When you’re talking a lot and worried about how much space you are taking up

A reader asked:

Do you have any advice for how to facilitate participation when you’re a student who does tend to talk a lot?

I have social anxiety but when it doesn’t affect me as badly I tend to talk a lot. I’ve tried waiting for others to speak but they often don’t even if I wait 30+ seconds… And then I feel an intense urge to fill the space.

realsocialskills said:

A couple of things:

It might be ok if you’re talking more than some other students. Very few classes have everyone talking an exactly equal amount.

Different students have different preferences about how much they like to talk in class. It’s ok that some students prefer to talk more and some students prefer to talk less. It’s not always a problem. It becomes a problem if some students are taking up space in a way that prevents others from participating.

I’m not sure how to tell whether you are taking up space in a problematic way. One way might be to ask your teacher after class or in office hours if they think it’s becoming a problem. (If they do think it’s a problem, they’ll probably be glad you asked and that you care.)

Another way might be to watch whether you’re interrupting people. And if you are interrupting people, whether or not they’re shut down by your interruptions. If you’re interrupting people and that’s resulting in them not getting to make their points, that’s a problem. (Interrupting isn’t always a problem – in some cultures it’s normal and expected for people to respectfully interrupt one another and be respectfully interrupted in turn. If the class you’re in doesn’t have that culture, it’s important to be careful about interrupting.)

Here’s one strategy that might work for coping with silences without interjecting to fill them (this can also work for overcoming urges to interrupt people).

Typing or writing out what you’re having an urge to say:

  • If you type or write the reply you have an urge to make, it can calm the urge without you having to say anything
  • While you’re doing this, someone else may start talking
  • Then, if you still want to say the thing, you can take a turn and say it
  • If you don’t want to say a specific thing but are just feeling uncomfortable, typing/writing about how uncomfortable you are might work to fill the space until someone else starts talking (This works for me sometimes; it seriously backfires for other people. Your milage may vary; trust your own judgment about whether it will be helpful or harmful to you).
  • This can work even in a seminar class when not everyone is taking notes
  • (It may be more socially accepted in that context to use an iPad than a laptop, because you’re significantly less likely to be perceived as goofing off on Facebook with an iPad)

Short version: Talking more than some other students in a class isn’t always a problem in itself. It’s a problem if the way or the amount you talk prevents others from participating. Typing out stuff you’re thinking of saying before you say it can make it easier to refrain from interrupting people and from rushing to fill silences.

7 second rule

If you’re leading a group discussion or teaching a class, it’s important to pause for questions periodically. Part of pausing for questions is giving people time to react before moving on. People can’t respond instantaneously; they need time to react. If you don’t give them time to react, it can give you an inaccurate impression of their level of interest or engagement.

Eg:

  • Leader: Does anyone have any questions?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: Ok, moving on. 

When this happens, it’s not usually because no students had questions. It’s usually because the teacher didn’t give them enough time to process before moving on. It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of time, but there has to be some. A good amount of time to wait is seven seconds. If you wait seven seconds before moving on, someone will usually say something.

Seven seconds can feel like a really long time when you are teaching. It can feel like an awkward empty space that, as the teacher, you’re supposed to be filling. That can lead to interactions like this:

  • Leader: I just said a controversial thing. What do you think of the thing?
  • Group: …
  • Leader (immediately):… none of you have opinions about this?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: (immediately):… Really? No one?

When this happens, it’s usually not that no one had anything to say. It’s usually that the leader or teacher kept interrupting them while they were trying to get words together and respond. It’s easy to inadvertently do this, because it feels like you’re supposed to be doing something to get your students to respond. But, often, the best thing you can do to get them to respond is to wait and give them space to do it in.

It helps to remember that as the teacher or leader, you shouldn’t actually be taking up all of the space. You should also be offering your students some space and listening to them, and allowing them to ask you questions so they can understand. It’s ok if that space isn’t immediately filled; no one can react instantaneously. 

