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Evelyn Vuko
Evelyn Vuko
Column: Teacher Says
Teacher Says Transcript Archive
Education section
Talk: Metro news message boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Teacher Says: Sticky Social Situations
Hosted by Evelyn Vuko
Washington Post Education Columnist

Guest: Cathi Cohen
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Group Psychotherapist

Tuesday, April 1, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

He said, she said, I said, the teacher said... sticky social situations at home and at school set off a tangle of facts and emotions that leave kids, teachers and families grappling for answers. Bullying, teasing and rocky friendships can also have serious repercussions on kids' self-esteem and school performance. But just like you coach them in reading and math, you can help them learn social skills they can use in the classroom, on the playground and in the family room.

Got questions, concerns or sticky situations? Join Post Teacher Says columnist Evelyn Vuko and guest Cathi Cohen, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Stepping Stones, a social skills training program for kids and parents in the D.C. metro area were online April 1 at 2 p.m. ET to help you help your kids.

Need help in guiding your kids through their school life, school work, or in becoming better students? Join Washington Post "Teacher Says" columnist Evelyn Vuko every other Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET to talk about education and child development issues.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Evelyn Vuko: Sticky social situations aren't fun for adults who've probably been through one or two before. However, for kids who are new at the social game, they can be a real grind. Cathi Cohen and I are here to help you help your kids today. Welcome!

Southwest DC: Thank you for taking these questions, Ms Cohen. Social skills programs for children who need extra help in that area are a good but fairly new development. As I'm sure you know, such were not available 30 or more years ago, when people just got to grow up as "asocial misfits". Can you recommend any social skill program for adults in the dc area?


Cathi Cohen : Dear South West:

I can't tell you how many adults have told me that they wish they were able to join a social skills group as a child. Now, many adults feel lacking in these friendship skills, and do not know where to seek help. Although I am not aware of any adult "social skills" groups per se in the DC area, there are many practicing psychotherapists that specialize in group therapy. Group can be a highly effective model for learning social skills. I encourage you to look in the American Group Psychotherapy listing to find a qualified group therapist.

Good luck!

Reston, Va: We have a young son (age 6) with an autism spectrum disorder. He's very high functioning and is doing well in kindergarten. The lingering social skill issue is his need to be in charge of all play activity. He doesn't understand that other children want to play -their- way sometimes.

Any suggestions on how we can help him? We've seen tremendous results from early academic & social skill interventions; trying to fine tune what we do to overcome a lingering issue.

Many thanks...

Cathi Cohen : Dear Reston, Va:

I'm so glad to hear that you've already been working with your son on developing social skills. As you know, social communication and reciprocity is terribly difficult for autistic-spectrum children. Don't become discouraged! Work slowly, developing short term concrete social goals that you can monitor and reinforce with your child. For instance, you might set a goal regarding increasing eye contact from one time in a conversation with another child or adult to three times. Develop a signal that will communicate to him that you have observed each time he has made appropriate contact. You may want to have him join a social skills group, either here at In Step in Fairfax or elsewhere near you. In these groups, the therapist breaks down skills into incremental steps that he can practice inside group and outside of group with you.

Continue to work with him, practice new skills consistently, and reinforce any positive steps you see him take!

Cathi Cohen

Frankfort, Michigan: There are genetic syndromes such as Prader-Willi Syndrome and others that it appear that persons with these syndromes suffer from the inability to read social cues. What is your best advice to teachers and parents to help these children better do this.

Cathi Cohen : Dear Michigan,

Most certainly, "reading social signals" is one of the more difficult skills to actually "teach" in a child, particularly when they struggle with a syndrome such as Prader-Willi where social skills can be severely effected. In my experience, you must start where the child is cognitively, emotionally, socially, and developmentally. Choose an exercise or activity that may "beef up" a particular skill set and then gear that activity to a level where the child can understand it. For instance, you may be able to sit on a park bench with a six year old and observe people walking by. You may ask your six year old to look at a facial expression and guess what the person is feeling or look at body language and guess what the person is trying to communicate. Some six year olds with severe social communication disorders or cognitive delays may have more trouble with this concept so looking at facial expressions in pictures may be easier to handle. Take a look at the "Reading Social Signals" chapter of my book, Raise Your Child's Social IQ, and see if any of the activities at the end of the chapter look useful to you.

Thank you for your question.

Cathi Cohen

Bowie: I'm a 40yo single man who's never really gotten over the love-shyness I developed as an early teen. A lot of people would probably be very glad if more teenagers didn't take an interest in the opposite sex; but habits developed in those years can carry over into adulthood, and romantically inept boys often turn into men who should be somebody's husband but aren't.

