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Monthly Archives: August 2016

About Social Skills

Missing social skills is the single most common cause of discipline problems. Children’s squabbles over materials and their unskilled efforts to make friends cause frequent disruptions to both preschool and primary classrooms. Social skills are discussed last because we see them as an outgrowth of the previously discussed aspects of development. Physical abilities, emotional development, and levels of intellectual understanding all combine to determine current levels of social skill and understanding.

Teachers of young children have a big responsibility because the early years are crucial for social development. Youngsters who do not develop social competence in the early childhood years typically continue to experience difficulty with peer acceptance throughout the school years (Howes & Ritchie, 2002; Johnson, Ironsmith, Snow, & Poteat, 2000). Not surprisingly, these children are at risk as adults for social and emotional problems (Denham et al., 2001; Yanghee, 2003). Helping youngsters learn how to make a friend and be a friend is crucial to their life-long happiness. It’s also a big help to teacher happiness when children learn how to get along.

Constructing Knowledge for Social Skills
Children construct knowledge as a result of reflecting on their experiences. As they experiment with blocks, for instance, they observe the results of trying to stack, balance, and bridge structures. Thinking about the results helps children revise erroneous ideas. This process helps them construct understanding about such concepts as gravity, balance, and measurement. Children construct their theories of how the social world works in the same sort of trial-and-error situations.

As youngsters experiment with different ways of interacting with others, they observe the results of various approaches. Reflecting on the results of their social overtures can help children figure out how to play with others successfully and how to make friends. We have remarked previously on the value of peer conflicts as teaching situations. You may be surprised to hear that children’s fights are useful teaching tools. Conflicts tend to challenge children’s assumptions and encourage an exchange of viewpoints. They help youngsters realize that not everyone sees things their way. Thus, conflicts provide the necessary experience for learning and they provide the teachable moments. Helping children deal with their disputes gives the teacher an opportunity to guide children’s thinking about the experience. The adult role varies, depending on the child’s individual levels of emotional, intellectual, and social development.

Teaching children to think critically about their behavior and to use reasoning abilities to learn to solve interpersonal problems is consistent with current recommended approaches to teaching other subjects. National guidelines in every area of the curriculum urge teaching for critical thinking and problem solving instead of old approaches of memorized learning. Some adults think it is enough to simply tell children how they are expected to behave and then punish them if they do not. That approach would be the same as a teacher merely demanding mastery of mathematics without instruction, assessment, and reteaching (Butchart & McEwan, 1998).

Adults who are focused only on immediate outcomes will use punishment to get desired behaviors, believing that the teaching approach is too slow. Keeping long-term goals in mind is especially important and difficult when dealing with behaviors linked to maturation. True, you won’t get 4-year-olds (or even 5-year-olds) to truly understand the feelings of the child they just hit; but that doesn’t mean you stop working toward your goals. If you resort to coercive tactics, you will make it more difficult for the child to eventually become considerate of others.

Have you noticed that we are not talking about social skills as learning to say please, thank you, and I’m sorry? These are polite ways of speaking, but they are only superficial behaviors and do not necessarily reflect true feelings (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). Some adults and children confuse these memorized phrases with the understanding needed for true social competence. You have certainly seen children who are caught doing something wrong and who automatically say, “I’m sorry,” yet show no signs of remorse. These children have merely learned the magic words for getting out of punishment. Too many adults focus on teaching socially acceptable words instead of helping children understand others and develop caring feelings.

  • Mrs. Jensen realized the uselessness of teaching words instead of understanding several years ago when she rescued Isabel from Jason’s physical aggression. Jason was angry with Isabel and was gripping her wrists very hard, hurting her. After Mrs. Jensen pried his hands off Isabel and helped Isabel to tell Jason how she felt, she asked Jason what he could do to make Isabel feel better.
  • Jason said “Thank you,” and Mrs. Jensen asked Isabel if that made her feel better. Isabel replied in a disdainful voice, “No. Jason, you have to say ‘sorry.’” So Jason said, “Sorry.” However, Mrs. Jensen could tell that one platitude was as meaningless as the next.

Learning Perspective

Once children experience the joy of friendships, they are motivated to work at keeping them. As stated previously, this gives a reason for trying to understand another child’s viewpoint in a conflict.

The ability to see things from another’s viewpoint, perspective-taking, is essential to social competence. Without this ability, youngsters remain self-centered and unable to relate to the interests, needs, and rights of others. Until children can take into consideration the viewpoint of another person, they cannot make progress in reasoning about fairness. When they can only see their own views, their idea of justice consists of that which they desire for themselves. Obviously, this perception will not endear them to playmates.

