Investing in Social Intelligence Early

I came into the office the other day and taped to the wall where all of our therapists congregate, was an article that Jim (Dr. Sebben) had pulled from the New York Times entitled, Teaching Peace in Elementary School. He had handwritten a note on it to the rest of the practice about what a great job he thought they were doing. I looked up the article online so I could enlarge it to a readable size-ha!-and what I found was heartening support of the work we have been doing here at In Step for over 20 years and something I have personally championed my entire professional career.

Children need to have the tools to foster satisfying relationships or they will not grow into happy, successful adults.

American parents have come a long way in valuing the social and emotional lives of their children. Twenty years ago when my colleagues and I first began helping parents and children develop their Social IQs, questions about the basic concept, purpose, and efficacy underlying programs like ours were frequent. Fathers, who relegated group attendance to their wives, were especially unconvinced of the merits of our Stepping Stones social skills program; never mind that busy fathers were often reluctant to take on the role of social skills coach for their child. Now, a majority of our Stepping Stones parenting groups are attended by both parents (and in collaborative divorce situations, sometimes four parents). I see this as a seismic shift reflecting a change in parenting roles as well as a growing acceptance of the importance of social intelligence training.

American schools (both private and public) are also focusing more of their efforts on character development and team building. Although there is still a significant problem with bullying in our schools, media attention in recent years has led to a proliferation of school-wide anti-bullying programs, diversity training groups, and PTA education programs. In addition, with the strenuous effort of dedicated parents and professionals, IEPs (individualized education plans) for kids with special needs now frequently include a social skills development component.

Even with more and more research stressing the importance of social intelligence for a child’s future success inside and outside the workplace, our schools still struggle to teach and practice social competencies such as empathy, conflict resolution, emotional regulation, and listening on a school wide basis. Teachers are too squeezed by SOL requirements and other performance mandates to also meet the critical social and emotional needs of their students. Counselors, school social workers and psychologists have enough on their plates helping children who struggle with learning and behavioral issues without additional focus on building cooperation, empathy, and self-awareness in the general school population. And inherently some of the hallmarks of good classroom behavior – to sit still with mouth closed and listen to the teacher – are in direct conflict with strong social-emotional skills – to engage, connect, understand, and empathize with others.

Identifying and implementing social intelligence (SI) training in schools may be challenging but not impossible. There are already existing times within the regular school day – homeroom period, lunchtime, recess, and in after school programs like SACC when trained teachers and/or counselors can model, teach, and practice pro-social skills with their students. Tools that we use in our Stepping Stones groups like S.O.A.R., linking, and role-playing can help teachers reinforce pro-social behavior without adding unwanted time pressures to their days. And, let’s face it, a little social emotional learning goes a long way in creating a peaceful environment in which to learn and grow.