Short version: If you wait seven seconds every time you pause for questions/responses, it gives people time to process, and some people will become capable of participating who weren’t before.

Dealing with isolation at school

A reader asked:

What do I do if my friends are rude to me constantly but they’re my only friends and I literally cannot make friends with anyone else cause I have a v v v small school and they’re the only people around my age? It hurts a lot and I get overlooked a lot and when I try to say something I get ignored or told to shut up:

realsocialskills said:

A couple of things:

These other people at your school might not be your friends. People who dislike you and are mean to you aren’t actually friends. Friends are people who you like, and who like you back. Friends are people who respect you and who you respect. Friends are people who are, generally speaking, nice to you (no one is perfectly nice all the time; everyone is mean or obnoxious occasionally. But people who are intentionally cruel are not friends. They’re bullies).

If people don’t like you, don’t want you around, and are mean to you, that’s probably not something you can change. It’s not usually possible to persuade people to be your friends or be nice to you if they don’t already want to.

Something you can sometimes do is assert boundaries. Sometimes if people are nice to you sometimes but not other times, you can limit your interactions to contexts in which they are nice.

eg:

  • If students in your school are nice when adults are looking and mean when they’re not, it might be best to limit your interactions to closely supervised settings (eg: hang out with them in the lunch room and not outdoors during breaks)
  • Some people are nice in mixed-gender grounds but mean in single-gender groups, or vice versa. If you notice that pattern, it might be worth paying attention to the gender composition of a group you’re trying to hang out with
  • Some people are nice one on one, but mean in groups. It can sometimes be worth making a point of hanging out with those people only individually.

That said: Being isolated at school is horrible, but I think that being socially intertwined with people who are mean to you is a lot worse (I’ve experienced both). I’m not you and I can’t tell you what you should do – you are the best judge of that. But, from my perspective, I think you would probably be better off seeking friends elsewhere. That’s probably possible even if you’re in a small school.

Friends don’t have to be people who go to your school. Friends don’t have to be your age. Friends don’t have to be people you see in person. There are other ways to have friends.

I’m assuming that you’re a teenager and that you don’t have very much control over your life right now. I don’t know which of these suggestions are realistic for you, but probably some of them are:

One option you almost certainly have is to make friends online. Internet friends are real friends, and can be much better friends than people you know in person who are mean to you. If you take those relationships seriously as friendships, it will probably substantially improve your social life. One good way to meet people online is by participating in a fandom. If you really like something, finding other people to talk to online about that thing can be a good way to make friends and have fun interacting with people. If you’re being actively bullied at school, or if your parents are hostile, it’s probably best to do this in forums that don’t require you to use your real name. (Eg: Tumblr is likely better for this than Facebook.)

Another option is to join a club or group that takes you out of your school, or to take a class outside of school. For instance, many people enjoy the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. (Unlike Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts is a secular organization and is not actively hostile to gay and trans kids.) It doesn’t work for everyone, but some people who are very socially isolated in school have a good time socially in the scouts or in other clubs.

If there is a community center in your area, you might be able to play a sport or take an art class. It doesn’t have to be a class specifically for people your age – it can be really, really good to meet people of a range of ages, especially if you have trouble connecting with people your own age. If you find a group of people doing a thing you like, you’re likely to have more friends than if you’re just relying on people who go to your school.

If you’re in high school, taking college classes at a local community college might also be an option. That might be both more interesting than what you’re doing at school, and a way to meet people who don’t go to your school and might be nicer than you. (It doesn’t always work that way, but it does for some people.)

Another option is to volunteer. Is there a cause in your area that you care about? It might be worth finding out if there’s anything that you can do to help them. Again, that could bring you into contact with other people who care about the same things you care about, and it might be something people with power over your life would approve of. Volunteering to visit elderly people might also be something you could do. There are a lot of isolated elderly people who don’t use computers who want social contact, and some of them are really awesome. Some groups that match people accept teenagers as volunteers. (Again, not for everyone, but this is a good thing for some people.)

