What’s the major factor influencing a child’s academic success? Ask parents this question, and most are likely to answer ‘intelligence’. It seems obvious that a child’s IQ would be the most important factor in how well they learn at school. But there’s more to it than that. While intelligence does play its part, an increasing number of researchers and educators are suggesting that academic outcomes are greatly influenced by a child’s social skills; their ability to listen, speak, cooperate, share, empathise, read others’ emotions and the like.
How do social skills, the skills that enable us to get along with others, influence a child’s ability to learn? And how can you help your child to develop good social skills for school?
What the research says
When trying to assess how different factors influence learning outcomes, it’s difficult to separate and rank all the issues affecting any one child. But recent research on groups of children suggests that good social skills are a major contributor to good learning, from a very young age.
In a 2002 study in the United States, child development experts Professor Cybele Raver and Dr Jane Knitzer found that children who behaved in antisocial ways did more poorly in early schooling than their more emotionally positive counterparts. In the same year, a long-term US study by educational psychologists Professor Steve Elliott and Christine Malecki found that well-developed social skills were positively correlated with academic success.
More recently, researchers have investigated whether the introduction of social and emotional skills programs into schools is affecting students’ academic performance. Their findings seem conclusive. For example, a 2004 study found that American students who completed a social and emotional skills program had test scores that averaged 14% higher than those who didn’t complete one. And a recent review of 213 American schools found that children recorded an 11% improvement in academic scores after participating in a social and emotional skills program.
Closer to home, Education Queensland has published a Guide to social and emotional learning in Queensland state schools. After considering all the available research, the guide notes that “Promoting students’ social and emotional skills is critical to improving their academic performance”.
In the classroom
So what kind of social-skills problems are most common at school, and how do they affect a child in the classroom?
Prep teacher Lesley has taught in Queensland schools for 25 years. She says social-skills problems generally fall into recognisable categories.
“The children who face social difficulties are often aggressive or disruptive, or very shy,” she says.
“You sometimes also get children who are very quirky, or children who have difficulties because they’re not quite as mature as the other kids. For example, their language might not be as advanced, or maybe their thinking skills aren’t as developed.”
Lesley’s seen all of these issues affect a child’s ability to learn.
“With an aggressive child, often the other children will start to alienate them, so the gap between that child and the group becomes bigger…What often happens then is that the child spends all their time trying to become part of the group, and that distracts them from learning.
“Shyness can also affect a child in so many ways; their confidence in a group setting, their ability to attend to the teacher, their willingness to answer questions, to make friends with other children.
“A quirky child could be one who is overly attention-seeking, or perhaps has an obsession with something. The other kids will play with them for a little while, but then they’ll have enough of it. And a child who isn’t quite as mature will often find that the other children are always just that step ahead of them. Whenever a kid is socially challenged, I think it definitely affects their ability to learn to their potential.”
A child’s social skills also affect their ability to form a positive relationship with their teacher. This is critical to learning, says child and adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg. Dr Carr-Gregg is an Australian authority on school bullying, a parenting expert, and a clinical psychologist who works with children in his Melbourne practice.
“What the research tells us is that the greatest predictor of academic success is the relationship that children have with their teacher,” says Dr Carr-Gregg.
“Now, if you’ve got good social and emotional competencies, a capacity to read and recognise and name other people’s thoughts and feelings, clearly that’s going to give you an advantage in that respect.
“Kids who are good at anger management, problem-solving and conflict resolution generally do much better in a school environment because they feel safe, they feel valued, they feel listened to and, generally, they get on very well with their teachers.”
What can parents do?
All children will need help at some point to develop the kinds of social skills that Dr Carr-Gregg describes.
While some children may have serious problems that require clinical treatment, many can improve their social skills with help from their parents. In the case of aggressive or disruptive children, Dr Carr-Gregg is a strong believer in mum and dad setting boundaries and sticking to them.