There is considerable difference of opinion about how early children are able to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings. Examples of empathy from toddlers are often used to dispute Piaget’s research findings that perspective taking does not emerge until around age 6 (e.g., Lillard & Curenton, 1999). Although frequently discussed together, empathy is not the same thing as perspective taking. We agree that certain forms of empathy appear early, such as sympathizing with another child who is sad. However, true perspective taking, the ability to take another person’s view into consideration even when it conflicts with your own, is another matter. A 3-year-old who gives a cookie to a hungry child when there are plenty of cookies is not likely to do so when there is only one cookie, especially if that 3-year-old wants the cookie for himself or herself. Though very young children have been observed sharing and helping others (Eisenberg, 1992), it is not clear that these are demonstrations of true perspective-taking. Positive social behaviors may be motivated from other sources.

Despite differences in the research literature, there is agreement that awareness develops gradually from an egocentric perspective to the ability to respond to and even predict how others will feel (Hyson, 2004). Anyone working with young children is aware of their egocentricity (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). According to Selman (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000; Selman, 1980), with experience and guidance, people move through five levels of perspective taking as follows: Level 0, not recognizing that others have feelings or ideas different from your own, is common during preschool. During the primary grades, most children operate at level 1. At this point, young children realize that others have their own feelings, but can’t consider someone else’s feelings while thinking about their own. Our observation shows that this is particularly true when their own feelings are in opposition to the other person’s. As they move into upper elementary school, level 2 thinking is more common. This brings the ability to consider another person’s views as well as their own. Levels 3 and 4 bring increasing decentering and the ability to coordinate mutual perspectives. However, these generally do not emerge until adolescence and adulthood. Theory of mind research points out the role of maturation as children develop understanding of their own and others’ thinking (Flavell & Hartman, 2004).

This information about children’s thinking should help you to be more accepting of how they behave. You will respond differently when you realize that young children probably aren’t being mean when they disregard another child’s feelings; they’re just being young. This information about levels of intellectual development also offers essential guidance for helping children move to higher levels. The message is not to just accept the child’s lack of perspective-taking, but to aim your teaching one level higher than what the child is doing (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000).

Working with young children, you will often see situations like the following:

  • Jessie is working on a drawing, using the only yellow marker at the table. Jack reaches over and grabs the marker out of Jessie’s hand. He seems somewhat startled when Jessie yells at him and tries to grab the marker back. Soon the two are in a tug-of-war, with both sides claiming they need the marker.
  • Dennis stops the struggle and calms the children with his gentle presence. He works at getting each child to explain his or her feelings, trying to get them to use the “I messages” he consistently models. Then Dennis shows Jack where he can get another yellow marker.
  • When Jack grabbed Jessie’s marker, he demonstrated that his perspective taking was at level 0. He took the marker simply because he wanted it, with no thought about Jamie. Therefore, Dennis aimed at helping Jack realize that Jessie has wishes and feelings, too. It probably wouldn’t be worthwhile trying to teach higher-level cooperative negotiation to Jack because it would be too far above his level of understanding.

Children can make better than normal progress through these levels of understanding with the support of understanding teachers (DeVries & Zan, 2006). And, as Vygotsky (1962/1934) reminds us, children can perform at higher levels with assistance than they can alone. Vygotsky’s writings about the zone of proximal development and scaffolding refer to how adults help children to do things, and thus teach them to perform independently. Puppets, role playing, and storybooks may also provide assistance to children as they learn to think about the feelings of others. InJamaicas Blue Marker (Havill, 1995), Jamaica comes to understand why Russell was acting mean; this type of story may help your young students think about how others feel.

The ability to understand and empathize with others is crucial to adult society as well as children’s interactions. “Children are less likely to behave aggressively toward someone if they can put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine that person’s thoughts and feelings” (Slaby, Roedell, Arezzo, & Hendrix, 1995, p. 145). This statement seems equally true for adults.

Secondary School Science Trends

There is widespread support for continued improvement of the educational system. Scientific and technological literacy is the main purpose of science education in grades K through 12. This goal is for all students, not just for those individuals destined for careers in science and engineering.

