Social Communication in the Midst of a Pandemic: The Rules Changed!

By Linda Gross

March 15, 2021

When we enter an in-person class, meeting, or activity we use our social skills to engage with others. We greet each other verbally or nonverbally. We use previous experiences to guide our interactions. We consider the hidden curriculum – the unstated, assumed rules – to navigate the social landscape. We do all of this without even thinking about it! However, students with language-based learning disabilities (LBLDs) may have comorbid pragmatic language deficits or a Social Communication Disorder (SCD) that make understanding these social nuances difficult. The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated things…to say the least! The in-person experiences I described above have changed. We are wearing masks, so our reliance on facial expressions is compromised. We need to keep a “social distance,” which would be deemed awkward in pre-Covid times. Entering a virtual meeting room (e.g., Zoom, Google) is different from entering a traditional classroom. 

How can we support students’ social communication skills now and as they transition towards a “new normal?”  I find the best approach is to consider what skills and strategies I taught before these extraordinary circumstances caused a shift. Can I use those same constructs and tweak them a bit? I started with the following core foundational skills: problem solving, flexible thinking, perspective taking, and the hidden curriculum. 


Let’s take a closer look at these critical skills.

Problem Solving. Good problem solvers identify a problem, assess the “size” of the problem, and generate multiple possible solutions. They then choose the best solution and determine if it adequately solved the problem. If not, they try another solution. Poor problem solvers have trouble with one or more of these steps. Currently, educators problem solve as they recreate lessons to be delivered virtually and adapt to new technology. Students troubleshoot how to turn in assignments, join virtual meetings, find their materials, and the list goes on. Even people with good problem solving skills have felt overwhelmed during these unprecedented times. Students with problem solving difficulties may struggle to effectively get through the school day. Implementing Landmark’s Teaching Principles™, such as modeling and micro-uniting and structuring tasks, has become more important than ever to assist students in solving problems. We can also refer to social emotional learning principles to teach responsible decision making

Flexible Thinking (Cognitive Flexibility). A flexible thinker has the ability to shift thinking or think about something differently. Inflexible thinkers may get stuck and find it difficult to mentally shift gears, perhaps perseverating on an idea or topic. They are often described as “black and white” thinkers, have poor predicting skills, and may not reference previous experiences. Rigid thinking can make transitioning from in-person to remote, then back to in-person quite challenging. To help students learn how to be flexible thinkers, I recommend starting with activities that teach the concepts of rigid and flexible as concrete constructs, like those found on the Socially Skilled Kids website. Once students understand these basic concepts, more abstract thinking can be introduced.

Perspective Taking. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is a common idiom that illustrates what we mean by perspective taking. That is, we need to be able to consider how another person thinks or feels. We turn to Theory of Mind (ToM) to further understand this concept. ToM refers to the ability to attribute mental states to others. The cues we rely on to do this may be harder to suss out during Covid-times due to limited or different peer interactions. One way to begin teaching perspective taking is showing students how to be “socal observers” or “social detectives.” You want students to notice behaviors and figure out why a person might be expressing a particular emotion or idea. Teacher modeling is a valuable strategy. 

Hidden curriculum.  This refers to the unwritten or unspoken rules in a situation or setting. We encounter hidden curriculum throughout the day in our schools and as we go about our business in the community. For example, students just know that the back table in a high school cafeteria is the “senior table” or that Mrs. Smith doesn’t give homework when she’s in a good mood. You can use social narratives to teach the school’s hidden curriculum. “Social narratives provide support and instruction by describing social cues and appropriate responses to social behaviors and teaching new social skills.” (Myles, 2004)

Transitioning back to in-person learning

Just as we are getting into the groove of remote or hybrid schedules, many school districts are transitioning back to in-person learning. That sounds awesome! However, this transition is going to present new challenges for students with social communication (pragmatic language) difficulties. Providing explicit instruction with problem solving, flexible thinking, perspective taking, and the hidden curriculum can help with this shift. 


Myles, B. S., Trautman, M., & Schelvan, R. L. (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Autism Asperger Pub.


Linda is a certified speech-language pathologist who has been practicing since 1988. Throughout her career, she has worked in clinical and public school settings evaluating and treating individuals with a variety of communication disorders. Linda joined Landmark High School as the expressive language program director in 1994, transitioning into a consultation role in this program in 2003. Linda has also been a Landmark Outreach Program faculty member since 1996, consulting to public schools, as well as teaching face-to-face and online graduate-level courses. Her expertise is in child and adolescent expressive language disorders with a particular focus on social communication skills.

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