SOCIAL SKILLS

THE SOCIAL CONCEPTS PROGRAM:
BULLYING PREVENTION FOR THE SCHOOLS

Those of us connected with the education of children and youth are very aware of the detrimental effects of limited social skills among these students. Children who behave inappropriately or are insecure in their interactions with peers often experience rejection and exclusion by classmates, leading to “missed opportunities for social learing and [having] long term adverse effects on academic performance and social-emotional development” (Evans, Axelrod, & Sapia, 2000, p. 191). One study found social impairment to be the sole significant unique predictor of drug and alcohol abuse and smoking (Greene et al., 1999).
Awareness of this situation and an increase in the occurrence of bullying (Pearson, 2005; Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005) has led many school divisions to introduce social skills training programs, some whose implementation includes instruction for the teachers. One wonders why these programs have not demonstrated a high degree of effectiveness (Evans, Axelrod, & Sapia, 2000). This article will offer two suggestions for this occurrence while describing a program that appears to be meeting the needs of the students and eliminating much of the interactional difficulty in the schools. The purpose is to bring awareness to the need for this form of a  program in the schools and to demonstrate its effectiveness.

One Size Does Not Fit All
Gresham (1988) noted that most social skills programs provide the same model for all children regardless of their life circumstances. While aggression may be considered unacceptable behaviour in every school, children’s reasons for being aggressive and their manner of exhibiting this aggression may vary considerably. The meaning given to any situation will be different according to the child’s upbringing, previous experiences, belief systems, values, and the like.
According to Elliot and Gresham (1993), it is also likely that, social skills deficits can be a function of a lack of knowledge, lack of performance, or lack of social reinforcement. Many social skills programs are not as effective as they might be because they do not match the skills training to the type of social skills deficits the children are experiencing. For example, teaching a child methods to join a group of peers may be missing the mark completely if the child already knows how, but lacks the self-confidence to do it. Programs should be tailored to the missing skills and the type of student participating in the program. (Evans, Axelrod, & Sapia, 2000, p. 191)

An Individualized Program
The Social Concepts Program, which has been running in three school divisions in rural Manitoba, adheres to the principle of tailoring a program to the specific needs of the particular school and the population served. Counsellors are hired by a private agency and work with the same students as they progress through their elementary and middle years schooling. Knowing the children and their communities is an important aspect of this program as children’s experiences and values vary according to culture. A counsellor working in the schools on a Hutterite colony or on a First Nations Reserve would need to take culture into considersation when approaching various subjects within a social skills program. These considerations are not addressed in the packaged programs.
The program builds on topics from year to year, moving deeper into these issues. It is school-based, the counsellors build it as they go, making it fit with the changing needs of the individual schools, cultures, and ages. For example, one school wanted small group programming for those students who are particularly lacking in social skills and anger management. At another school, multi-age programming has been implemented to connect all students and reduce bullying on the playground.
The counsellors take ideas from resources and adapt them to each classroom. They stay in contact with the teachers, asking at the beginning of the year, and throughout, “What are the needs you see for your class?” They are also aware of what the “flavour of the month” is in the school divisions. For example, one year professional development was focused on the work of Michele Borba on caring, sharing, and empathy. The counsellors would integrate their lessons with what the teachers were learning and being encouraged to use in their classes, but use their own words to reinforce the concepts from a differant direction.
It is a huge commitment, requiring a tremendous number of hours of planning, looking for ways of addressing the same topics with different materials, so that students move deeper into each topic, being able to handle the situations more skillfully each year. They work to create progressive learning, moving from the general to the more specific, making each lesson and theory build upon the previous. They draw from instruction books, from games, from readings, from colouring books. They do role plays, create their own skits, march around the class, keeping it fun and expansive. Drawing from their past experiences, they are able to see when they are losing the students and move to something else, bringing them back into the experience.

