Posts Tagged social skills

Online Interactions Are Cultivating Anti-Social Boys

Published by — How do we help a kid whose social life is mainly with his screens?

The boy shrugs off a question for maybe the 10th time that afternoon.  He seems incapable of simple human interaction.  Mom tries to talk for him as he wriggles and writhes at the table in her impeccable kitchen.  No, she’s told, he needs to be accountable for himself.  This is his problem.  We’ll call him Alex.

Some days back he did a totally stupid thing that scared his entire school community, so he’s being conferenced by a facilitator working in Rhode Island’s newish Restorative Justice initiative.  The adults close to him know his act was mindless.  Alex insists “it was just a joke.”  The police have no sense of humor about such things.  But they are working with the school and conference facilitator to see if a safe, effective alternative can divert this 15-year-old boy of color from the traditional Court route.

Alex absolutely must make amends.  He needs to rebuild the trust he’s destroyed.  He seems almost desperate to do so.  Okay, but how?  Shrug.  Silence.

The facilitator holds a finger up to stop Mom from speaking.  With begging eyes, the boy looks at the facilitator, then at Mom, hoping for help.  He starts to speak, starts again, despairs, and shrugs.  Just to break the ice, the facilitator smiles and asks what he’d like to be doing at this moment?  Alex just wants to be left alone to play his video games and “relax.”  Right.

Learning social skills in cyberspace

The facilitators and schools see an emerging pattern: Some boys feel most at home inside electronic worlds.  Mom, Grandma or whomever can no longer supervise the kids’ addiction to electronic distractions.  Weirdly, some of their male siblings also play the games, but don’t get so hooked.

The pattern includes parents saying that the problem started innocently enough.  The home has an xBox or some way of getting on the internet, just like everyone else.  But at some point it became compulsive.  Even dinner could not compete.

These boys are disengaged from school and are often in trouble, frequently for misuse of electronics.  They lack “sandbox” skills — listening, taking turns, joking in a way that is not infuriating.  Their lame efforts at interacting backfire, so they retreat into telling themselves that everyone dislikes them for no reason.

Another boy, at another school, in a totally unrelated conference, considers his peers to be “horrible.”  His mom explains emphatically that the internet is where his friends are, so there is no question about taking that away from him.  This cheers the gloomy kid up enough to explain that on the internet, when someone is “horrible you can just block them.”  The facilitator wonders if he is ever horrible back.  “Well sure, when they deserve it.”  The facilitator asks if he’s ever horrible to real people, face-to-face?  “I have to be because they are so horrible to me.”

Both he and the mom in this case are sure the problem lies beyond the child and his behavior.  She, like the other moms in these cases, explains the child’s diagnosis.  They are all diagnosed.  They are ADD, oppositional defiant or on the autism spectrum.  They take drugs or get accommodations so they can tolerate being in school.  They shouldn’t be expected to control their behavior because of their condition.  It’s up to those around them to learn to deal with their use of flagrantly ugly language or their scary behavior.

In a convenience society, nothing is quite so inconvenient as a kid

Yes, some kids really do fit the diagnoses.  But I’ve started to think that parents and the media cultivated this behavior pattern.  It starts with the commercial world selling video games that happen to act like heroin with some kids.  Then parents use the games as electronic babysitters, which erodes the parents’ own social skills and supervisory authority.  When the kids get tough to manage, the behavior-control industry steps in with a drug and a diagnosis or an excuse.

Alex, the shrugger, has no interests outside of games and no one he’d like to be with.  With Mom’s help, the facilitator makes an inventory of adults in Alex’s life who could spend time with him.  Over speaker phone, Mom introduces a young uncle to the facilitator, who explains that the boy needs to hang out with people, but no screens of any kind.  The uncle is playful and fun.  Sure, he says, his nephew can tag along on both his standing dates with friends; he plays a physical game with friends one day and hangs out at the mall on another.  The boy seems pleased and agrees to the plan.

Will this pull him into the real world?  It’s a start.  He has to be able to see and understand his behavior’s effect on other people in order to have a successful conference.  Right now that seems a ways off and a lot of work.  But juvenile detention would merely crush him.

Boys who stay locked in cyberspace likely won’t develop into adults that you or I want as neighbors, colleagues or even relatives.  I think cyberspace is getting to be a social-skills killer – at least in certain kids.

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Restore Kindergarten to Boost Social Skills

Published by — What’s most fun for young kids is also what best prepares them for success.  So why are schools eliminating playtime?


Picture wriggly, shrieky, busy 5-year-olds exploring the kindergarten play yard’s treasures.  The sandbox brims with budding builders, diggers, landscape designers.  Some kids need mostly to run and scream.  Others settle into swinging, climbing and kicking balls to each other.  The luckiest kids have a bit a nature where they can make fairy houses for a community of imaginary beings living through dramatic, magical adventures.  They learn the arts of taking turns, helping one another on projects and solving their own problems.

