Updated: July, 2022
© 2022 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
We all have smarts in lots of different areas. Some people have lots of smarts in academic areas, like writing, coding, chemistry, or advanced quantum physics. Some people have lots of physical smarts, if they play a sport for instance, walk regularly, or are avid stretchers. We have smarts around our interests and hobbies, and we also have social smarts. Our social smarts are what help us walk into a busy train station, find the person we are planning to meet, buy our ticket and board the train together. It’s how we can make a smart guess that the train is getting ready to go and it’s time to take our seats. And it’s our social smarts that help us share space effectively if it ends up we’re sitting next to a stranger until we reach our destination. (Note: the idea of different kinds of smarts is introduced to our elementary-age students in the Social Thinking book, You are a Social Detective. If you happen to work with students who are in upper elementary school, please refer to another article on our website for ideas on how we teach the idea of different kinds of smarts to older students, Teaching Students About Their Learning Styles (Strengths, Differences, and Relative Challenges).)
The reality is that we’re all wired differently. We each have our own likes and dislikes, strengths, and challenges, things our brains make easy for us, and things our brains don’t make easy. Talking about things that are difficult or challenging for us isn’t always enjoyable and it’s sometimes anxiety provoking. When we work with students with social learning challenges on their social thinking and related social skills, we’re asking them to talk about and work on something their brains don’t make easy for them. Talking about social in the context of brain smarts and brain wires is one way we can start the conversation or keep it going.
Let’s expand this idea of different brain smarts by adding to it the idea of “brain wires.” We can think of things our brains make easy for us as long wires in our brains. These long wires can be things we’ve learned about over time or that we’ve practiced. We can contrast this with short wires; things that are not as easy for us or that we haven’t learned a lot about. It’s important to point out that short wires aren’t bad things. We ALL have short wires and all of our smarts started out as short wires at some point.
We are constantly growing our brain smarts and our brain wires. With time, practice, and support (from strategies, tools, or help and coaching from others) we can improve our smarts and make our wires longer. Some wires are easier to grow than others, especially if it is something we enjoy doing or are motivated to work at. Think about picking up a new hobby or learning to play a new video game. Sometimes we can use our smarts in one area to help us in another, where our wires aren’t as long. For instance, maybe you have great planning smarts and that can help you work on a big science project about the solar system. Or think about applying your great observational skills to help you figure out the hidden rules in a new situation. When I’m talking with my students, I always start with my own brain as a model and a way to introduce the language we want to use around smarts. I tell them that my brain makes reading easy for me, so I have long wires in reading smarts, but that when it comes to spelling, my brain wires are short!
Beyond the discussion around brain smarts and wires, there are a number of different ways to explore this concept with students in a concrete and visual way. We’ve had fun and success creating brains out of modeling clay and using pipe cleaners of different lengths stuck into the clay to represent the different wires we each have in our brains. In the eight-minute video, A fun and hands-on way for teaching about different kinds of “brain smarts”, I explore the concept in more depth, talk about ways to help students understand different kinds of smarts, and demonstrate using a clay brain to convey this concept.
Watch Ryan Hendrix, Social Thinking clinician and author of this article, use manipulatives to teach about "brain smarts".
In teaching and sharing the idea of brain smarts, brain wires, and social smarts, we can look at each other’s brains (whether made of clay or drawn on paper) and see how our smarts are different and how some of them might also be the same. If we can see the things that we are good at, things that are easy or that we have grown our smarts in over time, then conversations around the things our brains don’t make as easy, or with which we haven’t had much success, can be a little easier.
Some of our most effective teaching comes from students understanding why we are talking about a topic or doing an activity, or more explicitly, the brain smarts we are working to grow or make stronger. If we’re working on the social smart of “thinking with eyes,” for example, we can talk about how we are growing our “thinking with eyes” smarts. We can then add a “thinking with eyes” wire to our brain or lengthen the existing wire that represents this smart. This makes the process of learning something tangible, that we can see. One of my favorite examples of this happened when I made a comment to a student about how he was able to be flexible in a game and use a game piece he didn’t like. He jumped up from the game, ran over to his drawing of his brain, lengthened his flexible thinking wire, and declared, “I grew my flexibility smarts!”
My students have loved to add to and watch their smarts grow, and really who doesn't like tangible positive feedback on the progress they’re making? I know I love adding to my spelling smarts, one tiny bit of pipe cleaner at a time.
Ryan Hendrix is a member of the Social Thinking Training and Speakers Collaborative and a co-author of the We Thinkers! Social Thinking series for early learners.