I found one web site devoted to shy boys/men that discovered one of their most common characteristics is not having a sister. Boys with sisters interact with girls regularly and see them as ordinary people; while sisterless ones never learn what holes in a female's life a male can fill.

Since boys don't often come to their parents asking "can you help me get a date" what can be done to get boys into a more comfortable female environment.

Evelyn Vuko: The obvious answer here is to put boys in groups with girls where social interaction is a by-product, not the focus of the get-together; meaning academic classes, rather than parties. And they don't only have to be academic. Hobby classes, horse-backing riding classes or swimming lessons, religious or community activities for teenagers have the advantage of giving kids a task to focus on, rather than each other. This kind of activity demands purposeful social interaction that will provide boys pointers for how to get along with girls in a less confronting way than at a party.

Cathi Cohen : I very much agree with Evelyn. I find that there is no better way to letting others know you than by sharing a common interest and taking the major focus and pressure off of "you". Another idea is to participate in a group that involves physical exercise. There is something to be said about those endorphins!

Cathi Cohen

Jupiter Florida: We have nine wonderful grandchildren. However
we find it difficult to treat them equally.
Do you have any advise how to improve our ability to accomplish this task?

Evelyn Vuko: How about devoting a certain period of time just for one child? I know a family with six kids where the mother and dad arrange part of a Saturday to spend with only one of their children. Often, they reserve a homework night the same way. This gives both the chance to share some undivided attention, and for parents to deal with issues or concerns with that particular child. What could be better to a grandchild among nine than a day, or an afternoon alone with grandma and grandpa? To keep things equal, try to do the same type of event with each child.

Cathi Cohen : Dear Jupiter,

I'm sure there really is no such phenomenon as "equality". I'm quite certain that you love each of your children and your wonderful grandchildren uniquely! I like Evelyn's idea of some quality time alone with each of them to establish your own individual relationship with them. You'd be surprised how long fifteen minutes of floor time with a child will go.

I can tell that you two are exceptional grandparents...just the way you are:)


Ballston, VA: My third grade son came home the other day with a heavy heart. When I finally coaxed him to say what was wrong, he told me that when the "tough" boy in the class was teasing another boy about reading a "girl" book (Mary-Kay and Ashley story), my son joined in the throng. When I asked why, he said, "So they wouldn't pick on ME." We talked about options, etc. Even though scared of being picked on, he hated the way "going along" made him feel.

A few days later he came home exuberant eager to say he had stood up for another boy, who was being picked-on by the same "tough" boy for being small. My son (all 4'4") demanded to know why the tough wasn't picking on HIM, because in fact, my son IS the smallest boy in his class. This logic quite deflated the situation, and apparently even attempts to turn the teasing onto my son fell flat.

I think that my son handled this well; however, should I talk to the teacher? In the past, she has been accepting of "boys will be boys" which I do not like - however, I also know my son needs to develop his survival skills and not always be bailed out.

Cathi Cohen : Dear Ballston,

Wow! What a fabulous lesson your son learned all by himself with your solid, caring support. It is rare that you will see a child demonstrate such empathy at this age and then to take that empathy and use it in a new situation. I do think that your way of approaching this situation calmly and with a kind, listening ear was all he needed. He showed that to you. I don't think you need to involve the teacher "yet", but if the situation escalates and he continues to see this "tough" boy "throwing his weight around", you may want to give the teacher a heads up so that she can encourage a positive environment in the classroom.

Thank you for sharing your son's accomplishment. You made my day!

Cathi Cohen

Re: Social Skills Program for Adults: They are not formal programs for social skills building, but I have found that volunteer work serves that purpose. You can learn new skills, technical and social, especially managerial by joining a group that is working on a specific project with a goal. A way to socialize, learn leadership skills AND do some good in the community. The local county web sites should list lots of places that would love for you to come and socialize with them!

Evelyn Vuko: Great idea!

Cathi Cohen : Yes! And it builds a stronger community. Thank you. I wish more adults AND teenagers/children found this way of beefing up on social skills.

Washington, DC: My sixteen month-old gets REALLY excited around other toddlers. He will try to grab them and frequently will let out very loud squeals of excitement (almost like screams). This naturally kind of scares the other children. I don’t want to stifle his exuberance and outgoing personality, but I also don’t want him to be shunned by other kids as he gets older because he is too overbearing. Am I worrying unnecessarily, or are there constructive things I should begin now, to help him interact more successfully with other children? Thank you.