Must Teachers Be Counsellors Too?
There are many reasons the classroom teachers should not be asked to facilitate a social skills program with their students. Teachers’ first and foremost concern is the deliver curricula. Curricula that seems to be ever expanding and changing. The expectation that they be capable in all areas in unrealistic and unfair. A teacher who is masterful at having his students understand math or science concepts need not also be outstanding at teaching health or art, or be at ease instructing his students in the area of human sexuality.
It is a normal human trait to, whenever possible, remove ourselves from situations in which we feel uncomfortable or incompetent. As one Coordinator of Student Services stated in her letter to the Minister of Education (explaining the decision to institute the Social Concepts Program in their schools), “Although we already had social skills courses in our schools, i.e. Second Step and Lion’s Quest, many of these were gathering dust due to too many demands being placed on our classroom teachers.” She further stated that it is important that trained counsellors, who are not present in their elementary schools, offer the course. Finally, there is an acknowledgement that programs of this nature would be “bumped by in-school demands” if outside personnel were not scheduled into the class timetable (Sharon Spak, Coordinator of Student Services, Fort La Bosse School Division).
A discussion of feelings with students may open up a can of worms that reaches far beyond the confines of the school grounds. Conversations will spur a thought or questions from students that teachers are not prepared or qualified to address. Teachers, in their discomfort, might brush the question off or diminish the child’s experience, effectively shutting the child down to any future expression of emotion or examination of this concern.
Working in a rural school has many of its own issues. Teachers and counsellors who live in the same small town will be friends with the parents of their students or their children will be on the same hockey team or they will run into each other while shopping. Children are less inclined to open up to adults who might share their concerns with their parents or other adults at the school or in the community. The fact that the counsellors live elsewhere supports the sense of trust and confidentiality. It also offers a fresh voice that only drops in to class once a week who may gain the students’ attention more than the teacher who is there day after day.
If there is an angry kid, they need someone from outside to talk to. Their anger may have moved towards the teacher, who is the arbitrator and judge. An unbiased third party helps to talk to kids and to parents. In grade seven (12-14 year olds) there may be a need to pull in their parents and it is good to have an outsider to talk to them also and be objective. (Junior High School Teacher)
The importance of a trained outsider is apparent in the following comments from teachers and prinicipals who responded to an evalution survey of the Social Concepts Program:
“A new person coming in with a different agenda allows kids to be different people, show different characteristics than usual.”
“Seems to be more effective when messages come from someone other then a teacher or parent.”
“It is very beneficial to have someone else come in. They have new perspectives. They can see things that have been missed.”
“Being an outsider, students will talk to the counsellor in ways they don’t to their teachers.”
“The counselling type of approach is one that teachers are not trained in. It is more effective coming from a qualified person.”
“Being scheduled makes sure it gets done!”

Benefits and How It Works
As described above, the counsellors in this program spend considerable time planning ways to introduce sensitive topics or practice social skills that will engage all students. As one teacher commented, “We’ve discussed that topic before but it has never been so much fun.” The sessions provide in-service opportunities for those teachers who take advantage of the time to observe, participate and take notes. As one teacher stated, “I personally learned so much from the program such, like many different ways to deal with conflict.” Teachers who participate in the program are also learning about family dynamics and are able to be more understanding when a students acts inappropriately.
Sessions also provide a point of reference to be used with classes. For example, teachers will refer to what was taught, asking questions such as “What did the counsellor say?” when wanting to make a point or when requesting a change of behaviour. Both students and teachers are learning a new language with which to discuss feelings and behaviours. One example of teacher support involves a group of inattentive students. In her small group sessions, the counsellor would call “superglue” and the overactive students would stick to chairs, unmoving. The teacher was informed of the strategy and found it to be as effective in her classroom.
Some teachers also seek out the counsellors, asking how to deal with specific problems (for example, where three girls are in extreme conflict and it is affecting the others in the class). The counsellors make themselves available to the teachers, during recess or lunch or early in the morning. They inquire what is going on in the classroom, and without the children knowing, they adapt the day’s topic to make it fit. In this way problem situations can be caught early enought that they do not escalate.
The counsellors explain confidentiality to the students, letting them know that they are legally obligated to report situations where there may be harm to people or property. In one case, when discussing how feelings affect one’s internal sensations and can be manifested as physical symptoms, a young girl whispered to the counsellor, “That’s what’s happening to me.” The counsellor alerted the child’s teacher and mother who brought in community mental health to deal with this anxiety order.

Supporting Academic Learning
Children who are focused on playground issues or feel a need to be defensive are less able to be attentive to the lesson, participate in discussion or take risks, all necessary for learning. Teachers involved in the Social Concepts Program reported seeing an improvement in group dynamics; they seldom have students who can’t fit into a task group. They described this positive change from past years as follows:
“Their way of socializing has changed to allow them to better learn. They feel safer, will take risks, and therefore will learn more.”
“In class they eagerly answer, share ideas and participate willingly.”

The program has a strong component of self-reflection; exploring personal ways of handling situations and the like. This kind of self-reflection supports critical thinking, a cornerstone of learning. This is another way in which the Social Concepts Program supports children’s academic learning in the classroom.
The counsellor always tries to send the students back to their classes with something positive to share. For students who are used to being singled out as poor readers or behaviour problems, or slow in math, they now have things to contribute to the class so that they might feel special in a positive way. And every teacher knows that improving a child’s self-esteem will show itself in academic gains.