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, the curriculum for science education at the secondary school level is not meeting the challenge of achieving scientific and technological literacy. Many scientists and science educators are urging a review of school science programs, a review that would affect millions of school personnel in thousands of autonomous school districts, but one that is necessary. Increasing the scientific and technological literacy of students also requires several fundamental changes in science curricula at the secondary school level. First, the information presented must be balanced with key conceptual themes that are learned in some depth. Second, the rigid disciplinary boundaries of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics should be softened; greater emphasis should also be placed on connections among the sciences and among disciplines generally thought of as outside of school science, such as technology, mathematics, ethics, and social studies (Confrey, 1990; Newmann, 1988).

Achieving the goal of scientific and technological literacy requires more than understanding concepts and processes of science and technology. Indeed, the need exists for citizens to understand science and technology as an integral part of society. Science and technology are enterprises that shape, and are shaped by, human thought and social actions (Bybee, 1987; Yager, 1996). Our recommendation includes some understanding of the nature and history of science and technology. There is recent and substantial support for this recommendation, though few curriculum materials. Including the nature and history of science and technology provides opportunities to focus on topics that blur disciplinary boundaries and show connections between such fields as science and social studies.

The substantial body of research on learning should be the basis for making instruction more effective (Bransford et al., 2000; Tobin, Tippins, & Gallard, 1994). This research suggests that students learn by constructing their own meaning of the experiences they have. A constructivist approach requires varied methods of science instruction in the secondary school (Driver & Oldham, 1986; Sachse, 1989; Watson & Konicek, 1990; Bruer, 1994; McGilly, 1995; Bransford et al., 2000).

Related to the implications of research on learning theory is the recommendation that science teaching should consist of experiences exemplifying the spirit, character, and nature of science and technology. Students should begin with questions about the natural world (science) and problems about human beings adapting (technology). They should be actively involved in the processes of inquiry and design. They should have opportunities to present their explanations for phenomena and solutions to problems and to compare their explanations and solutions to those concepts of science and technology. They should have a chance to apply their understandings in new situations, as well. In short, the inquiry-oriented laboratory is an infrequent experience for secondary school students, but it should be a central part of their experience in science education. Extensive use of the inquiry-oriented laboratory is consistent with the other recommendations made in this section, and it has widespread support.

The issue of equity must be addressed in science programs and by school personnel. For the past several decades, science educators at all levels have discussed the importance of changing science programs to enhance opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. Calls for scientific and technological literacy assume the inclusion of all Americans. Other justifications—if any are needed for this position—include the supply of future scientists and engineers, changing demographics, and prerequisites for work. Research results, curricula recommendations, and practical suggestions are available to those developing science curricula for the secondary school (Gardner, Mason, & Matyas, 1989; Linn & Hyde, 1989; Malcom, 1990; Oakes, 1990).

Science education in middle schools is a special concern as educators look toward achieving higher levels of scientific literacy. Numerous reports and commissions have addressed the need for educational reform for high school science education, but few have specifically recognized the emergence of middle schools in the 1980s. The movement toward implementing middle schools, and phasing out junior high schools, was a significant trend in education. Yet, thus far, the middle school reform has not thoroughly addressed the particular issues of subject-matter disciplines—in this case, science and technology. Contemporary reform must not allow the science education of early adolescents to be overlooked or assumed to be part of either the elementary school or secondary school curriculum.

Improving curriculum and instruction will be a hollow gesture without concomitant changes in assessment at all levels, from the local classroom to the national and international levels. In general, the changes in assessment practices must reflect the changes described earlier for curriculum and instruction. Incongruities, such as teaching fewer concepts in greater depth but testing for numerous facts in fine detail, will undermine the reform of science education. New forms of assessment are available and being recommended by researchers, policy makers, and practitioners (Frederiksen & Collins, 1989; Murnane & Raizen, 1988; Shavelson, Carey, & Webb, 1990).

Reform of science education at the secondary school level must be viewed as part of the general reform of education. Approaching the improvement of science education by changing textbooks, buying new computers, or adding new courses simply will not work. Fortunately, widespread educational reform, which includes science education, is underway. The improvement of science education in the secondary school must be part of the reconstruction of science education for K–12 and must include all courses and students, a staff development program, reform of science teacher preparation, and support from school administrators. This comprehensive or systemic recommendation is based on the research on implementation (Fullan, 2001; Hall, 1989) and research literature on school change and restructuring.

Early in the twenty-first century we think the improvement of science education is a national mandate. You will be a part of that process. Although the challenge is large, we have clear guidance in national standards and benchmarks. These guidelines will be followed through changes in instructional materials and increased support of professional development to help science teachers improve. We have all the tools for the job; now we need commitment at the local, state, and national levels.