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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Social competence: moving beyond the mantras

Anne Kennedy
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Monash University

Social competence is an important element of the personal and educational development of children in the early years, and it is vital that we move beyond popular slogans in addressing the issues related to it.

What is social competence?

Two definitions are:
'The personal capacity for trust, tolerance, value of life and proactivity' (Drielsma 2000)

'The ability to initiate and maintain satisfying relationships especially with peers' (Knight and Hughes 1995).
Drielsma's definition encompasses both the intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of social competence as well as the necessary commitment to action. It has similarities to Goleman's (1995) five domains of 'emotional intelligence': knowing and recognising one's own emotions, managing one's emotions, motivating the self through using or harnessing emotions to pursue goals, recognizing and responding to emotions in others, and dealing with relationships.

Social and emotional knowledge and skills are linked to our cognitive ability in areas such as memory, recall, problem solving, creativity, perception, judgements and concentration. As Hancock and Wingert (1997: 36) argue, 'early social and emotional experiences are the seeds of human intelligence'. This claim is central to my belief in the importance of social competence for children and adults.

Brain research and the research into resilience confirm that social competence is an essential achievement for all children if they are to be healthy, happy and contributing members of their families and communities.

Brain research has found that:

  • There is a link between the affective and the cognitive domains in the brain.
  • Relationships that are warm, loving, supportive, and consistent are essential for brain development.
  • The early years (0-8) are critical periods for brain development as the brain is not 'hard wired' at birth.
  • Attachment to primary care givers is required for emotional wellbeing.
  • Environmental influences are pervasive and affect brain development.
  • The stimulation and experiences provided to children must be age appropriate
  • Neglect and stress weaken and destroy neural networks.
Other important research has examined how the child's brain develops a range of symbol systems, especially language symbols, and also how it accumulates and accesses 'common sense' knowledge very quickly. This work has reinforced the importance of children having the opportunity to play with diverse media and materials (sand, water, blocks, construction sets) and experiencing diverse social experiences with adults and children. Playing with ideas - through problem solving, creative pursuits, socio-dramatic play, discovery learning or projects - is the most appropriate way to foster rich symbolic systems which are the basis for formal literacy and numeracy knowledge, skills and understanding (Milne 1997).

Resilience is an important social and emotional competence that can protect children from risks associated with challenges such as poverty or family breakdown. Research has identified three sets of characteristics in the development of resilience:

  • individual characteristics - positive social orientation, gender (girls are less at risk), an ability to adjust to change, and level of intelligence
  • bonding characteristics - a capacity for warm relationships with peers, family and teachers
  • beliefs and attitudes - clear standards set by school and family about the importance of school, good health through being addiction free, and citizenship standards such as not being involved in crime and being active in community life (Owen 1998).

How do we achieve social competence?

Strategies to foster and support children's social and emotional competence must go beyond catchy program titles or slogans such as: 'best start', 'start right', 'reaching potentials', 'keys to life', 'first steps'. The constant use of such slogans turns them into mantras. A mantra is a chant which reflects the sum of the thought processes behind the initiative, but it can also impede critical examination of what is being promoted. We can also become seduced by the mantra into believing that what the title says is indeed happening. A mantra can be an inadequate substitute for developing more complex and appropriate strategies to address issues in education.

In these strategies the world of values and theory and the world of practice and multiple perspectives must inform one another. Australian education experts sometimes theorise in a context vacuum with scant regard for the daily lives of children, families, schools and teachers. At the same time practitioners consider how best to teach and are focused on 'what will work' without much reference to the values, philosophies or theories embedded in practices and teaching strategies.

Strategies to foster and support children's social and emotional competence can be broadly categorized under three headings - those based on relationships and interactions, on communication, and on teaching and learning.

Relationships and interactions

  • Respectful and reciprocal relationships are needed between teachers, children and families.
  • There should be continuity of relationships between teachers and children, so that teachers remain with children for more than a year. Children should not be rotated to different teachers during block teaching periods.
  • Strong connections between community, school and family are needed, with children and teachers active in the community and, in turn, the community participating regularly in the life of school.
  • Strong friendship networks should be supported (eg buddy systems, cooperative learning groups).
  • Stress levels need to be monitored and reduced for teachers and children.
  • Zero tolerance policies need to be maintained in relation to any form of discrimination by teachers and children (eg racist taunts, gender-stereotyped comments, bullying).

