When we think of students struggling in school we often think of those who struggle with math, reading or comprehension and not those who are lonely, friendless or ostracized. As our collective goal is to prepare students for life, these oft forgotten students need our help as much if not more. Just as some children are naturally adept athletically, some students are naturally social. These students often have the combination of good role models, brain wiring and thousands of opportunities to practice. These students fall into one of three categories.
The first group of children struggles due to social anxiety (the fear of rejection), or Asperser’s Syndrome and therefore fails to read social cues well or purposefully shun them. The second group of students has limited exposure to social situations and is unsure how to act in a certain environment. Other students are not blessed with good examples of social skills and therefore have some negative bad habits. The final group of students is not blessed with good examples of social skills and therefore has some negative bad habits.
LAVA: Learning to go with the Flow
When a volcano erupts, there is panic and chaos in the environment. People need to know how to react and how to stay safe. Though we can never really be prepared for all of the possible eruptions that may occur in our lives, we can imagine how we would react in certain scenarios. We can plan ahead and be prepared with a variety of tools that we can easily access. We can fortify ourselves with a variety of “go-to” people who we can call upon should help be required.
As lava flows down a mountainside, it will no doubt encounter boulders in its path and need to deviate in order to continue moving. Similarly to properly prepare all students for future challenges, we must not only instruct them but also give them numerous opportunities to hone their skills so they leave school equipped to cope in the world.
The key social skills that they need can be summed up in LAVA.
L listen to others.
A agree to disagree
V voice your opinion
A actions and words
Listening to others is not a passive act, it is an action. Listing is a complex action that demands one to not only be hearing but also attending and thinking, when you truly listen to some one else, you must pay attention to the details, the sequence and comprehend all of the words that are being spoken. It is a multi-dimensional and exhausting task. So for some children, listening to others must be broken down taught and modeled from the simple to the complex form.
Further, listen is interactive. When you are listening you are also monitoring the speakers tone, intonation, volume and expression. The same word said with a voice going up has a very different meaning than when the influx in the voice is absent. This too needs to be modeled to students. Just as some students need to be instructed what happy, sad, angry and upset “look-like”, they need to also hear what these same words sound like when they are punctuated differently. There is a big difference between the “Aw, get out.” Meaning I don’t believe you, that is so cool and the “AW, GET OUT!” Which, when shouted in a raised voice, Though this is obvious to some, a portion of students need specific lessons taught and practice opportunities to be given.
Hearing the opinions of others is great when they agree with yours and less great when the don not. But whether you agree with the person or not, the real lesson is about respect. Are you able to hear what someone else thinks about a topic and react appropriately. Disagreements are healthy and part of learning when they are managed correctly. Debates, peaceful protests and editorials are import for students to read and be instructed about. Students need numerous opportunities role-playing and imaging a variety of scenarios. Students need lesson on empathy and recognizing feelings in themselves and in other people. Students need to practice disagreeing using fair techniques such as turn taking. What is important is to teach children that there is a proper way to show your disagreement and it is not through violence, belittling , name-calling or gossiping. Student s need to learn that we all do not have to agree on everything but that once a decision has been made, it is time to accept it, even it is different from the one they would have chosen. These are not simple lessons but these are life skills that once practiced and internalized will help our young people grow into responsible, caring adults.
Say something. There are children in your class that voicing your opinion is not a problem. In fact, you doubt that there is a time or a place that they are not. These students simply need practice keeping their opinion to themselves and giving other students an opportunity sometimes. However, there needs to be a variety of opportunities presented so kids can have a voice be it through art, music, dance or words. Having and using your voice is a very difficult task for some. There will be students who are ridden with anxiety and therefore will be less willing to take risks. Therese students balk at public speaking, read-a-loud and even struggle to get words down because there fear is so great. These anxieties many be social in nature, fear of being ridiculed, or it could be fear of having a panic attack or further still, it could be linked to a negative or scary thought if a certain words are spoken or said. It is the job of the teacher not to treat the student for the anxiety but to recognize it for what it is and provide a variety of choices so that each and every child has a chance to have his or her voice. As well, teachers need to be mindful that some students will need some scaffolding (aides) that others will not need in order to feel comfortable enough to take the risk and have their voice heard.
There are subtleties to social interactions. As we know, a wave or a smile can feel as warm and welcoming as a hug or a kiss. Unfortunately this fact works for negative actions as well. By that I mean that a shrug or a wry smile can be as painful as a punch in the stomach. A glare or a scoff can mean “I hate you “ or “you are worthless” and is capable of doing damage in much the same way are the words be spoken to your face. As teachers we must explain to our students that their actions and their words have consequences to that effect them and others around them. Students need to know that it is not just what they saw but how they react with their facial expression and body language will effect how others view them. Do you want to be seen as a friendly person who invited others to be included in activities? What effect will swearing or stomping your foot when a call does not go your way in a game have on the way the coaches view you? Direct instruction including role-playing and abstract thinking exercises on these and similar type of situations are helpful for all the students in the classroom.
It is only by practice that we can take new information and gain mastery of it. It has long been said that if regular classroom teachers took the best practices of the Special Education teachers, all of the students in the class would be better off. In that vein, if teachers instruct and model the social skills and coping styles of healthy children, all of the students in the class stand to gain a great deal.