Children Who Miss Social Cues–Is It Even Worse Than We Thought?

Penny* is in eighth grade, but quite childish. At school she uses a kleenex box to prop up the books on her desk, and it’s become something of an obsession. If someone–innocently–takes a piece of tissue, well, poor Penny crumbles. She has to leave the room to recover her equanimity and wipe her eyes, and return to fiercely guard that box.

She has explained the importance of the box over and over to her classmates, but senses they’re not listening, or not grasping the gravity of the situation. She has told the teacher about innocent and not-so-innocent tissue swipers countless times, but the teacher has told her that she’d be better off using a book stand. She feels persecuted.

Finally, provoked beyond all tolerance by tissue swipes, she has her mother seal the box with duct tape, so no one can ‘steal’ any more tissues–and she writes her name all over it with Sharpie permanent markers, decorating ‘Penny’ with heart-shaped pennies.

Penny is mathematically strong in school, but struggles with reading. She works hard at it, and likes to show her gains.

It gives her the greatest pleasure to get up from her seat and point out the place in the school reader to various and sundry students–none of whom needs such an assist. She beams as she does it, and the teacher has turned a blind eye–and the more secure students thank Penny for her ‘help.’ Those who wonder what in Heaven’s name she’s doing have been known to grab their books away as she comes, or slam them shut, or tell her they know darned well where the place is. Soon the teacher’s eye will have to see again, as Penny shows no signs of stopping her helpful assists.

She comes from a family of modest means, and isn’t really aware anyway when small donations or grab bag gifts are requested from the teacher–for an unusual birthday, for an odd occasion. So, convinced she’s gifted at singing, after all the gifts have been handed in, Penny says, “And now I’ll sing for you,” and the teacher, feeling rather more tired this year than in years past, tries to ignore the eye-rolling and giggling, hoping it won’t get out of hand, and works herself up to praise Penny for this oddest (and most off-tune) of behaviors.


Sharon Vaughn, currently professor in the Department of Teaching nd Learning and the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami frequently collaborates with Anne Hogan, developmental psychologist, as both are interested in social learning.

They point out (1990) four components of social competence (quoted in the text Social Behavior and Skills in Children): 1) Effective social skills, 2) absence of maladaptive behaviors, 3) positive relations with others, and 4) accurate social cognition–and our poor Penny is missing them all (yes, even missing the ‘absence’), as are so many patients, acquaintances, and friends’ children I’ve come across.

Sometimes people get frustrated with Penny, and some others–well, they get furious. But the anger seems ill-placed. Penny has no insight into her behaviors, and no ability to perceive their impact on others. Penny has a social learning disability.

The children–and adults–with such disabilities are often missing knowledge that others take for granted.


Pammy*  was in 10th grade. She was thrilled with her new cell phone, but, when speaking, would constantly move the earpiece to her ear when listening, and then slide down the mouthpiece to her mouth when speaking. You see, Pammy didn’t grasp that the phone, was formulated to allow her to hear and be heard, without extensive maneuvering.

She found this sliding the phone up and down so stressful, that she eventually just talked on speaker phone wherever she was–whether her siblings were watching TV in the room, when she got a call at Thanksgiving dinner, and proceeded to allow all the guests to hear both ends of a rather dull conversation until her mother’s face suggested terminating the call would be wise, when the phone rang early in the morning and her roommate sister was still sleeping, when she was in a packed car with the family. It made her popular precisely nowhere.

Her parents were concerned by her inability to follow and then predict even the simplest of soap operas. You know how the shows leave these obvious, cheesy traditions to indicate time has passed, or that a couple has slept together? Those were over Pammy’s head, and she often would ask her sibling what had happened–why were these people together, where had everyone gone?

It should come as no surprise, then, that Pammy couldn’t read body language–a big problem for those who are not socially competent.

She stood too close to the person with whom she was speaking–and when she finally sensed their attention wandering, she moved in closer, and then, when all else failed, she grasped their arm right about the elbow, locking them into her conversation, determining that they wouldn’t get away



It’s reasonable to ask: How important is social competency?

It’s a virtual certainty that the socially incompetent child will be lonely, and sad about her lack of friendships. [This, of course, will also cause pain to the parents, who want their child to branch out and develop interdependencies that don’t involve the family, and not to be stuck at home, with a ring-less phone, and no dating opportunities in sight.]

But the implications of social incompetency go much further than the painful feelings of being left out. Study after study indicate that a poor set of social skills is a risk factor for a number of problems later in life, from dropping out of school to teenage motherhood to earning lower wages than the socially skilled.

In their paper, “Which Skills Matter?,” the English researchers analyzed children at ages 7 and 11, using data from England’s National Child Development Survey (NCDS), particularly focusing on social adjustment utilizing the Bristol Social Adjustment Guide measure of social maladjustment as given to teachers.

And a whole host of problems faced the students with social maladjustment.

While we’d assume that staying in school to complete a high school degree would largely depend on cognitive ability, turns out that

Children who exhibited social maladjustment at age 11 were less likely to stay on at school post-16, after taking into account cognitive ability and other family background factors.

In fact, social maladjustment exhibited as early as 7-years old made a significant difference in the likelihood of obtaining “an HE qualification,” or, in our American lingo, finishing high school.

That’s some pretty heavy stuff.

But it gets even heavier. Poor social skills don’t just impact academic achievement–they play a signficant role in setting the child up for problematic behavior as a teen.

Social skills developed during childhood also appear to be at least as important as cognitive skills in explaining what can be thought of as negative adolescent outcomes, such as contact with the police and teenage motherhood. . . .[S]ocial maladjustment during childhood is clearly associated with an increased likelihood of getting into trouble with the police (as reported by the parent), or having been to court (as reported by the school) by age 16.

And it starts to look like the damage caused by social incompetency at the ages of 7 and 11 never ends. The study followed the students into adulthood and the workforce. Remember that these are people with parallel cognitive abilities to their more socially skilled peers, and have at least completed a GED when they apply for jobs. But the social component wins out. Here goes:

Even conditioning on schooling outcomes (whether or not the individual stayed on at school post-16, and whether or not they received [the equivalent of our GED]), teacher-rated social maladjustment at age 11 is associated with both lower employment probabilities, and lower wages at age 42.

I had to run through that a few times in my head to process it. What this study claims to have found is that poor social skills at ages 7 and 11 might very well lead to longer time pounding the pavement looking for work–and lower pay at 42.

That’s going some. And tomorrow I address psychological issues resulting from social maladjustment, as well.

As we hear the case studies and read of the severe consequences of social incompetency, we are obligated to think what can be done, societally, to improve the situation. There are numerous social skills learning groups–and they help up to a point. But beyond that. . .what? Is there perhaps some restructuring of our worldview that needs to take place, so that children who miss a joke, talk too loud, or stand too close, are no longer at risk for teenage pregnancies, a run-in with the law, and difficulties with employment?

We’d better hope there is, both for the children themselves–and for us.


**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Penny or Pammy, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.


Carneiro P, Crawford C, Goodman A. (2006). Which skills matter? CEEDP, 59. Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

Matson J. Social Behavior and Skills in Children. Springer:New York, 2009


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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