FAQ on The Play Better Plan and Becoming Your Child’s Social Skills Coach

I offer practical suggestions to many of the common questions parents ask regarding how to help a child in Why Will No One Play With Me?  

Can the Play Better Plan also work with Teens, Tweens and Young Adults?

Yes. The lessons in Why Will No One Play With Me? can be aged up and the core of the plan – learning to understand how the social world works – is effective for people of all ages. The visuals in the book are meant to help children imagine the exercise and engage with them, but if your tween or teen thinks they are too immature, skip the visual. The open-ended questions –  the core of coaching – help your teenagers and young adult talk more openly about a tough topic and thus creates  collaborative conversations and enables discussions around tough topics. 

What if my child does not open up or engage with me?

Can this coaching work with a child who just shrugs or says ‘I don’t know” when you ask him anything? Some kids do not open up easily. And for people of any age that have a tough time socially, they are likely to shut down, become monosyllabic, and give little or no information. Often kids open up when they don’t have to focus on a big talk. Consider where your child might engage. Give him options by saying things like “I am thinking I will present you with what I think the situation is and you can tell me if I am off base.” Another strategy is to offer choices, as in “Would you like to work on this on the weekend or during the week?”

Why Will No One Play With Me? chapter 9 will show you how to bring up hard topics and pave the way to a healthy discussion. Chapter 9 also describes how to obtain the information coaches, teachers and siblings may need.

What if my child does a disappearing act?

Why Will No One Play With Me? addresses how to manage reluctant children and teenagers in depth. It is important to first look at the systematic issue. Is your child ducking out of family time? Do you have family time? If your child is not engaged in everyday family life, then you must address this issue first. This can take time, but the coaching conversation technique can be your best ally here. My advice is not to demand time from her or to impose a schedule but to use a more collaborative approach in a series of conversations.  Create structure, so your child is more present, set some boundaries and discuss collaboratively the reasons behind her disappearing act.

What can I do to practice open questions in the real world?

Open questions really are a phenomenal tool – they work with friends, colleagues and family members – even mothers-in-law! Try using these questions in your daily life. When you speak with your mother-in-law, for instance, ask her what makes something important to her? Ask your friends and co-workers what a good day look like? 

What if my child is unable to answer open questions?

Some children, due to their age or learning and processing style, do not do well with open questions. This may change with maturity, or it may be how their brain is wired. If a child cannot use open questions, ask more situationally based questions, use visuals to show your point such as YouTube videos and images,  or act out the scenario. Try either-or questions such as, “Was it the idea of making chit chat that got in the way or was it that you did not feel you needed to make chit chat?”

What if a child is on the autism spectrum?

Children (and adults) with autism spectrum disorder can do this program, but they will struggle with open-ended questions. Questions need to be more situation-specific because children with autism struggle to imagine wide-open situations and to pinpoint an answer. Questions just need to be adjusted. So instead of “What can you do to fit in?,” try “Let’s pick some specific things you can do to fit in.” I find that the What do you notice?…questions work well. And help develop essential mind-sets to understand the social world by framing questions, such as “How does Mommy act when she is busy? What do you guess Mommy feels when she is busy?”  The lessons in Why Will No One Play With Me? are wonderful to develop perspective-taking, self-regulation, and other executive functions. Adding visual cues and pictures to lessons and discussions will help a child with autism develop an understanding of the lesson

What if I cannot do as many lessons as the book recommends?

Try to regularly practice. Yes, you can have some wiggle room but if you regularly keep a schedule, there are benefits. Building a new mentality takes practice and repeated reinforcement. Neuroscience shows that coaching conversation and practice together create new neuropathways that change behavior. So, if you wing it, phone it in, and are hit-or-miss about practice, then you’re not going to get the results. Most importantly, your child won’t get the results. There are many ways to improvise and stay engaged. Stick with the basic Play better Plan and the results will help motivate you both to stick with it.

How frequently should you schedule play dates?

Kids with social difficulties typically have fewer reliable invites and thus opportunities to practice real-world socialization. For this coaching program to be successful, aim to schedule at least one playdate a week and one other social opportunity—something in a regular group setting, such as an art class or Scout meeting. You may also find a ready source in extended family and friends who want to support your child’s efforts and are pleased to plan get-togethers with that in mind. 

What if I cannot get as many play dates as the plan suggests?

Play is social practice in the real world and can help your child generalize or transfer skills you practice in coaching to her daily. Like building any skill, play dates are important ways to practice.

But Teenagers do not have play dates?

True! Teens and tweens do not have play dates and often as parent you no longer are able to arrange your child’s socialization. In Chapter 11 I address this more deeply. But the idea is that your child practices being social and has hang out and other social times. You can coach your child to help her find those social networks and you can explore with her what gets in the way and how she can be more effective at clubs, sports and bridging from hello to friendship. Many families I work with help their child find a place where they can meet new people, rebuild with past friendships and find teenagers with similar interests. Remember, without the right approach or skills, she won’t become effective at making friends.  Developing her approach and addressing underlying issues is key. 

For more help for your older child, turn to Friendship Is a Two-Way Street in Chapter 11 for the lessons on mixing in and the tools on Build On it. You can also guide him through the who, what, when, and where and help him write the text or form a plan to ask someone to hang out.

My child has no one to play with and now you want them to practice and have regular play dates?

If you’ve run into problems or dead ends in your efforts to set up play dates, know that you aren’t alone. Social skills development is a growing problem, and you can be sure that it affects many children and families in your area. You may need to broaden your search for a new social network your child can join. You might enroll her in a new activity, go to a park in different neighborhood, or locate local social skills groups in Meet Up or  google social skills groups near me. Even among kids who know your child’s reputation, there may be a second chance. Other suggestions from parents who have been in that spot and found a way forward include the following:

  • Ask a teacher or coach to suggest a potential playmate.
  • Practice skills and then join new activity.
  • Ask siblings if they could help by suggesting possible playmates.
  • Tap cousins and close friends you can confide in.
  • Approach a parent whose child also struggles and suggests a play date. 
  • Consider younger or older kids
  • Try small group activities such as Scouts, craft clubs, indoor play space, or club and chaperone

How long should play dates be especially in the beginning?

Shorter is better. Forty-five minutes to an hour and a half gives everyone time to warm up, engage in a game or free play, and wrap up, perhaps before anyone gets overtired, over stimulated, or overwhelmed in some other way.

For scripts, tools, advice and actionable exercises on helping children develop social skills, check out Why Will No One Play with Me? and How to SEL