“I think one obviously has to assess whether or not there’s some deep-seated psychological problem, or whether this is a behavioural issue. If it is a behavioural issue, then I think the strategy that works best, and it’s proven, is that you praise the child every time that they don’t behave that way, and you reward them; and every time that they do, you warn them and then there’s time out. And I believe that all the evidence from Triple P [Positive Parenting Program}, all the research internationally, shows that there is no better way of, essentially, training a child to behave,” he says.
Teacher Lesley agrees that it’s vital for parents to set boundaries, follow through, and be consistent.
“It is really, really important that you have the boundaries, you have the consequences of not abiding by those boundaries, and you follow through. If you’re still really struggling, maybe it’s worth enrolling in something like Triple P,’ she says.
If you’re the parent of a shy child, Dr Carr-Gregg recommends changing their thinking patterns and what he calls their ‘self talk’.
“Kids who are shy essentially have a problem with their internal monologue,” he says.
“What this boils down to is that they have developed along the way a very significant level of concern over external negative evaluation — in other words, they’re worried about what people are going to say about them… it’s exaggerated in their minds.
“The secret of trying to help those children is to get them to recognise when they’re thinking in these unhelpful, self-defeating ways, and teach them to challenge it and replace their thoughts with more useful, more helpful, more adaptive ways of thinking about the world.”
Shy children may also benefit from being encouraged to participate in group activities outside of school. Ann, the mother of a bright but shy daughter, found this helpful when her daughter’s shyness started affecting her school performance.
“A teacher first spoke to us about it in Year 2,” she says.
“She said that when Charlotte spoke in front of the group, she couldn’t speak loudly enough to be heard, and she seemed paralysed by nerves. It got worse in Year 3 when they had to do it more often, and the school suggested that we see the guidance counsellor.
“The guidance counsellor started using terms like ‘social anxiety’, which I didn’t really feel comfortable with. But we did decide that we needed to work constructively, to become more proactive about the issue.”
Ann realised that Charlotte was more confident when she could prepare before speaking in public, so Charlotte’s teacher agreed to give her more warning about when she would be called on to speak, even if it was just to answer a question. This helped to reduce her anxiety in class.
“We also tried to do some things to boost her confidence outside of school. I think that being smart often isn’t valued by other kids, so we wanted to help her find other strengths. We got her involved in soccer, swimming and little athletics, and enrolled her in a drama group.
“It’s been really good. She’s far more confident now, both in those other activities and at school. She’s in Year 4, and is actually volunteering to speak in class.”
If your child is ‘quirky’, teacher Lesley says it helps to explain to them that not every other child will share their habits or their particular obsession.
“You need to point out to your child that an obsession is alright to a point, but that other kids do want to have a change,” she says.
As for those who struggle due to immaturity, Lesley says that usually resolves itself over time.
What are schools doing?
Thankfully, it’s not all up to parents. Teachers should be able to provide strategies, and schools are increasingly recognising their role in teaching social skills. With the support of Education Queensland, many state schools have introduced programs such as You Can Do It!, an Aussie Optimism Program, and the Friends for Life program. Many independent schools have done likewise.
Social and emotional skills will also be part of Australia’s new national curriculum. A module on ‘Emotional resilience’ will be included in the new Health and Physical Education syllabus, which is due to be introduced some time after 2013.
Don’t give up hope
It can be very confronting to realise that your child is struggling with their social skills at school and upsetting to see that struggle affect their happiness and ability to learn. While it’s important to help your child develop good social skills, it’s also important to keep things in perspective.
As Charlotte’s case illustrates, many children who need help with social skills respond well, to become happy, functioning members of the school community. And good schools and teachers are increasingly providing support in this area.
It’s also important to remember that not every child is the same. While we need to help each child learn to behave within socially acceptable norms, we also need to teach acceptance and appreciation of difference. As teacher Lesley says, that’s one of the positive things about school.
“It’s just like real life, isn’t it?” she says. “You have to learn to deal with different kinds of people, learn to be with other people who are different and have different ideas.
“The other children are also learning to deal with diversity, so they’re learning life-long skills as well.
“As a teacher, it’s much richer and more interesting. That’s what makes it so great — all the different personalities.”