Social and emotional literacy develop over time and need to be nurtured just like any other skill such as math or riding a bike. Unlike math or bike-riding, however, the teaching of emotional literacy is often overlooked. It has been referred to as the “missing piece” of education despite its profound impact on children’s well-being. Emotionally competent individuals are able to communicate effectively, empathize, problem solve, and resolve conflict. Studies have shown that kids who develop these skills are more likely to do well at work as adults, have longer-lasting marriages, and have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Studies also suggest that emotionally-literate characteristics like self-restraint, persistence, and self-awareness are better predictors of life outcomes than common academic measures. In addition, these children tend to do better in school due to their ability to work well with others, control impulses, and appropriately channel emotions.
What Is Being Done in Schools?
Many schools are embracing the research and implementing social-emotional learning (S.E.L) programs. Mark Brackett, senior research scientist at Yale University and former bullying victim, developed one such program called Ruler. Ruler’s goal is to develop children’s capacity for self-reflection and critical thinking. Students and teachers use concepts such as “mood meters” to help gauge emotions. Teachers encourage children to develop coping mechanisms, such as using self-talk or taking a walk when upset. S.E.L. has received more attention in the past few years due to concerns about bullying, violence, and suicide, but these programs are certainly not the norm at this time.
Social Skills Groups Teach More than Manners
Certain children, particularly those with autism, Aspergers, and social phobia require more guidance and support in developing social and emotional competencies. Social skills deficits are a hallmark of these conditions and they tend to persist into adulthood due to a dearth of interpersonal experiences. How can a child learn conversation skills, conflict negotiation, and perspective taking, for example, if she has no one to practice with? The right kind of social skills group could help a child develop these kinds of skills, but not all social skills groups are created equally.
- Promote skill generalization to the outside world and often take place on the playground or in other real-world locations where real-life problems tend to unfold
- Stimulate social motivation
- Reinforce appropriate social responding
- Increase the understanding of nonverbal communication
The best programs help children become better observers of themselves and others. They guide them in appropriate ways of expressing themselves. Parents of children in school groups should request specific plans and ask about generalization strategies. Parents can reinforce practiced skills at home and with play-dates.
Social Skills Groups Specific to Adults
There are also groups available for adults who struggle socially and emotionally. The goal is to increase social awareness and for members to develop a better understanding of the world around them. Social skills groups can help adults navigate the interpersonal complexities of the workplace, establish platonic and romantic relationships, and understand social norms in different situations.
What Parents Can Do with Children
There are many opportunities in daily life to learn and reinforce social awareness. At the park, for instance, while observing a group of people interact, try asking your child to describe the relationships among them. It does not matter whether they get it right – what’s important is that the child is thinking about how social cues are informative. If your child is hesitant to engage, start by describing your own thought process. You can even say the exact opposite of what might be obvious in an attempt to draw your child out of silence. Exercises like these can also be done while watching television. Body language is often more revealing than the spoken word. Shows can even be watched without sound to gauge a child’s awareness of social nuance. The difficulties these children (and adults) face tend to be tied to difficulties drawing social inferences, not to a fundamental inability to connect. There are many creative ways for parents to help their children improve their social competencies.
Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City at Spectrum Services (spectrumservicesnyc.com) and in Westchester, NY. She works with individuals of all ages with Asperger Syndrome and related conditions, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating socialization groups including an improv social skills group. For more information, email JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com.
© 2013 AHA Association. Further reproduction of this article is prohibited without express written permission of AHA. This article was reprinted with permission and was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of AHA Association’s On The Spectrum. For more information, visit www.ahany.org.