Mario and his four closest friends gather everyday on the playground after lunch. Although they ride the bus together in the morning, they have been apart for three whole hours, an eternity to this group of friends. After greeting each other with a shove, a joke, or a mild put-down, someone throws out a topic to talk about. Because these friends know each other so well, there is little risk of selecting an inappropriate topic. The possibilities are always the same: how exciting or boring school has been, interesting interactions with other students, or after school or weekend plans. Only by selecting a new topic, does an individual put himself at some risk. Selecting an appropriate topic is one dimension of effective interactions.
A second dimension of effective conversations, topic maintenance, involves knowing how long to continue conversation about a topic. For example, everyone in Mario’s group knows that a person must not end a topic of conversation before everyone has commented. To do so might make a friend feel left out. Similarly, an individual who talks too long about a topic is at risk of becoming boring – another social faux pas.
Key neurodevelopmental functions associated with selecting and maintaining topics of conversation include: effectively processing language, understanding and using time, self-monitoring, and effectively expressing oneself with language.
Here are some strategies to help students develop their ability to select and maintain topics during conversations.
Provide opportunities for students to develop and effectively use the language that is appropriate for a particular audience (known as trait vocabulary). Through role-play, guide students in identifying the conversational styles (language, expressions, etc.) expected from different audiences, such as friends, teachers, etc. Help students identify topics of conversation best suited to that audience.
Provide opportunities for students to develop conversational skills, including pacing a conversation, and engaging greeting skills. Students may write scripts together to act out in a role-play activity.
If a student makes frequent comments that don’t seem to relate to the topic at hand, consider why he/she may be making seemingly “off the cuff” remarks. For example, she may be unable to read the social situation properly, or may feel that she can’t contribute to the topic. This may leave a student feeling left out, and may cause her to try to change the subject. A student might also try to change the subject when he/she is more knowledgeable than others about a subject, is impatient at the pace of the discussion, etc.