  • Communication between teachers, teachers and children/families should be respectful, frequent, open and honest, responsive, broad in scope and modes of delivery, and focused on listening.

Teaching and learning

  • Learning needs to be learner initiated and learner managed, involving child-selected projects to research, individual learning contracts, and play experiences.
  • Whole brain learning is needed; this involves learning through information and facts, learning by being able to do, act out, and apply what is learned, learning by making connections, understanding and insight, and learning by feelings, emotions, experiencing and doing (Ellyard 2000).
  • There must be daily opportunities for the safe expression of feelings - through media such as art, music, drama, dance or puppets.
  • Assessment and evaluation should be developmentally and culturally appropriate and used to improve teaching and learning for individual and groups of children.
  • Peer teaching opportunities (cross-age and same-age) should be offered.

What works against the development of social competence?

Educational factors include:

  • blaming others such as parents ('there must be something happening at home')
  • value-adding notions ('we fix them up at school')
  • benchmarking
  • adult models who lack warmth, are not respectful or are inconsistent
  • stress
  • labelling by adults ('he is a troublemaker', 'she is gorgeous')
  • fixed-ability grouping
  • competition and external reward systems
  • curriculum which is highly structured, always teacher initiated and controlled
  • standardised testing
  • limited and narrow outcomes
  • poverty of interactions (less child talk, lots of child listening to adults, conversations not promoted).
Community and family risk factors involve:

  • poor attachment to parents or primary care giver
  • violence
  • homelessness
  • addiction
  • poverty
  • unsafe environments.

Conclusion: a model worth watching

The renowned early childhood schools program in the Italian region of Reggio Emilia has attracted worldwide attention. Thousands of visitors undertake study tours there each year, and the schools have inspired teaching, research projects, articles and books all over the world. The quality and complexity of the children's work is breathtaking.

Parents, teachers and children negotiate together to share responsibilities for socially constructed teaching and learning. Social competence is integral to their work with children as they commit to a 'pedagogy of relationships' and a 'pedagogy of listening'. And yet:

  • They have no prescriptive guidelines or curriculum content.
  • There are no formal quality assurance/accountability schemes.
  • There are no 'outcome' indicators or baseline assessment procedures.
  • It is entirely organised and funded at the local level.
  • There are no inspectors.
  • There is no standardised testing (Moss 2001).
We should be provoked by this exemplary system. The development of social competence is an urgent task for those who are charged with the care and education of children, because, as the title of Owen's (1996) book argues - every childhood lasts a lifetime.


AECA Newsletter, (2000) 'Infant brain research: an interview with Dr Sharne Rolfe', June, 4-5.

Drielsma, P. (2000) Hard wiring young brains for intimacy. National Child Protection Clearing House, 8, (2) 6-10.

Ellyard, P. (2000) 'Preparing for thrival in a planetist future: redesigning and restructuring the education system'. Leadership Conference for Principals and Early Years Coordinators, Melbourne.

Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.

Knight, B. A. and Hughes, D. (1995) 'Developing social competence in the preschool years'. Australian Journal of Early Childhood Education, 20, (2) 13-19.

Hancock, L. and Wingert, P. (1997) 'The new preschool' (Special Issue), Newsweek, 129, 6-9.

Hayes, A; Neilsen-Hewett, C; and Warton, P. (1999) 'From home to the world beyond: the interconnections among family, care and educational contexts', in J. Bowes and A. Hayes (Eds.) Children, families and communities: contexts and consequences. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Milne, R. (1997) Brain models affirm the value of play. Clearing House Journal of the FKA, 27, 6-7.

Moss, P. (2001) 'The otherness of Reggio', in L. Abbott and C. Nutbrown (Eds.) Experiencing Reggio Emilia. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Owen, L. (1996) Every childhood lasts a lifetime. Brisbane: Australian Association of Young People in Care.

Owen, L. (1998) 'Lost or not found: a place to be me'. Journal of Family Studies, 4, (2) 221-3.

Scott, W. (2001) 'Listening and learning', in L. Abbott and C. Nutbrown (Eds.) Experiencing Reggio Emilia. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.


Subject Headings

Social adjustment