Cathi Cohen : Washington, D.C., It sounds like you do have a wonderfully exuberant toddler there who is eager to engage with others and excited about all of the possibilities. I agree with your desire to let him go, explore this new social world, and resist your urges to hold him back. Don't worry! He sounds like a terrific child already who even at sixteen months is on his way to successful peer relationships!

Thanks for sharing your concerns,

Cathi Cohen

War Talk: I teach 8th graders and recently there have a been a lot of heated discussions about the war. They're pretty divided. I think it's healthy but it quickly disintegrates to name calling and racist remarks. What do I do to steer the conversation towards healthy debate?

Evelyn Vuko: As a former middle school teacher, I know how quickly emotions can escalate! I'd suggest you channel their energies by teaching them the formal skills of debate. Assign topics, establish opposing teams, predetermine questions, assign a moderator and be strict about time limits for answers and rebuttals. You might also assign a persuasive writing project or analyze the difference in how a war issue is covered by a newspaper and TV. It might be interesting to have the kids write about their feelings about the expulsion of Geraldo Rivera and Peter Arnett. In other words, rather than allowing free-form and highly emotional debate, I'd channel their emotions with activities that demonstrate how to agree or disagree in more constructive ways.

Cathi Cohen : War Talk: Yes, it is very important to teach your children the essential skill of "disagreeing respectively"! They will need this ability sorely in the future as they become adults and must negotiate in the work place, have respectful arguments with their significant others, and resolve issues peacefully with their own children.


Boynton Beach Florida: Are there any social skills I can use for my adult children?

Evelyn Vuko: Adult children are still children in a mother's eyes. So, keep your eyes peeled for how they might mishandle a situation at a family event, in relationships, in resolving conflicts or in bad job situations. If kids are receptive, step in and offer to help them strategize new approaches. Do this privately. Also, provide a gift of a book that might address the issue, and get you out of the middle.

Cathi Cohen : As you know, with adult children, your possibilities for intervention become limited. You can't intervene on their behalf or make constructive comments about their behavior in the same way that you could when they were children. But, you do have the ability to continue to model good social skills for them. You can actively show them how to listen well by listening to them and teach them good communication by allowing them to be open with you without judgement. And remember, if you have to let go with your own children, then you at least have your grandchildren to influence positively (which I know you already do)!!!


Evelyn Vuko: Cathi, a reader recently asked my opinion about a three-year long bullying situation that has left her victimized daughter listless and apathetic about school. She is a senior in a private school and the school seems to have done little to intercede on the child's behalf. How should the parent proceed?

VA: What's the point of this chat when teachers and principals are doing nothing because of cultural differences among the difference groups? The majority of the accusers are black kids romping in schools.

Evelyn Vuko: I disagree. I think schools are turning themselves inside out to deal with cultural, ethnic and socio-economic issues among students. Many school districts in Texas and California, for example, who have large Hispanic populations, have developed successful strategies and programs to help kids learn to appreciate each other and resolve conflicts.

Cathi Cohen : VA: I have to say, in my experience working with teachers and principals over the last twenty years, I have seen an increasing awareness, sensitivity, and respect for cultural differences in our schools. There are programs in many school districts specifically targeted to increase tolerance and understanding of people's differences including ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, special needs populations. We have a long way to go as a nation, but we are making considerable progress! Don't lose faith in the process (although a long one)!

Alexandria, Va: About six months ago, my teenager started acting really strangely. She's withdrawn and she doesn't like to be hugged. She's in her room all the time and she's stopped hanging out with her friends. She won't let me near her. What do I do?

Cathi Cohen : Dear Alexandria,

I can see why you are concerned about your daughter. In teenagers, we look for certain signs and changes to indicate when they are in emotional distress. Your daughter is exhibiting some of the tell tale signs of depression: withdrawal, isolation from her peer group and family, and decreased communication. She may not agree, but I think it is important that you get your daughter to a qualified mental health professional to be evaluated as soon as possible. If you need more information, please don't hesitate to email me at instep@erols.com.

I am glad that you have taken notice of your daughter's changes. This is a very crucial first step in getting her the help that she needs.

Cathi Cohen

Evelyn Vuko: Cathi, a reader recently asked my opinion about a three-year long bullying situation that has left her victimized daughter listless and apathetic about school. She is a senior in a private school and the school seems to have done little to intercede on the child's behalf. How should the parent proceed?

Cathi Cohen : Evelyn,

I am saddened to hear that this young woman has been coping with a difficult situation for so very long and that the family has not felt supported by her school. As it is April and she will be graduating soon, it appears that focusing on her current situation may not be very useful. Perhaps her parents can help her focus on her future relationships by getting hooked in to a social/academic pre-college program this summer. It will be important to develop ongoing relationships with peers that she will continue to be in contact with over the years i.e. family friends, neighborhood friends etc. In terms of the school, it may help for the family to express themselves openly in a letter upon their daughter's graduation. Even if it is too late for their daughter, it is most certainly not too late for others who will attend after her.