If you’re religious or your family is, there might be things you can get involved in at your place of worship that you’d enjoy and that would expand your social options beyond kids your age at your school. If you have a youth group that is largely populated by the same kids who are mean to you at school, it might be better to get involved in something else. For instance, there might be a social action or charitable group that you could join. Or an all-ages study group. (Definitely not for everyone, especially not if religion is something you’re unpleasantly coerced into participating in. But can be good for some people.)

Short version: Mean people aren’t good friends. It’s usually better to seek out the company of people who are nice to you than to try to make friends with mean people. Even if you are young and go to a tiny school, there are options for finding friends. Scroll up for some ideas.

Tell students whether they will be expected to share writing

Students write very differently based on different expectations about whether they will have to share it. For instance, these are all different kinds of writing:

  • Writing that is just for their own processing
  • Writing that only the instructor will read
  • Writing that will be shared with peers, but not seen by the instructor
  • Writing that will be shared with both the instructor and peers
  • Writing that will be graded
  • Writing that will not be graded

When students have to show work to people they weren’t expecting to show it to, that can be embarassing. It can be embarassing because it contains information they’d rather not share widely, or because it isn’t yet polished to an extent that makes them comfortable showing it to others.

To give an example:

  • Teacher: Ok, everyone, take 40 minutes and write a short story about a childhood pet.
  • (40 minutes later)
  • Teacher: Ok, pass your story to the person sitting next to you. Everyone check everyone else’s grammar.
  • This makes several students very uncomfortable, for these reasons:
  • Bob is terrible at grammar and insecure about it. He focused on getting a draft of the story first, not expecting that someone would be taking a red pen to his grammar mistakes. He would have focused on grammar if he’d known it would be a grammar exercise.
  • Susan’s story is about a time her dog ripped up her favorite doll and made her cry. She doesn’t want all of her peers to know that story because some of them will tease her about it. She would have written something less private if she’d known peers would see it.
  • James couldn’t think of a story about his pets and spent the whole time writing how frustrated he was that he couldn’t do the assignment. He doesn’t want his classmate to see that he failed at the assignment.
  • Val didn’t have a real pet and so she wrote about an imaginary robot. She doesn’t know if that counts or not, and is afraid that another student will think she did it wrong.
  • Bruce decided to write a story in a style he’d never tried before, and isn’t happy with the result. He doesn’t want to show his first attempt to a peer. He would have done something he was more familiar with if he’d known.

Short version: When you assign writing assignments to your students, tell them who will be reading them. In particular, if students will be expected to show their work to peers, warn them ahead of time so that they can make an informed choice about what to write.

On being in school and working

What are some ways to balance work and school? Cus I’m working 25 to 30 hours a week and taking only three classes and I’m still behind. I don’t know how some people work fulltime AND go to school fulltime while paying rent and having kids.

realsocialskills said:

I don’t know how people balance that kind of schedule with school/kids/work. I think that it’s nearly impossible and that most people couldn’t do it.

Here are a couple of things I do know about passing classes under time pressure:

Choose your classes carefully:

  • Not all classes are equally time-consuming.
  • If you’re working a lot of hours, it’s probably better not to take all the really time-consuming classes in the same semester
  • (Eg: if you’re taking a class that has five papers, or lots of complicated programming assignments, it might be better not to take others than are like that at the same time).
  • It can also go a lot better to select classes based on who is teaching them rather than based on which description theoretically looks best
  • Classes go much more smoothly with teachers you’re readily compatible with
  • (particularly if you tend to need a lot of help)

Consider taking classes that are relevant to your work:

  • If some of what you’re working on at work can inform your class assignments, that makes life a lot easier
  • For instance, it’s much easier to write a paper on something you’ve researched for work than it is to research something else *and* what you have to work on at work
  • And more generally: if the concepts you’re learning in school are related to and overlapping with what you think about at work, it will be much less time consuming than if you have to do both separately
  • This can be true even if your work isn’t particularly intellectual on the face of it. No matter what your job is, it involves knowing things, and classes are easier if you can make knowing those things relevant.

