Liesl Wenzke Hartmann draws on her experience as a communication therapist working with kids with social challenges and developmental differences to create the curriculum goals and teaching approach of Flummox and Friends.
I sat down with her recently to talk about the Tune In, Connect, Have Fun curriculum —Christa Dahlstrom
Christa: A lot of people, I think, have the idea that social skills are the same as manners or etiquette. How would you distinguish between those?
Liesl: Etiquette is really about a set of rote behaviors, somewhat arbitrary rules. That’s more about bringing the kid into the adult world rather than being willing to join the child’s world and understanding what’s going to help them. Teaching rules without teaching the reason behind them isn’t really helping our kids. You can teach a kid to give a compliment, but if they don’t understand why they’re doing it, they might just sound robotic.
Something like perspective taking, for example, is a way of thinking that allows someone to consider what another person needs or wants or feels in any situation. The thinking skills help a kid generate their own solutions, read and adapt to situations, rather than follow a set of someone else’s rules.
Christa: The perspective taking ability is pretty important, isn’t it?
Liesl: Yes – it’s really at the core of social thinking and it’s a core deficit we see in kids who struggle socially. Perspective taking starts so early – babies do it when they shift their gaze to see what you’re looking at – and we do it all day long without even realizing it. It’s the cornerstone of social behavior, helping us to “tune in” to the world.
Christa: And that’s really where the tag line – Tune in. Connect. Have fun! – comes from.
Liesl: Exactly. That, in a nutshell, describes what we want kids to be able to do: to tune into the world around them, have positive ways to connect with people so they can experience joy and fun with others.
Christa: You know, when I describe the social smarts workshops my son participates in [because of his autism spectrum diagnosis] to friends who have typically developing kids, the first thing they say is, “Can my kid get that?” It seems like this approach extends beyond kids with special needs.
Liesl: Absolutely. Whenever I’m working with a child who is in a regular education classroom, the teacher inevitably remarks that she wants to use these approaches with her whole class. Most kids, at some time or another, struggle with social and emotional challenges. And when kids don’t have positive methods to connect with others, will resort to negative ways to get attention. You start to see behavior issues or some kids just shut down – rejecting others before they can be rejected.
Christa: The concept of “emotional regulation” is something that was new to me as a parent. I was accustomed to thinking about “good behavior” and “bad behavior.” Can you talk about why that notion of regulation is important?
Liesl: Being well regulated, from an emotional standpoint, just means that kids are in an optimal “zone” and their brains are available for learning, for accessing language, for interacting with others. We want to give kids tools to be aware of their own emotional states and tools for regulating their emotions. Once again, it’s the tools – not the rules!
Christa: Sounds like another possible tagline?
Christa: Thanks, Liesl!