In the previous Newsletters (see Conversations - 10th March 2020 and The Inner Critic - 17th March 2020) we focused on helping those students with dysfunctional behaviours regain a positive sense of self about themselves. These ‘improvements’ are only effective if they can blend with their outer world. No one is an island, we live in a community and we need that community to get our social needs at least met. Happiness or as I would say homeostatic equilibrium is highly correlated with having close, personal relationships – the powerful need to belong.
As always, children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect miss out on developing the skills that support the development of such relationships. The thing is, the behaviours they develop to protect themselves drive others away or in a closed community like a classroom and they become ostracised.
Ostracism comes from a practice in ancient Greek culture when those who ‘displeased’ the community were sent away for 10 years as punishment. Today, we still see it as a form of punishment, ‘Time Out’ is a useful practice in schools where students are excluded for a period of time because their behaviour was not acceptable (see Time Out – 17th July 2017). It is rightly seen as a more humane negative consequence than alternatives, historically corporal punishment.
However, ostracism can be an extreme form of cruelty. We have all seen children excluded often because they don’t ‘meet the standards’ of the dominant group. The classic example is the ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena where a group of girls reject an individual. Boys, all kids suffer from being ‘left out’ of a team, an activity even a birthday party. Teachers understand the power of eye contact, children who are distressed because someone ‘looked at them’ or the subtler weapon of ‘refusing to make eye contact’.
It seems the most damaging times for this to occur is about age eight to nine when kids have not yet learned how to protect themselves, not learned discretion and from thirteen to fourteen years when developing kids place a high value in belonging to a group.
Most usually it is the children who have not learned the social skills required to belong that are the target of social rejection and these are the very kids we are focussed on. The girls are most likely to be frozen out of the group, the classic Queen Bee behaviour but they will do anything to be accepted back. The boys, on the other hand are more likely to react in violent ways. The extreme examples are seen too often with the tragic school shootings.
To address this situation, we need to reverse the problem of being ignored and we do this by the use of effective social skills. That is, behaviours that we use to effectively communicate with others to get our needs met in a socially acceptable manner. These behaviours are either verbal and/or non-verbal that reach out in a manner that results in a mutually beneficial interaction.
The non-verbal expression is important, especially if you are meeting for the first time. In reality we all do make initial judgements about ‘strangers’ long before they open their mouth. Foremost is how interesting they appear, their clothes, how they stand and if they are projecting a sense of friendship towards us, that is, are they smiling, making appropriate eye contact? Of course, what will ‘make them interesting’ is how much they are either like us or appear to like us. The value of any ‘relationship’ is how much they support our needs.
The value of the actual communication that takes place also depends on how we see the person contributing to us. The content of the conversation needs to have a cultural match. By this I mean if I’m trying to belong to a group of basketball fans I really will be more successful if I tap into their interest. I probably would strike out if I started to discuss the implications of the Reserve Banks latest interest rate cuts or vice-versa. Not only should we express opinions perhaps more importantly we need to listen to what is said.
How do we teach these skills to our troubled, excluded kids? Like most things we have communicated in these latest Newsletters we need to become the substitute parent, create the environment that allows these important skills to develop. The following steps will help:
1. Identify the Problem
There will be plenty of times, those teaching moments when you witness your students failing to effectively relate to their peers. It is appropriate to stop what you are doing to take advantage of this moment and explain to the class what is really happening. Point out how important belonging is to everyone in the class, what didn’t work and importantly what would. This is a time when you can ‘cash-in’ on the relationship you have built up. All the kids, especially the one who has made the social blunder can feel threatened.
2. Set Goals
There are countless ways in which social faux pas occur. These can generally be described as ‘bad manners’; things like grabbing something without asking, talking over the top of others, etc. An effective goal that addresses a lot of social incompetence is to identify and teach good manners.
First you have to teach what is socially effective manners. Remember, these kids learned the behaviours they are displaying in an environment where they worked. Some families sit around the dining room at meal time and if they want the salt they are taught to ask for it with a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’. Other kids, most likely the ones we are concerned with may well eat in front of the television, take-a-way and have no need to ask, they learn if you want something you take it without asking just like mum and dad. So, you have to teach manners!
Then you have to practice. Initially you can teach the skills directly through role play activities. Social skills training is usually a ‘teaching moment’ activity, that is you take the opportunity to engage in a quick lesson before moving back to the lesson plan for the day. However, some tough classes need a more formal approach. I have used pre-set scenarios to initiate role play between two, or sometimes more and have the rest of the class evaluate the participants effectiveness in solving the social problem. For example, the card might read “Jack has just taken your coloured pens without asking and you need them. He is refusing to give them back”. Two students would randomly select a role, either Jack or the other and act out that scene. They would be evaluated, the class suggest alternate approaches and redo the scene, you can even change the participants and continue until everyone thinks the problem is solves to a satisfactory level.
3.With younger students I have even run a ‘Behaviour Lotto’ when students get points every time they identify ‘correct’ behaviour. Points also go to the student who has displayed that behaviour. Whatever source you use, be sure to reinforce the positive behaviour.
Finally, as always model what you want. These dysfunctional kids learned their inappropriate behaviour from their role models. Make sure you are the role model for the behaviours that will allow them to successfully belong with their peers!