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Is Social-Skills Training One 'Missing Link'?

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No matter what glowing statistics we muster to show the steady course of school reform, another set of statistics being created by our young people is jeopardizing our sense of accomplishment in changing the course of young lives. Young people are perpetrating violent crimes at an unprecedented rate and with unthought-of dimensions and depth. Nationally, violence in and around schools is occurring at alarming rates, as these statistics from a 1993 U.S. Justice Department report confirm:

  • Nearly three million thefts and violent crimes occur on or near school campuses every year--one every six seconds.
  • Fifteen percent of students questioned say their school has gangs, and 16 percent claim a student has attacked or threatened a teacher at the school.
  • Nearly one out of five public school teachers reports being verbally abused by students. Eight percent report being physically threatened, while 2 percent say they have actually been physically attacked.
  • Nearly 20 percent of all students in grades 9-12 report they have carried a weapon at least once.

In the last five years, violent acts committed by juveniles have increased by 124 percent. During that same period, our juvenile-detention centers have become overcrowded, jails are bursting at the seams, and criminals wander the streets at will in large urban centers.

Legal control through juvenile courts and social control through community agencies and services are both possible approaches to be used in reducing these statistics. Our efforts have emphasized control--treatment and punishment after entrance into the court system, at the exclusion of prevention--actions taken to preclude or correct unacceptable behavior before entrance into the court system.

Should we not view EDUCATION as the answer to our dilemma?

In schools, what are some of the promising approaches to alleviating disruptive and antisocial behavior? They include these practices:

  • Personalized instruction, including the tailoring of curricula to meet student needs and interests.
  • Student involvement in decisionmaking and school governance, which moves a student away from the passive role, utilizes peer-group leaders, and fosters a belief in moral order.
  • Law-related education, which provides students with an understanding of the function of our laws and legal system and of their rights and responsibilities related to the system.
  • "Shadowing'' in vocational and other career areas, which gives young people an exposure to the real world, its career options, and academic and interpersonal skills required for success.
  • Cross-age-level tutoring, which allows students to perform productive social roles, working with younger students who are experiencing difficulty.
  • "School climate'' and improvement activities, which are undertaken collaboratively by teachers and administrators to identify those program elements and other school processes that require improvement and then implement corrective actions.
  • And, one practice that has been developed least--interpersonal-skills training.

All of us are aware of the depth and breadth of programs implemented for drug-abuse prevention in the last decade. A major effort was made to educate the young to "just say no.'' But how does one "just say no'' without basic training in social interaction? Just as the school teaches cognitive skills, it must also teach basic communication, decisionmaking, negotiation, and conflict resolution if we are to produce young people who interact effectively with others. These teachings must be integrated into the ongoing program of instruction and reinforced routinely.

As we review our curricula, we will readily note that this kind of skills development is often the missing link in developing life proficiency and citizenship skills. Communities and schools have not integrated the teaching of social skills into the school curriculum. At the same time that families have less structure than ever before and that the media, along with their daily portrayal of violence, play a major role in the lives of young people, schools have narrowed their focus to the development of academic skills. Who, then, is to provide the learning and practice young people need in such basic processes as:

  • Listening
  • Setting goals
  • Following directions
  • Dealing with peer pressure
  • Problem solving
  • Dealing with anger
  • Ignoring distractions
  • Accepting consequences
  • Using self-control?

Are these skills not essential to success in daily life? Should not the school reinforce such learning early in a youngster's educational experience?

Most of us would agree that this should be done in the home, in school, and throughout the community. Early learning and practice of those skills would reduce the level of frustration experienced by students, parents, and teachers. Our nation's classrooms would become more orderly, our teachers less traumatized, and our students more successful.

Our life's requirements are both cognitive and social. Let us not ignore the simple fact that if we are to succeed as a nation, we must develop our young to the fullest of their potential and thoroughly address the basic requirements for future success through the missing link in the curriculum--social-skills instruction.

Schools cannot meet all societal needs, but they can meet children's most basic needs. The training we offer them in simple social interactions must at least match the efforts we are making to combat drug use.

Frank J. Huml is the executive director of the Society for Prevention of Violence, a nonprofit organization in Woodmere, Ohio, dedicated to the reduction of violence and asocial behavior through education. He is also a former Cleveland superintendent of schools.

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