How important is social etiquette and cues?

Social cues and etiquette are simply signals we send when we interact with each other. They’re expressions that most of us take for granted but, for those with social communication difficulties, they can be tricky to understand or even pick up on.

These signals may be sent through our facial expressions, body language, tone of voice or body space. It’s said that between 60-90% of our daily communication is non-verbal…that’s a lot! Helping our children with ‘reading’ these cues and recognising what’s expected of them in social situations is vital if they are going to make friends and understand their school day. EdPlace takes a look at how each of these areas can affect day to day life in school for our children and how we can prepare them to decode these ‘hidden’ clues when they’re faced with them.


Facial expressions

Social cues and etiquette

We all use facial expressions to show our feelings - intentional or not!  Surprise, sadness, shyness and excitement all paint a picture on our faces that we’re familiar with and understand. If a friend is unhappy, a teacher is pleased, an instructor is flustered or a teaching assistant is puzzled, these emotions will most likely come with facial expressions. These expressions often remain a mystery to children with social communication issues. 

If they’re up against this non-verbal mix of cues on a daily basis in school, it makes for a complicated and very confusing time. 

So, how can we help SEND learners with this?  

Looking together through a selection of photos showing people using a variety of different facial expressions and talking about what they mean, will certainly help.   Playing games where your face portrays a particular emotion and asking your child to guess how you may be feeling is another way to make the learning fun and relevant.  Can your child show you an expression that fits how they feel?  


Body language

Gestures, the way we stand and our actions, all show just how we’re feeling or what we want to say.  In school, actions like teachers putting a finger on their lips or raising and lowering their hands to ask pupils to quietly stand up or sit down need to be picked up on, quickly.  Having to put up your hand when you want to speak in class or responding to a whistle blow at the end of playtime telling pupils to make a line, are all examples of actions that have to be understood.  Understanding the body language that comes with different moods and looking at accepted reactions to it is also useful.  To know that smiling or laughing at an adult who is unhappy with them in school isn’t what’s expected, may avoid potential tension on both sides!

Many children quickly learn these signals and what they mean but pupils who struggle with communication issues may need to be specifically taught about the expectations and reminded of them until it becomes part of their own routine.  

So, how can we help SEND learners with this? 

Talking to your child and/or teacher about the typical school day will help you to think about and explain the kinds of gestures, actions and typical body language that they may come across every day. 


How we use our voices

The way we speak, what we say and the pitch and tone of our voices are all important too.  Exactly how we say things can change the meaning of what’s being said and those with social communication difficulties sometimes take what’s being said literally or miss the subtleties.  It could simply be misunderstanding a joke or an idiom like, ‘Pull your socks up!’  However, when this misunderstanding means that they don’t recognise that someone is being unkind to them or that they’re in possible danger because an urgent instruction hasn’t been picked up on, then this can cause problems.

So, how can we help SEND learners with this?

Practise games where you say phrases together using different tones, pitch and volume and chat to your child about how they think you might be feeling if you say something in this way.  Talk about tv or film characters and how they might be feeling when they speak or use different volumes or tones.  Explaining to your child that the swimming instructor isn’t really shouting but that they have to speak loudly to be heard by swimmers in the pool may just take the anxiety out of swimming days!  Maybe checking that they know how to use a ‘classroom’ voice and a ‘playground’ voice in different parts of the school could help make a big difference to theirs and everybody else’s day! 


Body space

Personal space and how close we want others to be near to us is something most of us are sure about.  Often, children with social communication difficulties are unable to judge this and find themselves too close for comfort, especially with people outside the immediate family/friendship circle.   Practising an ‘arm’s length’ by holding out your arm and showing them an acceptable distance will prove to be a very useful life skill, especially as they get older.  Use the social target diagram from the EdPlace SEND hub to help talk about acceptable boundaries and personal space with your child and add in the names of your own family, friends and less familiar people around you.  This may help your child understand just why their friend won’t need a bear hug or a ‘welcome kiss’ when they meet up at school every morning!

So, how can we help SEND learners with this?

By rehearsing scenarios, practising expressions, playing games and reminding our children of what cues mean, we can support and help them to decipher these ‘mysterious’ expectations and non-verbal signals.   A greater awareness of social cues will then hopefully make it easier for them to make friends and improve interaction in social situations at school.


How can EdPlace help SEND students?

Explore the EdPlace SEND hub for more information and advice to help parents support their children with SEND. EdPlace also offers a range of different accessibility features for pupils with SEND across all resources; change fonts, colours and more - we're to help all students succeed, no matter their learning style. 

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