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Relationships: The Fourth 'R'

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Many researchers now believe that social success is a prerequisite for academic accomplishment. "When kids are happy and self-confident, other behaviors will kick in, like risk-taking and motivation,'' says Barbara Wolf, a professor of education at Indiana University. But children who are isolated or rejected, Wolf notes, are often not ready to learn.

Some who have studied childhood friendships go even further. "The consequences of low peer acceptance may be more severe than the consequences of low [academic] achievement,'' say Steven Asher, director of the Bureau of Educational Research at the University of Illinois. Studies show that adults who were socially isolated as children are more likely to have dropped out of school or received a dishonorable discharge from the military, and more likely to be criminals or have mental problems in adulthood, than those who had good social skills when they were young. In short, for some children, making the honor roll may be less important than making friends.

These findings have clear implications for schools, and a number are beginning to take notice. A few, such as Stevens, have even set up programs to help socially isolated children make friends.

The counseling group Giron sent her three troubled students to is one of several weekly "self-esteem groups'' run by Denver school psychologist Judy Sims-Barlow at two local elementary schools. Sims-Barlow's groups are small--about five students, each referred by a teacher-- and contain children of the same sex from the same grade. They meet during the school day for about an hour.

The girls' groups are usually "sewing groups,'' and Sims-Barlow makes sure there aren't enough scissors to go around. "That's so they have to help each other, and they have to share materials,'' she explains. "Talking about making friends is less effective than setting up a situation where they have to do it.'' Her boys' groups are often "buddy groups''; she pairs boys from her lower-grades groups with older peer mentors so the younger children get immediate attention and exposure to positive role models.

Sims-Barlow has begun to work with Beth Doll, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Denver who organizes "friendship groups'' to help children make friends. Like Sims-Barlow's groups, Doll's are small: six boys and girls. They meet once a week for 30 to 45 minutes.

During the sessions, Doll helps the children focus on goal setting and social reasoning. She stresses self-awareness and has all group members keep a "play diary'' in which they write down the names of the children they play with and how much fun they had. Each child also sets a weekly goal. "One reason these kids are ineffective with other kids,'' Doll says, "is that they don't seem to be thinking through social situations in a sophisticated way.''

She offers an example. For three years, one child had only played tetherball at recess because all he had to do was stand in line. "He didn't have to ask to play,'' Doll explains. One week, he decided his goal would be to ask if he could join a recess softball game. But instead of asking before the game started or asking someone on the bench, he approached the boy who was up to bat. Distracted, the batter missed the pitch and struck out. As a result, everyone got mad at the boy in Doll's group. Doll calls his mistake a "reasoning quirk.'' Using such real-life situations, the group discusses problems and possible solutions. After working with a group for eight weeks, Doll spends one session with the children's parents. "We want them to take over the role of the group when the group is over,'' she says.

Doll has been meeting with her student groups at a university clinic, but she and Sims-Barlow are currently working together to integrate the friendship-group idea into local schools. "Friendship problems will show up there sooner than at any other site where we deliver mental health services to children,'' Doll says. She wants to help teachers learn to use some of the methods that have helped children in her groups, such as goal setting and systematic problem solving. "We don't need to urge teachers to become more concerned,'' Doll says. "They are hungry for more information on children and friendships. I get more and more requests for inservice training all the time.''

Asher of the University of Illinois is another researcher who would like to see the schools do more to help friendless students. He has developed a technique he calls "coaching'' to help children develop friend-making skills. First, Asher says, the child and a trained adult meet alone to talk about "what makes playing games fun.'' The coach teaches the youngster how to participate, cooperate, and communicate and how to be "friendly, fun, and nice.'' With these skills in mind, the child plays a game with other children and then meets again for five minutes with the adult to talk about how it went. Asher has found that most of the children coached in this manner become more accepted by their peers.

"We're talking about a fourth 'R' here, and that's relationships,'' he says. "It's worth attention because of the consequences and because effective intervention is available.''

Giron, the teacher who referred the three girls to Sims-Barlow, knows from firsthand experience that intervention can work. "It has helped a lot,'' she says. Thanks to the counseling, Giron notes, two of the girls she worried about are now making friends with classmates. And, she says, they are turning in better schoolwork to boot.

Lisa Wolcott

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