It is possible to pass classes without doing all of the reading:

  • Most people don’t do all of the reading (except in seminar classes in which most of class consists of an in-depth group discussion of the reading).
  • If you are struggling to keep up, you may well be doing more of the reading than you should be.
  • It’s worth learning how to skim text in order to get the basic ideas
  • When a teacher cites something a lot in class, it’s generally worth reading it again after more closely

Having a study group or partner helps in several ways:

  • Perspective from other people can make it easier to tell whether you’re understanding what you need to understand
  • It can also make it easier to tell whether you’re doing *more* work than you need to in order to keep up and pass.
  • You can also pool knowledge. There will always be things that some people get and some people miss, and some people talk about it.
  • Meeting with others at a set time to do the work for a class can stop it from expanding to fill all available space
  • Even if you don’t have a regular study group, sometimes you can organize review sessions before tests. Those can also be helpful in similar ways.

On stimming in class

Do you know of any quiet or discrete fidget/stim toys? I find that I need to fidget in my school discussion group to keep from getting super anxious, but if I play with a hairband under the table or doodle then people notice. Most of the fidget toys I find online are colourful, which I don’t want because people will see. I will try a stress ball, but I think that my fingers need to be doing things. Thank you 🙂

realsocialskills said:

A couple of thoughts:

There probably aren’t many ways to stim that are completely undetectable. Some things I can think of that might be harder to detect than some others:

  • Rocking back and forth subtly
  • Chewing gum
  • Using typing as a stim (eg: typing out scripts or words you like over and over)
  • Using fidget jewelry .

Also, knitting and crocheting are not discreet at all, but they are often socially accepted in classes or group conversations. Depending on your particular group, that might be an option.

Another thought: maybe it’s ok if people notice:

  • Stimming isn’t necessarily as dangerous as it feels
  • Sometimes it’s okay to stim openly. Sometimes nothing awful happens
  • And sometimes people react badly, but in ways that are easier to put up with than the stress of suppressing stims
  • Stimming openly and conspicuously is not the right choice for everyone
  • But it’s probably the right choice for more people than realize it
  • So it might be worth reconsidering whether hiding your stims is the right choice
  • Or it might not be. You’re the best judge of this, and you have no obligation to stim visibly.

When teachers refuse to accommodate your disability

A reader asked:

What to do if teachers refuse to give you the accommodation? I couldn’t ever finish my work because they would refuse to write down things ect

realsocialskills said:

That’s a hard problem.

In my experience, you usually can’t make them write down assignments if they’re not doing it willingly (even with a letter). Sometimes you can, if you’re sufficiently insistent.

I’ve had surprisingly good results with reminding a teacher politely and discretely the first time, reminding them in front of other students the second time, and insisting more bluntly that it’s not ok for them to neglect to do this the third time. I’ve also had this blow up in my face. Your milage may vary. It’s not something I’d wholeheartedly recommend, but it does work sometimes.

Also, if the problem is that they don’t remember (or can’t be bothered to remember), sometimes reminding them by email works. Eg, by sending an email after every class asking them what the assignment is.

Another thing that can help is getting support from other students rather than the teacher. For instance, getting the assignment from a peer who is able to write it down. Or getting other students to also ask in the moment for it to be written down so it doesn’t have to come just from you all the time. (That helps me both in terms of getting what I need, and in not feeling like I’m alone and unreasonably demanding.)

If you are in college, another thing you can do is change classes. If a teacher is not treating you well and is making it impossible to do the work, treating that as a red flag and changing to a different class can make things a lot better. In college, there is often a lot more flexibility to work with people who are willing to accommodate you, and it’s important to learn how to take advantage of that flexibility.

