By Candy Lawson
While school can be a positive social experience for many children, for others it can be a nightmare.
School is not only a place where children learn reading, writing and math. It is also a place where they learn to get along with other people and develop social skills. Social skills are the skills we need to interact adaptively in our cultural environment. Although students don’t get grades on social tests from their teachers, their peers are constantly giving them “grades” on “social tests” every day. If a child does well on these “tests”, he is apt to be well liked and happy. He will enjoy school and look forward to coming to school. If a child fails these tests, she is apt to feel disconnected and left out.
Failing a social test can be more painful to a child than failing a reading or science test. For some children, social skills can be the hardest subject to pass in school. Social skills play a very important role in a child’s emotional health and well-being. Without friendships, school can be a very unhappy, lonely place that a child might want to avoid.
Children are born with innate social competencies just as they are born with other innate strengths and weaknesses in abilities such as attention, memory, language and motor skills. Weakness in these other skills can negatively affect a child’s social competency. For example, children who have attentional problems may have trouble listening and attending in conversations, be unable to inhibit the impulse to talk or say things at inappropriate times. Children with memory problems may have difficulty following a conversation because they cannot remember what was just said. Children with language and communication difficulties are especially vulnerable to social problems. They may have difficulty keeping up with the pace of a conversation, especially when there is a group of children talking. Children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are especially ill equipped to deal with social situations.
Social Status at School
Just as with other abilities, children vary widely in how well they are able to form friendships and gain peer acceptance. Because students grade each other, children gain different levels of social status at school. Social status represents the child’s standing or position relative to other members of the class.
Some children are well endowed with social skills. They are popular and very well liked by all or most of their peers. Some seem to have a knack for making friends and getting along with others. They are very friendly and outgoing and always seem to be at ease around people. Other children are popular because they are on the school football team, play in a band, can draw very well or are really good-looking. Popular students are typically the leaders at school. They are self-confident and influential.
Many students are not really considered popular but are pretty well liked by their peers and have a number of friends. This group of children usually comprises the majority of the students in a class. These likeable children feel good about how they relate to others but may, at times, worry about what their classmates think of them.
Some children are shy, quiet and timid. They may have one or two close friends but not a large group of friends. While other students like them, they do not get involved in many activities in or out of school. They tend to feel awkward or uncomfortable around people they don’t know very well. Shy children usually aren’t unhappy about how they get along with others but wish that they could feel more comfortable and be more involved. Some shy children become anxious in social situations.
Other students are ignored or unnoticed by their peers. No one really dislikes or likes them. These children are not the ones picked first for activities, but they are not the ones that are teased or bullied either. They are usually social adept. Some of these children don’t like being ignored but others don’t mind because they are more interested in solitary activities or prefer interactions with adults more than with peers.
The children who have the most social difficulty at school are those that are rejected by their peers. Other children really don’t like them and may not treat them well. Rejected children are those that are picked on, laughed at, talked about, teased and bullied. They are widely disliked, excluded from activities and may be ostracized by their peers.
Another group of children are viewed in varying ways by different students. Some students like them a lot, others ignore them and others reject them. They are considered controversial.
Children are rejected by their peers for many reasons. It may be hard to like them because of their misbehavior. They seem mean and may bully other students, get into fights, act out in class or frequently get into trouble. Aggressive children have little idea of how their disruptive behavior affects their relationships with others. Other children are rejected because they are withdrawn, passive and anxious in the presence of their peers. They spend much of their time in isolation. Other children are rejected because they are different. They may look different, dress differently or learn differently. Their clothes, haircut or mannerisms may not match the current vogue. They may be “klutzes”, short, overweight or have a physical handicap. They may have trouble learning in the same ways as most children and be thought of as dumb or stupid. Unfortunately, these children are often the targets of teasing and bullying by more popular and socially accepted students.
Sometimes popular students may find that they can enhance their social status by leading the offense against children with social skill problems. Other students who want to gain the favor of popular students willingly collaborate against their rejected classmates, only increasing the humiliation and despair that rejected students feel. Adults in their roles as parents, teachers and school administrators should intervene swiftly when they see vulnerable children become the targets for more socially adept children.
While it can be a problem to have no friends in school, it can also be a problem to need friends too much. Many children who are rejected by their peers are unhappy. They feel alone and believe that no one cares about them. Some view acting out as their only way to get the attention they desire from others. In their minds, getting negative attention is better than getting no attention at all. Some children who are rejected by their peers are so desperate to be liked that they will do anything to be accepted. They may join gangs, use drugs and even commit crimes to gain peer acceptance and a sense of belonging in a group. Being accepted by a group is the only way that these children can feel good about themselves. They cannot tolerate social isolation and are terrified of being left out.
