Summer Blog Series Post #8: The Role of Social Cognition in Talking to Different Audiences

By the time children and adolescents arrive at school, chances are that they’ve already interacted socially with a number of different people: their parents/caregivers, siblings, friends, school acquaintances, and bus driver, to name a few.  And once they’re in school, they assume the role of student. As students, they also interact with teachers, administrators, and other support staff around the school. When interacting with all these different individuals, students need to consider the audience, or person with whom they are interacting, in order to communicate effectively and “fit in” socially.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Students who are able to adjust their language in response to their current audience practice one of the most sophisticated aspects of social cognition: code switching. We don’t use the same language or speak in a similar manner with our parent(s) or caregiver(s) as we do with our friends; and we speak in a different voice when we are interacting with someone in authority (e.g., teacher, principal, or policemen). To effectively engage in code switching, students must devote attention to the understanding and use of language (i.e., code), as well as to the appropriate use of the language code of the particular audience. The ability to identify the audience and respond with the most appropriate code is a skill that we utilize throughout our lives.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with code switching:

The student …

  • modifies language for the audience, time, and place (e.g., chooses different words when speaking with her teacher than when talking with her friends at lunch about a favorite movie)
  • uses colloquialisms around friends
  • speaks respectfully to authority figures

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with code switching:

The student …

  • is teased for using “big words” or sounding too formal when interacting with other kids on the playground
  • gets into trouble for sounding disrespectful when speaking to others (e.g., uses slang when talking to the principal)
  • uses inappropriate language in front of adults or during class discussions

Strategies to help students struggling with code switching:

  • Guide students in identifying the conversational styles expected from different audiences (friends, teacher, parents, etc.). For example, have students complete a chart, writing down the language that they can and cannot use with different groups.
  • Students may need to improve their ability to modify both the content and the delivery of their interactions – both what they say and how they say it. Use role-play situations to help students develop these skills and structured opportunities for them to practice with school personnel. 
  • Students may benefit from examining the consequences of failing to switch conversation codes. Activities where students can play with language might include role-play activities and writing plays or short stories.
  • Students may need to develop an understanding of the language of their peer group to interact more effectively with their classmates. Setting up social skills training groups in your classroom may give students a chance to learn and field-test new skills and behaviors that contribute to social competence.  In order to maximize the likelihood that newly acquired knowledge and skills will transfer to other settings, talk with students about the need to accept others as well as how to develop adaptive coping strategies for unsuccessful attempts at social interaction.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with code switching.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

This is the last post in our blog series, Understanding Common Learning Challenges.  But not to worry — we’ve got some great ideas for the upcoming months and we’ll be continuing to post new entries regularly!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series  

  1. More information and strategies about using the appropriate language for a given group
  2. Related research on social cognition
  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association article on Social Language Use
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One thought on “Summer Blog Series Post #8: The Role of Social Cognition in Talking to Different Audiences

  1. Sometimes if I notice students speaking inappropriately to me I ask myself if they think I’m they’re teacher or their friend?

    At times, in an effort to build trust, especially with struggling students, we may actually be making the borders between the different positions of teacher and friend blurry, making it difficult for students to effectively code swith.

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