When schools approve of ableist harassment

There’s a boy at school who makes me uncomfortable. He seems to appear wherever I am. My 504 plan allows me to eat in a small back room in the library, and he’s even found me there and joins me for lunch. I’ve told him several times “I prefer to eat alone” but he responds with “That’s no fun! Come meet my friends!” I’ve tried ignoring him, but he just asks me lots of questions. My mom and therapist are happy I’ve “made a friend and stopped isolating!” and won’t help. How do I make him go away?
realsocialskills said:
I’m sorry this is happening to you.
He shouldn’t harass you like that, and your school shouldn’t let him. You’ve made it clear that you want to be left alone, and he’s following you and insisting on bothering you anyway. That’s not friendly. That’s harassment.
I’m not sure how to get him to stop. That depends a lot on the situation, and particularly whether or not there are any adults willing to help you. One thing that helps is to keep straight in your mind what’s going on. It’s perfectly ok that you don’t want to eat with this guy. He should leave you alone. You’re not doing anything wrong; he is being mean.
Since you mention that you’re eating in the library, I wonder if the librarian might be able to help you. Sometimes librarians care about protecting kids from harassment. It might help to frame it in terms of “This guy won’t leave me alone, and it’s making me really uncomfortable. He keeps following me in here. Can you please help me to get away from him?”
Another thing to consider: Who put the room in your 504 plan? Was anyone involved in that decision besides your mom and your therapist? Might someone else who was involved understand what’s going on and why you need help?
Another possibility: telling him to go away more forcefully, eg:
  • “I don’t want to eat with you. Please leave me alone.” might work better than “I prefer to eat alone.”
  • “Stop following me.”
  • “I don’t want to talk to you.”
  • “Stop asking me questions; I don’t want to have this conversation.”
If you’re more forceful in saying no, it’s likely that he’ll act all hurt and like you’re doing something terrible to him. It might also eventually work if you are firm and explicit about saying no, and don’t back down when he acts all hurt about it.
That’s a standard way that people who are willfully violating boundaries react when someone says no. (I wrote about this in the context of ways creepy guys make it impossible for women to say no politely.)
It’s okay not to care that your boundaries hurt his feelings. It’s okay not to care if he’s upset that you don’t want to be his friend or eat lunch with him. That is not actually your problem. You’re not obligated to provide him with attention, company, or validation, no matter how friendly he thinks he’s being.
Eating alone is not something you’re doing to him. Harassing you is something mean he’s doing to you.

Your parents and therapists should be supporting you. It’s terrible that they’re not (but unfortunately, this is not an unusual situation.)
Short version: If someone follows you around and keeps trying to interact over your objections, that’s not friendly, that’s creepy. You don’t have to be someone’s friend or hang out with them if you don’t want to. Therapists shouldn’t try to convince you that being harassed is a positive development in your life. It’s okay to have boundaries. You get to decide who your friends are and aren’t.

Negotiating accommodations without a diagnosis

How do you ask for accomendations when you don’t have a go-to reason to explain why you need it? I don’t know if I’m disabled (I find info about disablities completely inaccessible to me, though i’ve wondered from seeing people talk about things i’ve also experienced) but I do know I can’t learn in certain ways, or process information that’s presented in certain ways, and that I’m prone to sensory overload. people act like i’m being overdemanding when I bring it up. am i? if not, what do I do?
realsocialskills said:
I’ve been there, a lot. I was only diagnosed after college, even though I’ve always been disabled. I was just as impaired before diagnosis; being without a label didn’t magically create abilities. So I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating accommodations informally.
I’ve found that what works best is to give a very simple version of the problem, and to ask for something specific. This can make accommodating you seem like a straightforward thing to do.
For instance: “This is hard for me to read. Is there an electronic copy?” works much better than “I’m autistic and I have visual tracking issues and executive dysfunction and I need a different format.“
Or: “Noisy College Hall is big and crowded. I never understand anything there. Can we have class in the usual room instead of moving?”
Or: “I don’t understand the assignment when it’s said verbally. Can you email me the details?”
Short version: You don’t have to go into great diagnostic detail when you’re negotiating with a teacher directly. You can start by describing the problem and a solution you think would work. This doesn’t always work, but it’s the most effective approach I know of for this situation.

