Last week we talked about the method, or pedagogy, for teaching social and emotional skills. After all, you can’t just start a conversation or class with kids by telling them what they are doing wrong socially or where they are missing the boat emotionally. The Probative-Informative-Probative-Assimilative (PIPA) methodology lets you start a conversation with the kids and then use the tenor of the conversation to guide them to a skill that needs to be addressed. This is a critical part of the social and emotional development process, because it is an opportunity for the young person to identify a problem and then begin the development of problem solving skills.
Angela is a pretty girl but no one really notices. She is fair skinned and her hair is red. Angela sits in the middle of the class and makes good grades – not great but good. She could make better grades, but she never talks to the teacher. She never asks questions. In fact, she sits in class scared that the teacher will call upon her and looks down most of the time so that she can avoid eye contact with her classmates... and therefore avoid any and all unwanted looks and conversations. When the bell rings, Angela gathers her things and hugs them close to her, waits for the stampede to the door to calm down, and then quickly exits hoping not to draw anyone’s attention.
The hallways are miserable for Angela, because there are so many people. She copes by keeping her eyes pointed downwards yet manages to always look three steps ahead so she can avoid any incidental contact with anyone in the hall. Angela is tense throughout the day and can’t wait for the final bell so that she can go home and be alone. Angela doesn’t have any friends and she wouldn’t know what to do with them if she did.
We often think of social skills as “soft skills”. The term "soft skills" brings with it a connotation of immeasurable, and often esoteric, skills that don’t carry the same intellectual weight as other skills such as academic or even life skills. The truth of the matter is that social and emotional skills are the skills that give someone the foundational capacity of being part of a group; they teach interaction with someone who is in an authority position, how to be responsible for managing time and attention so that personal and assigned duties are completed, and finally creating the personal network necessary for confidence as well as personal gratification. In other words, they are the skills that gives kids the ability to be a part of a classroom and a school setting. Social and emotional skills are just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic because without these skills, kids wouldn’t have the ability to sit in a classroom and learn.
Tony is one of the kids that everyone in school recognizes. The other students make sure to get out of his way when he walks down the halls, because if you bump into Tony you are likely to get dressed down... or worse. The teachers all know Tony because he finds great joy in disrupting their classes. He isn’t the class clown. No, that would be too kind of a description. Instead, Tony is the mean one. He relishes the fact that he is bigger and more muscular than the other kids, and he takes every opportunity to remind less developed boys of the exact pecking order in the hallways, gym classes, cafeteria, and school playgrounds. Everyone knows Tony, and Tony seems to love the role of school bully.
The greatest benefit that comes from teaching kids social and emotional development skills is that it gets them into the mindset of problem identification, and therefore problem solving. Social and emotional skills help kids begin to see the world through the lens of opportunity, because unexpected problems become solvable and manageable rather than always seeming like absolute roadblocks. Teaching a student to manage time, how to understand that their appearance communicates their attitude, and why they should respect other people’s personal space are life skills that will be used from now on. But they are also foundational skills that afford students the ability to see what is happening around them as manageable. When kids can identify, break down, and then create solution opportunities for a problem, they become confident. One of the great secrets of social and emotional development is that the confidence of learning these skills washes over into other parts of the students’ lives; they begin to look through the eyes of a maturing young person who is beginning to deal with their own problems rather than someone who throws their hands up at the first roadblock and goes on acting the way they have always acted.
Tony and Angela could not be any more different. Everyone knows Tony – Angela is pretty sure no one even knows her name. Tony loves it when everyone is looking at him – Angela would love to blend into the wallpaper so that no one would see her and no one would even accidentally look at her. Tony establishes himself as the dominant male by making sure everyone knows how tough and aggressive he is – Angela prays that no one even knows she is in the room. Tony and Angela are complete opposites – yet they are exactly alike.
When you read about Tony and Angela, you can easily remember kids you went to school with who filled these roles. You know who the Tony in your school was, and while you might not remember her name, I bet you can visualize the Angela from your class. They are complete opposites, but they share one critical deficit that makes them completely alike. Tony and Angela both lack the social and emotional maturity to fit into a socialized setting (school) so they live outside the acceptable boundaries and they pay the price. Tony is going to end up in an alternative campus, then likely suspended... and eventually expelled. Angela is going to graduate someday, but she will lack the basic skills to be successful, and more importantly happy, because she never learned to socialize in a highly structure social environment.
The biggest difference in the two kids? Tony is actually going to get help. Teachers and administrators know Tony and they are going to send him to the school counselor and to alternative campuses and other “interventions” that the school offers. No one notices Angela. She is just as behaviorally involved as Tony, but no one notices. She won’t get any help, because no one recognizes that she is in trouble. She won’t see the counselor, because no one sees that she is hurting. She won’t go to an alternative campus, because she never makes any waves and she never stands out.
Of these two kids, Tony actually has a better chance of getting help and improving his social aptitude, because people are noticing him. But Angela is the true casualty; she is genuinely sweet and kind and cautious, but her gifts are kept hidden under a dark veil of self-doubt. She will not learn to problem solve because she spends her life trying to be problem averse. Tony and Angela need guidance, need maturing and need to understand how to recognize their problems and how to fit into their social context while addressing their problems.
Tony and Angela are in every classroom. One has a chance… but the other is slipping away. Give ALL kids a chance to thrive by teaching social and emotional skills.