short conversations with this person on a regular basis. However, these conversations only occur at the location in which you always see this person. The meeting is not pre-arranged or planned. If you are interested in getting to know someone better, you should seek out conversations. Though discussions, you may find you have similar interests.

The possible friendship level

A relationship advances to a possible friendship level when the two people begin to make arrangements to meet such as getting together for coffee or meeting by the lockers before class. At this point, you probably have recently exchanged phone numbers or friend requested each other on Facebook.

The Evolving Friendship Stage

If you wish to progress the friendship to the evolving friendship stage, you need to be a good Social Thinker. You need to put the effort in to make your friend feel good in order to keep that person interested in you. You have to demonstrate attentiveness in their interests; you have to be flexible with what you want to play; you must understand how to focus on the other person through conversation.

Transitioning from an evolving to a bonding friendship

After a lot of time spent in the evolving friendship level, you may progress into a bonded friendship. Many people only have 1-2 bonded friendships at a time. It’s expected at this stage to arrange times to meet up outside of school. By now, you are very comfortable with this person. You may begin to talk about personal and emotional events.

On again, off again friend

Another interesting form of friendship is the on again, off again friend. This friend is one that may progress to a level 5 friend, but fall back to a level 3 friend due to many different circumstances such as the soccer season ending, a move, etc. This cycle can happen many times and this is normal.

“Social Thinking” concepts in younger children versus older children

Expectations change with age. It is important to understand where your child is developmentally. Younger children are not expected to use the advanced  “Social Thinking” concepts like the older children are. Younger children progress their friendships based on the effort their parents put into arranging hangouts and playdates. Older children are expected to do this without their parents’ facilitation. Younger children show their interest of progressing a friendship by making each other something such as a picture or a bracelet. Older children may try to progress a friendship through conversation, texting, and social media messaging. It’s important to understand your child’s social needs and to continue to guide your child as he or she navigates through complex social situations. Be there to reflect and guide your child through many social situations. Recognize the tremendous effort your child is making to connect with others. “Thinking social” requires listening, seeing, recognizing, thinking, processing, responding, reflecting, and self-monitoring all at the same time. Let your child know how amazing they are. A little encouragement can go a long way!

The hidden tools behind conversations

How do we build and strengthen relationships with others? The answer is through conversation. During conversations, we learn about other people, their interests, their past, their values, and their dreams. Through multiple conversations, we discover mutual interests and possible desires to become closer to that person.

Conversations come in many different  forms such as small talk, empathetic listening, talking about a shared experience, persuasive conversations, planning, and many more. In order to actively participate in conversing, one must demonstrate good Social Thinking. It’s important to know how to demonstrate active listening skills through verbal and non-verbal cues. It’s essential to understand perspective-taking in order to detect hidden intentions of others. Self-awareness and self-monitoring skills must help one figure out when he or she is spending too much time talking about own interests and too little time talking about the other person and his or her interests. Having a conversation that is enjoyed by all participants requires each person to balance the amount of time focused on each other. Asking questions mostly highlights the conversational partner and linking comments often highlights one’s self.

Participating in conversations is like participating in an intricate dance with another person. It is essential to constantly read the other person’s moves, adjust your participation maintaining flexibility,  and follow along with a set beat. The following forms of conversational exchanges highlight the different perspectives of each participant during a conversation:

1. Add a Thought

You add a comment to the conversation about yourself. This comment is linked to what someone recently said.


Friend 1: “I am swimming after school today.”

Friend 2: “I take swimming lessons at the Y.”

Purpose: It allows you to talk about you. It also helps the conversation visit different topics over time.

2. Supporting Comment

It exemplifies you are listening to what someone is saying through verbal or non- verbal statements.


“Cool”, “That sounds like fun”, “Uh-huh”, or smiles and head nods.

Purpose: It lets the other person know you are listening and you have your brain in the group.

3. Asking Questions Following a Leading Comment

A comment is made that leads you to ask a question to find out more about what the other person wants to say.


Friend 1: “I am excited to get home today.” Friend 2: “What are you doing?”

Purpose: It makes you seem like you think about others and demonstrates good perspective taking skills. It makes people want to talk to you.


When working or playing with others, it’s important that the group functions as one. Spending too much time discussing ideas during the set up phase could take away from the time you have to play or work together. Following these six Social Thinking techniques will allow the group to progress easily through the set-up phase.

  • Be flexible and open to others ideas
  • Be inclusive; Ask others what they think
    • Participate, share ideas, and add to the discussion
    • Use whole body listening with your peers
    • Use kind words when you don’t like someone’s suggestion

For example: “That’s a good idea, but what do you think about….”

  • Negotiate/compromise

Additional Resources

Socially Curious and Curiously Social by Michelle Garcia Winner

Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students by Michelle Garcia Winner

Social Beginnings with Verbal Beginnings

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