A question about bullying and being an adult who kids ask for help

 
This ask is about bullying and being an adult who kids ask for help:
 
I know from experience that it’s important not to teach bullied kids that the way to defend themselves is to mentally place themselves as superior to the bullies, because that can crush the kid’s self-esteem later, & can so easily turn them into someone who bullies a different kid to feel better.
 
But what should you say to support kids instead?
 
yrs, a past bullying victim, now older & trying to support kids thru the same thing
 
realsocialskills said:
 
I think, before considerations about teaching kids who come to you for help self defense, it’s important to consider what you might be able to do to protect them. You are likely in a position to offer them material protection as well as self-defense advice. This is a situation in which actions speak louder than words.
For instance:
 
Can you offer bullied kids a refuge?
  • If you’re a teacher in a school, can you start a lunch club or recess club where kids can eat and hang out in your classroom instead of going to the playground?
  • If neighborhood kids are coming to you for help, can you make your house or yard a safe space for them to hang out in away from bullies?

If you’re an adult with some kind of power over kids (eg: a teacher, a youth group leader, etc), you might be able to make some things better by supervising things more:

  • Can you pay close attention to what’s going on, and intervene when the wrong kid gets suspended?
  • (You know from being bullied that the kid who gets caught often isn’t the kid who started it.
  • If you pay enough attention, you might be in a position to protect the kid who is being unjustly punished.)
  • Can you pay attention to when harassment and bullying rules are being broken, and enforce them? Rules can actually make a difference when they are enforced consistently.
  • (For instance: if there’s a rule against touching people’s stuff without permission, can you pay attention to when kids take other people’s stuff and insist that they stop?)
If the bullies are taking or destroying the kid’s possessions in a place that’s hard to supervise, can you offer them a safe place to keep it?
  • Being able to store things in a place bullies can’t get to can make a huge difference
  • For instance, a kid whose science project keeps getting destroyed by bullies can complete it if teachers give her a secure space to store it and work on it
  • A kid whose dolls keep getting destroyed by his brothers will probably be much more ok if an adult gives him a safe place to keep his dolls.
If the bullies are preventing the kids from eating:
  • Can you provide a safe place for them to eat?
  • If bullies keep taking food away from the kids who are coming to you for help, can you give them food?
  • If kids need to break rules in order to eat safely, can you allow them to break the rules?
 
Has the kid been physically injured or threatened in a way the police might take seriously?
  • Sometimes the police might take things seriously even if the school does not
  • Calling the police is not always a good idea, but sometimes it is
  • If calling the police might be warranted, can you offer to sit with the kid while they call the police?
  • Or to call for them?
  • Or to go to the police station and make a report together?
  • Going to the police is a lot less scary if someone is helping you; and children are more likely to be believed if adults are backing them up
  • If they have to go to court, can you offer to go along for moral support? (It makes a difference. Testifying is often terrifying and horrible and it’s not something anyone should ever have to do without support)
What else can you do?
  • I don’t know you, so I don’t know what the kids coming to you need, or what you’re in a position to offer.
  • But there are almost certainly things you can do that I haven’t thought of
  • if you think it through, you can probably think of and do some things that materially help bullied kids.
  • Actions speak louder than words. If you help protect them, you send the message that they are worth protecting.
You can also be an adult who believes them:
  • Being believed about bullying is incredibly powerful
  • So is listening
  • Kids who are bullied often have everyone in their life try to downplay how awful it is
  • If you believe them about their experiences and listen, you send the message that it matters that others are treating them badly
  • And that it’s not their fault.
  • And that they’re ok and the bullies are mean.
There is an emotional self-defense technique that works better than the destructive one we were taught as children. It was developed by Dave Hingsburger, and he describes it in The Are Word (a book anyone working with people who are bullied for any reason need to read.)
 
I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about how it works, and I will probably do so again in the future.