Social Development

By Rich Wilson

Not many independent schools talk about developing their students' social skills in their mission statements. The Summit does, and there's a good reason for it. 

A study in the February 2011 issue of the peer-­reviewed journal Child Development reported a significant improvement in grades among children who participated in a social-emotional learning program relative to those who did not. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that "social competence" in kindergarteners correlated positively with adult behaviors. The study began in 1991 and tracked 750 kindergarteners through the age of 25. For every one point increase on a five-point social competence attribute rating scale, students were twice as likely to earn a college degree and 46 percent more likely to have a full-­time job. 

None of this is a surprise to us. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur taught social skills here from the day the doors opened because of the benefits they saw it provided: 

Self-Regulation. Children harbor impulses with which they are born. While those impulses are good in terms of helping the child survive in the world, they can definitely get in the way of developing productive relationships with others. 

The amygdala, the seat of emotions, develops more rapidly than the cerebral cortex, which in adults decides whether to act on emotional impulses the amygdala emits. The social skills we teach are designed to train the developing cerebral cortex to regulate these impulses. If you watch one of our Lower School teachers in action, you'll hear her give directions clearly and explicitly, repeat the directions as necessary and credit the students when they are able to self-regulate appropriately. 

Emotional Intelligence. Schools play a key role in teaching children how to make friends and work well with their peers. The first step in this process is helping children develop empathy for others - helping them to put themselves in the shoes of others. 

Children can be pretty self-centered; that tendency helped children survive in an evolutionary sense. However, in today's world we need to counterbalance that impulse by helping children see the effect of their words and actions on others. 

Michele Borba, who keynoted our Early Childhood Education Symposium in October 2017, provided many tips on how to develop empathy in children, which she says has seen a decline of 40 percent throughout the last 30 years. Technology seems to be causing many of these problems, as children spend more time in front of screens and less time face to face. This seems to reduce children's ability to read accurately the facial expression and body language of others. They also have trouble picking up on voice intonation, which signals verbal meaning and indicates when a speaker is finished. 

Conflict Resolution. At all grade levels, we teach children the techniques that should be employed to resolve conflicts. In the lower grades, children learn to use "I" statements ("I feel_ when you _") to communicate to others how their actions made them feel. In the upper grades, we often use a discipline technique called "restorative justice," whereby we interview the perpetrator, the victim and witnesses separately to understand what happened. We then work with the perpetrator to help him or her understand the effects of such actions and develop a plan for the perpetrator to restore justice and "right relationships" with the victim and others involved. In an ideal world, students resolve their differences; however, given the maturity of the parties involved, adult guidance and modeling are sometimes required. 

Pro-Social Behaviors. A final aspect of emotional intelligence is teaching children to be positively proactive in their behaviors toward others. Failures in this area turn off others. Polished behaviors, on the other hand, attract others: 

  • Exhibiting good manners,
  • Initiating social contact rather than waiting for others to do so - smiling and making eye contact,
  • Expressing gratitude to others and demonstrating optimism,
  • Showing strong listening skills,
  • Asking for help when necessary and offering it to others.

Positive skills and habits acquired in childhood become established in the neural wiring of children and give them an advantage as they navigate their world. That's why developing children socially was a goal when the school opened in 1890 and continues to be a central part of The Summit Way . 

Reprinted from the winter 2018 issue of The Summit magazine.