Maria Montessori said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

Picture a wise adult or two, standing at a distance, perhaps out of earshot, eyeing the elements of the kids’ evolving social world.  The adults respond when asked to admire an accomplishment or play a role, but stay out of disputes unless it gets out of control.  A new kid or loner needs adult help connecting to others.  Grown-ups might redirect the aggressive impulses of a little bully and try to help her develop empathy by walking in her classmates’ shoes somehow.

But those were the kindergartens of yesteryear. 

These days kids spend precious little time playing at all in school.  Play and socializing might happen during short breaks between academic instruction, but many schools did away with recess altogether.  Now kindergarten teachers teach first-grade skills and have no mandate to help 5-year-olds develop the social skills that will serve them for life.  The Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten says, “Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school.”  That assumption is wrong.

And recently yet more research shows how wrong the assumption is.  In “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health:  The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” Drs. Jones, Greenberg and Crowly examine the value of what they call the “non-cognitive” skills, or those skills not associated with IQ or achievement.  They argue that these playing-nicely-in-the-sandbox skills actually support the “cognitive,” or academic, abilities of the child.  The researchers mined the rich longitudinal data from the “Fast Track” study of low-income neighborhoods which collected teacher descriptions of a large sample of kindergartners starting in 1991 and then followed those kids’ outcomes 13 to 19 years later — until 2000.

Their studies reveal that when kindergarteners develop strong social skills, they have significantly higher odds of future success in a range of domains from physical health to academics.  Little kids who cannot manage feelings or negotiate well with others are more likely, statistically, to become young adults who use drugs, struggle in school, get involved in the justice system, be unemployed, and so on.

“Kindergarten” means “child’s garden,” where kids grow organically.

Common Core, while marvelous in some ways, is only the most recent instrument of pushing academic instruction into kindergarten.  In the 1990s, when computer-scored testing became cost-effective, states and their schools became obsessed with boosting their public image and value by increasing their scores.  I’m all for testing as a way of checking on the equity and quality of certain academic efforts, but schools became all about testing, needlessly squeezing everything else out.  Many early childhood experts are aghast about it.  Losing supervised play as the best and most natural way for young kids to learn cripples curiosity.  Developing self-control, cooperation and solving their own problems will produce the desired academic results, but only in good time.

Pre-literacy and play are not mutually exclusive. 

By all means, steep kindergartners in rich literature and intriguing stories.  Nourish the curiosity of those yearning to unlock the mysteries of reading.  Build out their vocabularies at every opportunity.  But mostly, let them love being at school — socializing, exploring.  That will do far more to boost 3rd-grade reading than un-fun reading instruction.

Kindergarten teachers wouldn’t mind teaching social skills if they weren’t also saddled with the pain of pushing instruction that many argue is inappropriately premature.  Harder, faster, younger isn’t working out.  And oh what a turn-off it is for so many kids.

So restore play in kindergarten.  Play is how children learn and how adults relax, recreate and restore well-being.  It’s the ultimate restorative practice.  In a world gone mad with aggression, you’d think we could agree that giving the kids a rich year of supervised play, learning empathy, would set them up with a higher quality of life.

Indeed, research strongly argues it will.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day

Published by — Setting aside downtime helps nurture the skills that let kids be successful.


Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Thank Good Mothers for Licking Their Little Rats

Published by —  On Mother’s Day, let us heartily commend those profoundly affectionate moms, who don’t hover, but do console.

When a character flaw appears in ourselves or others, our instinct is to blame Mom.  I know that’s my own boys’ working theory.  But, as it turns out, hard science is on their side.

Researchers who work with lab rats have long known that some rats are cooperative and social while others are nasty and aggressive.  And everything in between, like humans.  So certain researchers have been investigating the origins of these differences in social character.

You got it:  Mom.

When rat babies are born, their mothers lick them in a mammalian bonding gesture like human cuddling and caressing.  Some go at it truly, madly, deeply.  Others, more indifferent, lick their offspring with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  As the babies get older, they start venturing away from Mom to seek adventures of their own.  Even good rat moms don’t hover, prevent them from taking risks, adjudicate their kids’ fights, or do their homework, so to speak.  But when the little rat does run into trouble — with a predator, a fall or a fight — they return for a good dose of licking.  The licking lowers their stress level, assures them someone’s there for them, and rebuilds the confidence they need to get back out and cope with reality.

Well-licked rat babies grow up pleasantly-socialized, curious, and fun to be around.  Oh and btw, they live longer.  Poorly-parented rats become high-strung, fearful, aggressive, and at worst, full-on violent.

I first heard of these experiments years ago at a lecture by Richard Tremblay, a research psychologist from the University of Montreal.  He studied the origin of aggression which, he argued, could be greatly reduced with affectionate parenting.

With a charming French accent and naughty pleasure, Tremblay often repeated the word “lick.”  As George Orwell’s book 1984 exploited so well, rats hold an especially dark, yucky place in our imaginations.  So, at Tremblay’s lecture, even super-open-minded Brown University folks were squirming with a lot of “eeuuu!”

Still, there it is:  nurture affects nature.  Or, as the biologists put it, epigenetic events strongly affect how your genes are expressed.  Your DNA is what makes you you.  But your Mom can make you way better.  (Actually, I already knew that.)