I'm terribly sorry to hear of this painful situation.

Cathi Cohen

Washington DC: I have a couple of kids who are from Syria and they've been getting picked on a lot. How do I handle this?

Cathi Cohen : Washington, DC: I have unfortunately heard this all too often. Especially now, with the world situation being the way that it is, children are beginning to express the anger and frustrations of the adults around them. Sometimes, they are using children from the Middle East, particularly, as scapegoats. It is so very important that we as adults model tolerance and respect. If children are seeing disrepect of other cultures at home, it would be impossible to expect otherwise from them. You may want to do a program with area speakers that involve both parents AND children to open lines of communication between people. You'd be surprised at how open children can be if they see their parents being open too.

Arlington Va: Hi

I'm worried that my kid isn't learning as quickly as the other students in his class. I'm not sure why either, he scored very high on his IQ tests and he's really smart. But he doesn't seem to want to concentrate on his studies. What do I do?

Evelyn Vuko: Have you talked to his teachers or his best buddies? If his teachers don't have answers as to why he's not interested in concentrating, a good friend might provide you with a clue. Do some investigating.

Cathi Cohen : Arlington Va:

In my experience, when a child is not performing to his/her ability, there is usually something getting in the way. You and I are not sure what that "something" is. There are several ways to go about discovering that information: 1) talk to the teacher about his classroom behavior, and 2) consult with a child psychologist regarding educational/psychological testing that will rule out such issues as learning disabilities, attentional issues, or emotional factors that can interfere with learning. It is necessary to find out accurate information before you can set an appropriate plan to correct the problems.

For more information, email me at instep@erols.com.

Cathi Cohen

Arlington, Va: I have an 8 year old boy who loves theater and the arts as much as he enjoys playing sports. He does not , however, live for sports "talk", memorizing pro teams and their stats etc. Sometimes he seems left out for playdates and on the playground since he's not involved in the real sports gangs. I'm not sure he's too bothered by this but I feel bad he seem excluded a lot. Any thoughts?

Evelyn Vuko: You need to take a cue from him, Mom. If he's not bothered by it, don't you get bothered either. When it becomes an issue for him, talk to him about it and strategize ways he can become more comfortable with his situation. He sounds like he's got a wide range of interests and that is a very good thing.

Cathi Cohen : I agree with Evelyn, it is so difficult for us, as parents, not to project our own feelings onto our children. However, if he is truly not bothered by having his own unique interests which may be shared by some, but not by the majority, let him "be"! There are plenty of adults who much prefer theater and the arts to sports and sports stats.

Cathi Cohen

Mclean, Va: My neighbor's second grade daughter has shown a really precocious interest in sex. While we were at her house for dinner one night I went upstairs and found her in bed in the dark with a boy her age. They said they were just playing house. Along with a friend, she wrote a very graphic sexual letter to a teenager in our neighborhood about what she could do with her boyfriend. She has told her mother that she wants to have sex with her brother (5). She pulls his pants down when he's at the playground and can be very verbally abusive to him and other kids.
We don't let our kids (8, 6 and 4) play with her. My husband thinks that whatever she's doing has a ripple effect and that behavior can affect my son also via the brother. Problem is, the brother is my son's best friend. But my question is whether my four year old son should play with her brother even when she isn't around?

Cathi Cohen : Dear McLean,

We have to go off line now, but I am very concerned about your situation. Please email me and I will respond to you personally. instep@erols.com

Sorry so brief.

Cathi Cohen

Washington DC: My child is prone to extreme temper tantrums and I don't know what to do with him. He refuses to read anything, his reading level is way below what other 4th graders are reading. So instead he just bullies them around during recess. Help!

Cathi Cohen : Washington DC,

I'll be happy to answer this question, but we are rushing off line now. Please email me at instep@erols.com, and I will be happy to respond to you. Sorry.

Cathi Cohen

Evelyn Vuko: You've raised many issues today that will help parents everywhere guide their kids through sticky social situations. We all have a responsibility to support the kids in our lives and in our communities through all the interpersonal situations they face in school and at home. We need to be good role models, good mentors and good friends. To learn more about how to help your kids deal with social situations, read Cathi Cohen's book "Raise Your Child's Social IQ" available at Amazon.com. Thanks for joining us today. Please come and chat with me again on April 15th.

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