Other children don’t mind being left out sometimes and don’t need to be liked by everyone. They believe that not everyone needs or wants to be popular. Some children want to be different and should be admired for their individuality and willingness to be who they are. These children are not socially inept and are usually not the targets of teasing or bullying.
Good social skills require good communication skills. Because we communicate verbally and nonverbally, both of these types of skills contribute to how well students relate to their peers. Children with language problems often have trouble socially because they have difficulty understanding the words that other children use and/or putting their ideas into words to express these ideas to others. They can’t find the right words to use or easily put them together in a way that makes sense. They may have trouble understanding or telling jokes. They may not know the current jargon or idioms that their peers use. They may also have trouble keeping up the pace of conversations, particularly in a group. It is hard for them to jump into a conversation.
Other children, who may have good language skills, have trouble with nonverbal communication. They can’t “read” body language, facial expressions or tone of voice. These children interpret words literally and may miss the majority of the intended communication. Much of accurate communication depends on nonverbal cues and gestures. To communicate competently, a child must be able to process the whole message sent by another and integrate the verbal and nonverbal components of the message.
Children with verbal and nonverbal communication difficulties often resort to temper tantrums or “meltdowns” to communicate emotions such as anger and frustration. They may appear uncooperative, fresh or rude and may be called oppositional and/or defiant. Helping these children improve their communication skills can greatly improve their social skills and level of peer acceptance.
Social inability can be a lifelong problem. Therefore it is imperative that social skill deficits be identified early and addressed in much the same way as we identify and address children’s learning problems because social incompetence can be more debilitating and detrimental to success in life than learning problems.
There are several types of social skills that must be mastered for a child to be socially adept. These range from the ability to initiate, maintain and end a conversation to reading social signals to more complex skills such as solving problems and resolving conflict. The following examples represent some of the fundamental principles of relating well to others. Children with social skill deficits can be taught these skills directly by parents, teachers and/or professionals using the strategies of modeling, role-playing, rehearsal and practice.
- Greetings. Children develop relationships with peers by interacting with them. The first step in a social interaction is greeting someone. We not only greet others with words like “Hi!” or “How are you?” but with facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures such as a nod or a wave. Children with social inability may not say hello to people they know. They may walk right past them and not even look at them. If they do speak, they may not make eye contact and may simply look down at the floor. If they do say hello, it might not be in a very friendly tone of voice or with a smile. The nonverbal parts of greeting someone are just as important as the words. It’s not so much what you say but how you say it that lets people know you are glad to see them.
- Initiating Conversation. After you have greeted someone, you usually have a conversation with them. In order to carry on a conversation, a child must be able to initiate the conversation, maintain it and close it appropriately. This requires good listening and attentional skills, as well as the ability to take turns and probe for missing information. Sometimes children cannot think of anything to talk about. When you can’t think of anything to say, it can be good to ask the other person a question. The question can be about them or what they think about a movie or event that everyone is talking about. Sometimes when children don’t know what to say, they begin by talking about themselves or about something that the other person is not interested in. If they keep talking without giving the other person an opportunity to enter the conversation, or if they keep talking about themselves or something uninteresting to the other person, the person is likely to get tired of listening. He may walk away and even avoid future conversations with the child. Being a good conversationalist requires turn-taking and reciprocity. You have to listen as well as talk. If you don’t show an interest in what the other person has to say, he probably won’t be interested in talking to you. Impulsive children often have trouble knowing when to talk and when to listen.
- Understanding the Listener, Part I. Once a conversation is initiated, in order to maintain it, it is important to understand the audience you are talking to. Children with social inability often have difficulty adapting what they say to their listener. A socially adept child quickly and unconsciously identifies and categorizes his listener, measures what she planned to say against the anticipated response of the listener, and then proceeds, alters or avoids what she had planned to say. She knows that you don’t talk to authority figures in the same way that you talk to peers. Socially inept children can’t change their words or tone of voice to match their audience. For example, saying goodbye to a teacher with “Catch you later, dude!” would be inappropriate and could result in a detention. Adults often call children who have problems reading their audience disrespectful. Other students may view them as strange if they use stiff and formal language that is more suitable to conversations with adults than peers. A misread of the listener often leads to a misunderstood message and potential social rejection.
- Understanding the Listener, Part II. To converse in a socially appropriate manner, children must be able to take the perspective or point of view of the other person, i.e., think the way they think. To do this a child must pretend that he is the listener and think about what he needs to hear to understand what is being said. For example, a child might say, “I finally got finished.” and not provide the details of what he started. Many children assume that other people think and feel the way that they do. These children may appear insensitive and selfish, although this is not their intent. They may also appear “dingy” because they seem to be coming from another planet when they speak. When your audience has to guess what you are talking about, they are apt to feel uncomfortable and may be reluctant to converse with you.