Further Behavioural Changes Observed
This program is now in its seventh year. Numerous positive behavioural changes have been identified by teachers and principals.
“Our school has a more caring atmosphere since this program started. We now understand trust, respect and cooperate.”
“Students are trying to solve problems amongst themselves, rather than going to an adult first.”
“Students treat each other with more respect and empathy. [There is] improved tolerance of those who are not the same.”
“They know how to manage their anger. They have discussion around good sportsmanship.”
“There is a reduction in anger between native and non-native students; there’s not the hatred there was in the past.”
Conflicts still occur in these schools, although with much less frequency than in the past. Students are far better able to recolve their conflicts on their own. They also have a new awareness or level of consciousness about their emotional responses and actions. When asked “What other choices did you have besides hitting?” they are, for the first time in some teachers’ experience, able to lis numerous other and more appropriate ways to deal with the situation. As those involved in behaviour change know, awareness is the first and most necessary step.
The duration of this program has had other positive impacts on the children involved. Students feel comfortable with the counsellor due to continued familiarity. They often pull her aside in the hall to tell her things that matter to them. In the junior high school, teachers report that students are now setting more social goals than they used to at the beginning of the year. Instead of stating they want to “get more A’s” etc., they are now looking to be better friends, more caring, and the like.
Continuity has also been helpful in communities where some parents initially objected to the program because they didn’t know the facilitator. Over the years they have seen the benefit of the program for other children, become familiar with the counsellor and decided to allow their own children to participate.

Beginning Considerations
It is important at the beginning to clarify the expectations of both the facilitator and the teachers. How involved should the teacher be? Should the teacher intervene if there are behavious problems? Evaluations of the counsellor and program are helpful, especially at the beginning, but after a time what is more important is the partnership of professionals.
Counsellors should meet with teachers and principals before hand, if possible, to learn what they want to have addressed and what issues are surfacing in this particular school. However, is it imperative that the counsellor not be micro-managed. When the teachers or administrators direct the counsellor in how to work with the students if interferes with what can be addressed. For example, being told to only talk with the children, to not use books or activities or the like is very restrictive, especially with younger children.

Concerns for Cost
There’s no question that we are in a time of budgetary contraint in our schools as elsewhere. School divisions might consider contracting outside counselling support as beyond their financial scope. Having paid for packaged programs, and trained teachers in their usage, is a reasonable argument for not adding on another program. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs, which are actually less than they appear at first.
When evaluating the cost of hiring outside support, it is important to remember that every dollar the counsellor is paid goes directly to the children. Prep work is done on her own time, as is the time she spends contacting parents, or consulting teachers and principals. One of the counsellors explained she has done workshops for the educational assistants and bus drivers (on bullying and other social issues) as well as training grade four students in one school to be peer helpers. A full-time employee of the school division will spend a good bit of time in adjunct activities (e.g., timetabling, meetings, etc.) and lose the focused time with children. They will also need to be paid benefits.
One teacher’s arguement for continuing and extending the program into the high school, follows:
The stats for kids who are bullied who end up in the prison system is 6 out of 10. How much does it cost for one person for one year in jail? $60,000? It would be far more economical to have the right involvement at the right time.

Final Comments
The purpose of this paper (published: Leseho, J. (2005). The Social Concepts Program: Bullying Prevention for the Schools. Manitoba Journal of Counselling, 32(2) 13-15.) was to speak to the need for a social skills program that utilizes an outside facilitator who is well trained and experienced in counselling children. With reference to research and direct statements of teachers and principals, I have tried to demonstrate the reasons that “packaged programs” are not as effective as utilizing the services of an outside counsellor. The focus of the Social Concepts Program is to help students face the challenge of adjusting to a world that is no longer as predictable and secure as it once was. Although many young people are able to master life challenges, childhood stress is at epidemis proportions. These problems make a dramatic statement about how difficult it is for many young people to cope with life’s issues as well as with the typical milestones that characterize childhood development.
Working in partnership with school staff and parents, counsellors are able to make a tremendous contribution to the climate of the school and the individual classrooms as well as to students and teachers. School administrators might want to consider including this approach in supporting students’ learning, growth and development.
For more information about the Social Concepts Program or how your school division might begin a similar program, email:
Terri Miller at fcs@wcgwave.ca
Information for this article was gathered through program evaluations and direct conversations with the counsellors, teachers and prinicipals involved.

References

Evans, S.W., Axelrod, J.L., & Sapia, J.K. (2000). Effective school-based mental health interventions: Advancing the social skills training paradigm. Journal of School Health, 70(5), 191-194.

Greene, R.W., Biederman, J., Faraone, S., Wilens, T., Mick, E., & Blier, H.K. (1999). Furthur validation of social impairments, a predictor of substance use disorders: Findings from a sample of siblings of boys with and without ADHD. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 349-354.

Gresham, F.M. (1998). Social skills training: Should we raze, remodel or rebuild? Behaviour Disorders, 19-25.

Pearson, S. (2005). Bullying in secondary schools: What it looks like and how to manage it. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 10(2), 105-106.

Smokowski, P.R., & Kopasz, K.H. (2005). Bullying in schools: An overview of types, effects, family characteristics & intervention strategies. Children and Schools, 27(2), 101-110.

Spak, S. Unpublished letter to Hon. Drew Caldwell. Fort La Bosse School Division; April 5, 2001.