Can schools teach social skills?

Kindergarten teachers’ assessment of children’s “social competence” — cooperation, helpfulness, “understanding feelings” — predicted their future education, employment and arrest records, according to a long-term study.

The researchers had statistically controlled for the effects of poverty, race, having teenage parents, family stress and neighborhood crime, and for the children’s aggression and reading levels in kindergarten, writes David Bornstein in a New York Times blog.

Madison Reid, a student in Mrs. Neal's 2nd and 3rd grade combined class, leads a discussion on what is good listening during a morning session at Wade Park Elementary in Cleveland, Ohio on May 20, 2015. —Dustin Franz for Education Week

A Cleveland elementary student leads a discussion on good listening. Photo: Dustin Franz, Education Week

Helping children develop “core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness” would have big payoffs, he argues.

But how much can schools do to improve children’s social competence? If parents aren’t doing their job, can schools make a difference?

The Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Casel) is working with school districts across the country, writes Bornstein. A 2011 meta-analysis of studies on school-based social and emotional learning programs found significant gains in students’ social skills, attitudes, behavior and academics.

Cleveland uses Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies to teach children “how to recognize, communicate and manage their emotions, read others’ emotions, solve problems and change patterns of negative thinking.”

School suspension rooms have been replaced with “planning centers,” where students work through problems or practice how to better handle conflicts. Schools have staff teams to lead social and emotional learning efforts and work with families.

Three years ago, graduating seniors said safety was the number one problem in high school, says CEO Eric Gordon. Two years ago, safety fell to second place. Last year, it dropped to number three.

I have mixed feelings about social and emotional programs. Schools should teach students how to behave in school, which includes self-control, cooperation and resolving conflicts peacefully. But emotional strength comes from being raised by good or good-enough parents. I don’t schools can do much there. For good or ill, it’s the parents.

Social skills lead to success

“Socially competent” kindergarteners — kids who cooperate and play well with others — are more likely to complete college and work full-time by their mid-20s, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Their less socially skilled classmates were more likely to have a criminal record and to report binge drinking.

In 1991 teachers evaluated kindergarteners on a scale of 1 to 5 on how well they interacted with others, including measures like: “cooperates with peers without prompting”; “is helpful to others”; “is very good at understanding feelings”; “can give suggestions and opinions without being bossy”; and “resolves problems on own.”

Childhood aggression measures did not predict criminal activity, notes Education Week.

For every one-point increase on a five-point scale, children were twice as likely to earn a college degree; 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma, and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job. On the down side, for every one-point decrease, a child was 67 percent more likely to have been arrested by adulthood, and 82 percent more likely to be in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Researchers believe young children can be taught social skills, possibly affecting their later success in life.

Wait-for-the-marshmallow children from low-income, black families experience less depression, substance abuse and aggression than their peers with less self-control, according to another new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  But disadvantaged blacks with high self-control age faster,

In earlier research, self-control was linked to high blood pressure, obesity and higher levels of stress hormones for blacks from low-income families, but not for middle-class blacks or for whites.

Study: TV can teach empathy to preschoolers

When 3- to 5-year-olds watch less violence on TV and more shows featuring cooperation and friendship, they’re less aggressive toward other children, concludes a study published in Pediatrics.

One group of parents received guides highlighting positive TV shows for children and newsletters encouraging them to watch with their kids and discuss  the best ways to deal with conflict. Researchers called monthly to help parents set television-watching goals for their preschoolers.

The control group got dietary advice, but no guidance on TV watching.

After six months, parents in the group receiving advice about television-watching said their children were somewhat less aggressive with others, compared with those in the control group. The children who watched less violent shows also scored higher on measures of social competence, a difference that persisted after one year.

Low-income boys showed the most improvement.

“It’s not just about turning off the TV; it’s about changing the channel,” said Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the lead author of the study and a University of Washington pediatrics professor.

Preschoolers average 4.1 hours of television and other screen time daily, according to a 2011 study.

“Law enforcement sources” believe Adam Lanza was motivated to kill Newtown’s children by “violent video games“and his desire to outkill Andres Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, reports CBS.  “Call of Duty” was his favorite.