- Empathizing. Empathy is similar to perspective taking but means that you are able to feel what the other person feels. Empathy allows you to really connect with other people. For example, if a student got an A on a math test and her friend got a D, she wouldn’t brag about her A to her friend because she knows it will make her feel bad because she didn’t do well. She could empathize with her by saying something like “That’s a bummer.” Other children often think of children who lack empathy as mean, unkind or self-centered.
- Reading Social Cues. It is very important to read social cues in a conversation. Cues are the hints and signals that guide us to the next thing to say or do. Social cues can be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal cues are the words that the other person is saying. Tone of voice is an important part of verbal cues. For example, “Oh, great!” can mean that something is really terrific, or if said sarcastically, can mean that something is awful. Nonverbal cues are things that we see rather than hear in a conversation, such as body language and facial expressions. For example, if a friend’s facial expression changes from a smile to a frown and his body gets stiff when you are talking about a new CD that you bought, you might want to change the topic or ask him if what you said upset him. Good detectives pay very close attention to nonverbal cues.
- Previewing. Conversations also require that you preview or think about what effect your words or actions may have on your listener before you say or do them. If you think that the impact will be negative, you can adjust what you might say or do. Impulsive children often have trouble with previewing and are unable to stop and think before they say or do something. For example, if a group of children was talking about the football game last week, it would be inappropriate to interject a sentence about the math exam next week. When you walk in on the middle of a conversation, it is always a good idea to listen for a few minutes before entering the conversation. If your friends were complaining about not being able to drive their parents’ cars to the dance on Friday, it wouldn’t win any points with them to say, “Get real! Did you really think that your parents would let you take their car to the dance?” Doing this would be tactless and insensitive.
- Problem-Solving. Problems and conflict are often a part of social interactions. Someone may not agree with you, get angry at something you say, insult you or become aggressive toward you. How you react to these conflicts depends on how good your problem solving skills are. Children who are not good social problem solvers have trouble settling conflicts and disagreements. They get mad easily and may not speak to someone because they are mad at them. It has to be “their way or the highway”. They always want to win no matter what the cost, even if that means losing a friend. It often also means making an enemy, which creates additional social problems. Conflicts cannot be avoided and are often necessary to “clear the air”. Turning a conflict from a “win-lose” situation to a “win-win” situation is the best way to resolve conflict. This requires negotiation and compromise, give and take, but results in a situation that all parties can live with and helps maintain friendships.
- Apologizing. Everyone makes social mistakes at one time or another. A person with good social skills is confident enough to make a sincere apology for his error. This is a courageous act and is the quickest and easiest way to correct a social blunder. Children with weak social skills may have trouble saying they are sorry because they can’t lose face. They are afraid that others may see them as weak. They might also be too proud, or feel stupid or foolish if they apologize. In reality, other people usually have a higher opinion of someone who apologizes for making a mistake.
Teaching Social Skills
Children with verbal and nonverbal learning disabilities often have social problems at school. These children struggle academically and socially. While schools address children’s learning problems, they often neglect children’s social needs and rely on parents and/or professionals to handle these problems. A lack of social skills and the inability to connect with others, form friendships and resolve conflicts can lead to more failure and distress for students than academic problems can.
- How Parents Can Help. Parents typically play the major role in teaching children social skills. Many children acquire social skills on their own. They don’t really need help. For children who do need help, there are many good self-help books on the market to assist parents in improving their child’s social abilities. Parents can directly teach social skills by modeling, role-playing and providing opportunities for their child to rehearse and practice new skills. Parents should encourage and praise the child for successfully using a new skill. Professionals typically intervene only when children are having substantial social difficulty with peers. These individuals can implement structured, guided and effective programs that often involve group work with peers. Children must then generalize the skills they learn in the group to school and other personal social situations.
- How Teachers Can Help. School is the place that children spend the majority of their time with peers. It is, therefore, a natural and perfect setting for children to learn and practice social skills. While teachers don’t have to teach a class in social skills, they can take advantage of every opportunity to help children improve their social skills. They should be alert to teasing and bullying and aware of children that are rejected or ignored by their peers. They should work cooperatively with the children’s parents to prevent the humiliation, embarrassment and distress that befall these children. Teachers can be valuable facilitators in helping children gain social competency. Pairing a socially inept child with a socially adept child, involving children in cooperative instead of competitive learning exercises, identifying and acknowledging the strengths of all children, understanding social weaknesses and creating an environment in which diversity is accepted and celebrated can greatly enhance all children’s social abilities, sense of belongingness and self-esteem not just in the classroom but in life.
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