Human beings are social creatures. Yet when it comes to children, the social piece is often undervalued. The greatest joy of being human originates from the quality of our relationships. When parents are asked about a child’s development, they usually refer to speech and language development, motor skills, the ability to understand signs and physical growth. Parents (and schools) tend to neglect the most critical piece of development – the child’s social development. A child’s social development refers to the ability to interact with peers and elders.
School and social skills
While some children enjoy their school, it can be a nightmare for others? The origins of joy from relationships lie in our childhood experiences, and has everything to do with the open and diverse social interaction children experience during their childhood. A school is not merely a place for a child to learn reading, writing, and passing exams. It is also a place for developing all kinds of soft skills, social emotional skills being amongst the most important. They are also the skills that help us understand and relate with ourselves and with others. They give us the ability to influence others, manage change and become resilient. Although there are no grades for social skills, yet a child who is good at interacting with teachers, elders, and fellow students, is also likely to be a better learner and do far better in life.
A school prepares a child for the future, however if it restricts social development, a child may lose the ability to express which can lead to low self esteem and lack of self confidence.
Children and meaningful connections
We begin to seek connection as soon as they enter this world. Toddlers try to connect in their own incomprehensible language. They use their power of expression to express hunger, anguish, loneliness, and sleep. Children who were ignored by their parents grow up insecure and often struggle with relationships when they become adults.
Social isolation and health problems
There was a boy (let’s call him Neel) who wrote a heart-wrenching account of his experience at home and school while growing up. Neel belonged to a conservative family where an interaction with the opposite gender was frowned upon. His parents admitted him in an all boys school where the teachers were extremely strict. There was hardly any informal and playful student-teacher interaction. Students and teachers maintained a distance which led to mutual lack of trust. Once Neel was representing his school at an inter-school competition where schools from all over his state were participating. Obviously there were girls too. Because of the ecosystem at school and the fact that his school did not prepare him for social interactions with adults, he felt and behaved awkward the entire time. He felt out of place and unhappy as he was unable to connect with strangers. Neel is now 22 years, works in an MNC, is professionally, yet finds it difficult to interact with the opposite sex and with those older than him. He is resentful of his parents and school and struggles with relationships. This is just one example. There are countless others who recount similar experiences.
Loneliness and withdrawal take away some of the most exciting, fun and meaningful moments from the lives of children. It’s not a part of our natural growth and potentially leads to emotional and mental health issues.
Some of the most important, yet most ignored, issues at school are social bonds and connections. It all begins with the leadership team at the school. The quality of relationships amongst the leadership team determines relationships amongst teachers. Teachers also need to be conscious to help their learners build social bonds, especially during the early part of the term. Some of the best teachers spend early term days (sometimes weeks) ensuring great social connections with their learners. They go to great lengths to make the initial class experience fun and to ensure that everyone has a friend. The quality of social relationships determines quality of learning. Research also suggests the one of the most important factors behind learning is having a good friend at school.
Great schools will conduct regular surveys where they will ask all stakeholders, including senior leaders, teachers and even learners some really important questions. Questions about quality of relationships amongst teachers and learners. Questions to check if everyone has a friend, to depend on and a shoulder to cry on. Questions that will check how much fear and formality there is in relationships. Once surveys are conducted, there are reflections and course connections, in order to ensure the environment is conducive to social bonds and relationships.
Since learning is a social construct, great schools will also craft learning around teamwork and social connections. Techniques such as Problem based learning (PBL) ensure learners work and learn in small groups. The learning is structured in a way that is similar to how we work in the real world, where teams of peers with unique strengths come together to solve a problem or to do a project. This form of learning develops and enhances collaboration skills. It also increases the attention levels, which in turn enhance retention levels.
A little boy who was about 6 years (let’s call him Sam) went to school wearing nail polish in his little finger. As his mother was getting ready for dinner the night before, fascinated by colors he decided to put nail paints on his finger. This went unnoticed by his parents. Sam’s teacher noticed it, and humiliated him in the front of the entire class for ‘behaving like a girl’. The insensitive teacher not only harmed the the child emotionally but also reinforced existing gender stereotypes. The child had supportive parents, and they decided to withdraw their child from that school. I know of this incident, because I met his parents at a conference. Sam is happy in how new school where he can experiment with colors as much as he wants to without the fear of being judged or stereotyped.
Schools and teachers have tendency of rejecting things that, according to their understanding, are not normal or conventional. Instead of having an open mind, traditionally there has been a tendency to scold and humiliate children. These often lead to deep scars that oft en resurface later in life.
A better life
Schools should be safe spaces where children can experiment, express themselves, make mistakes, explore their true interests and enhance their skills, all in an environment of good relationships with their peers and teachers. They will grow up to be self assured and confident adults who will experience the lifelong joy of good and meaningful relationships.