Social competence: moving beyond the mantras
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)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:
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:
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
Teaching and learning
What works against the development of social competence?
Educational factors include:
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:
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 HeadingsSocial adjustment