Teaching Social Skills to At-Risk Children

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In Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family, James P. Comer uses autobiographical narratives prepared by his mother and himself to identify the "strategies and strengths" by which many minority families have overcome disadvantages.

From his perspective as professor of child psychiatry and director of the school-development program at Yale University's Child Study Center, Dr. Comer contrasts the experience of his family with that of black families that have not been able to surmount such barriers.

Drawing on his experience as leader of a collaborative school-intervention project in New Haven, Conn., he suggests that schools can help at-risk children develop the social as well as academic skills necessary for success.

By the time [the civil-rights movement and increased opportunities for blacks] occurred, in the mid-1960's, it was already the middle of the last stage of the industrial era. And many families were already experiencing the effects of three generations of exclusion and dislocation--South to North, rural to urban.

Many did find a way to survive and thrive under the changed conditions. My family, and my father's family before us, are examples.

At the other end of the spectrum, some black families were traumatized by slavery and the oppressive conditions after slavery, overwhelmed by life in the margins of society. The harmful habits that resulted were transferred from generation to generation. [Examples include] the people who have destroyed housing projects and who are overrepresented in all kinds of crimes and mental disorders.

But most black families are not this seriously disturbed. Most of the children are quite able. ...

On the other hand, their parents have not been a part of the societal mainstream. They often cannot give them the experiences necessary to get off to a good start in school even though they want them to succeed. Some are under economic and social stress, and are unable to do so even when they know what is needed. This was the situation for many of the children at our elementary schools.

American education is structured to serve children who have had the average family experience or better. Teachers are not trained to work with children who have not had such an experience. In the selection of teachers, little attention is given to their ability to work with other than mainstream children.

As a result, when children present themselves to the school with behavior that is useful to them on the playground or in a housing project but gets them in trouble in school, they are often viewed as bad rather than underdeveloped, or developed for activities other than school.

Without training, the response is to punish the bad behavior rather than to close the developmental gap. Children who have not been read to, helped to learn how to think or express themselves, and don't show good problem-solving competence and confidence are often viewed as slow, with limited academic-achievement potential.

Teachers want to be successful professionals. Troublesome behavior and limited intellectual ability are often viewed as obstacles to their professional goals. It is more difficult for school staff to have high expectations for such children.

Teachers have difficulty making a positive emotional bond to such children and, in turn, children to such teachers. This makes it difficult for these children to accept the attitudes, values, ways of the school. In fact, these conditions often cause children to feel rejected, to test the staff, to do the opposite of what the staff asks of them--learn and behave appropriately--or just to withdraw emotionally.

My white 3rd-grade teacher held my hand as we walked to school. But because my black friends didn't have the preparation and support to take on the ways of the school--reading library books, in this case--she told them that they shouldn't be in the school. I was hurt and confused, but didn't reject her or learning because my parents, in word and family ethos, told me I could not.

In schools with many underdeveloped children and school staffs unprepared to help, such incidents are more frequent and lead straight downhill for all involved. Parents who had hoped that the school would give their children a better chance than they themselves had, but suspected that it wouldn't, have their worst fears confirmed. They often react angrily, withdraw emotional attachments, or literally stay away.

When there are racial, educational, and income differences between home and school, distrust and anger are even more likely. And because the school staff is rarely a natural part of the community, as it was in many places only 30 or 40 years ago, the distrust is even greater. All of these factors were at play in the Baldwin and King schools.

One of the reasons that school staffs are ill-prepared for children outside of the average expected, or mainstream, experience is that educational reform in the 1930's and 1940's focused on academic standards and content rather than on child development and relationship issues. "Sputnik" in the 50's, or interest in high technology, exacerbated this problem. All of the educational-reform talk and reports of the past few years ignore child development and relationship issues.

And yet when you ask school teachers and administrators what is wrong, they say, "A lack of respect, discipline, motivation"--all relationship issues. When you ask high-school students why they didn't do well in school, or left, the most often heard complaint is: "The teachers don't care"--a relationship issue. The question I most often hear from school staff about parents is: "How do you get parents to participate in the school program?"--a relationship issue.

At Baldwin-King, we had to overcome deep-seated distrust and limited relationship skills among all involved. We created an administrative team for each school that was made up of 12 to 14 members and headed by the principal. Such a group is still the critical element of our school-improvement approach. Teachers selected by other teachers, parents selected by parents, and representatives of other programs in a school serve on the governance and management team.

Step by step, the group identified the most pressing problems and the greatest opportunities, made plans to address them, implemented their plans, assessed the outcomes, and modified the program of the school as indicated. They worked in three areas--social climate, academics, and staff development.

The other important elements of our program were and still are the mental-health team, the parents program, and the teaching and curriculum program. ...

One night while thinking about our future project direction, I was having dinner with my wife and children in a restaurant looking out on the Rockefeller Plaza skating rink in New York City. A child of about 2 was being taught how to skate. His father placed him up on his skates, showed him how to move, and then skated away. The child took a step and fell. The father circled the rink, returned, propped him up, coached him, and skated away again.

This was repeated many times; each time the child made a little more progress. Before long, he was moving along cautiously without his father, gradually improving.

I was aware that many of our students did not have good mainstream social skills. It occurred to me that such skills can be taught when the kind of trust and confidence exists between teacher and pupil that existed between that child and his father.

My siblings and I got along well in school because we had good social skills. We knew when to fight and when not to fight. We knew how to protect our rights in ways other than fighting. But again, we weren't born wise in skills. We were carefully taught and strongly encouraged to develop the needed skills and personal controls. We had many opportunities to use them at home, at church, and among friends before our skills were tested and judged in school. When we failed, we were given sympathy and encouragement to try again.

This is what happens to most children. But who helps children whose parents themselves have not had such experiences, or who live under such stress that they cannot provide them even when they know what needs to be done? Why not the school?

It was my own family experience, my knowledge of child development, and our experiences in the first five years of the project that led us to focus on social development and social skills. These are things that many educators take for granted, or feel have no place in the program of the school because they themselves received such skills and confidence at home.

We argued that the school can and should teach students to present themselves as well-behaved, bright, and able. This, in turn, would permit the teachers to care about, believe in, and have hope for them.

Vol. 08, Issue 13, Page 28

Published in Print: November 30, 1988, as Teaching Social Skills to At-Risk Children
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