More recently, RadioLab produced a terrific interview with researchers Michael Meaney, from McGill, and Frances Champagne, from Columbia, who’d also researched the effects of good and bad rat parenting.  Their technique was to switch the rat babies of affectionate moms and indifferent ones.

Like most of us, rat moms parent much as they were parented.  So the ones who got a lot of affection, tend to give affection generously, thereby reproducing a bloodline of pleasant rats with affectionate DNA.  Similarly, aggressive DNA is passed on by indifferent rat moms.

Yes, humans can make rational choices about such things, but surely you know people who complain bitterly about how they were parented, and then turn to their own kids and neglect, constrict or criticize them in exactly the same ways.  Parenting styles are largely inherited.

The researchers found that when affectionate moms licked and cared for babies born of indifferent mothers, those babies became more trusting and social than would have been their genetically-determined path.  If DNA is genetic software, the epigenetic environment can alter the code.  The good-mom’s loving tongue licking the aggressive mom’s baby lets the genes “express” themselves, as the scientists say, in a river of neuronal bio-chemistry that produces pleasure, reassurance and calm.  The born-nervous baby calms down, fears less and trusts that she will be comforted if she falls down and goes boom.  The researchers’ switcheroo reprogrammed a baby’s aggressive DNA inheritance, allowing her to be a good parent herself some day.  (And vice versa.)

Assuming rats have something to teach us about ourselves, which I do, we have three take-aways.  First, moms need to know that affectionate nuzzling is far more likely to send their kids to Stanford than Einstein videos or toddler academic tutoring (which totally exists, if you didn’t know).  Second, that humans can change their behavior if they so choose.  Reluctant moms who are indisposed towards goofy baby-play need to get over it.  Seriously.  They need to suck it up and learn to lick their little rat.  Third, and perhaps most important, if a kid isn’t getting their cortisol level reduced by a generously-licking mom, the extended family or community absolutely must find someone to step in.  Otherwise aggression or other mental-health issues will follow.

And when that happens, once again, folks will point fingers and, that’s right, blame Mom.

So, on the occasion of May is Mental Health Month — and especially on Mother’s Day — let us heartily commend those profoundly affectionate moms, who don’t hover, but do console.  Because above all, we need a nation of well-licked rats.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Julia Steiny: Children Learn Social Skills at Thanksgiving

Pulbished — Thanksgiving is an opportunity not just to exercise table manners with kids, but also to help them realize the sometimes surprising depth in people around them.

Regular family dinners in my childhood home were the training ground for displaying our good manners at the Thanksgiving marathon. And Thanksgiving trained us for the even fancier dinner events in our then-far-flung futures that would lead to us four kids “marrying up.”

Both my parents came from relatively humble origins. They bonded, in part, over mutual ambitions to rise in the world, or at least to have us do so. As it turns out, they were completely right that the dinner table is the place to establish the social skills critical to success.

The great Yale Psychologist James Comer says, “It is not the test scores that allow you to be successful in life; it’s the social skills you learn at the dinner table. You come on time; you listen; you don’t talk for too long; you learn to debate; you learn personal control.”

During our dinners my parents irritated us with nagging lessons on manners – elbows off the table; eat with mouths closed – and prying questions about how our days had been.

As an adult who ponders kids and education, I consider the whole package – sit-down dinners, probing questions and instructions in manners – to be best practices that all children desperately need.

But despite my parents’ best efforts, meals were quick, time-at-the-trough affairs. In theory we sat patiently until everyone was finished. In truth, my folks often buckled under the intense pressure to excuse us to wash our dishes and be gone.

Not so on Thanksgiving. All children, except babies, were expected to stay at the table for the long haul. The dinner itself took a seemingly interminable amount of time.

Thanksgiving was a mandatory sit-down event for at least 30 people. To supplement my mother’s large dining room table, my father arranged plywood sheets over the breakfast table and a couple of card tables. Two thick layers of table cloths masked the second big table’s makeshift nature.

People Watching

To help us tolerate the endless meal, my mother taught us her favorite past-time, “people watching.” We were to turn the critical eye back on others and consider for ourselves what was and was not good behavior. It taught manners in reverse, getting us to scan the landscape for oafish acts. We gleefully shared our observations during the gossipy post-mortem that followed all family events.

As the eldest, I worked with my father mapping out the massive seating plan. That privilege came with the chore of setting the table – knifes turned cutting-side in – and making the place-cards.

My siblings coveted this power because dull seating partners could make the long sit outright painful. The rule was that everyone got a “good one and a bad one.” My job was to represent the interests of the kids, so we weren’t stuck entertaining the people my parents didn’t like. Particularly to be avoided were Aunt Jean and Uncle Zebulun, no relation to each other.

Poor Aunt Jean, the childless sister of my mother’s brother-in-law, was a breath-taking bore. Her dissertations about some humorless but cautionary point turned her listeners to stone. She never asked questions or allowed your desperation to interrupt her.

Uncle Zeb was different. Belonging to my grandparents’ generation, he was hard of hearing. Talking with him meant talking so loudly the entire party heard every lame word of your end of the conversation. We were supposed to greet everyone, so there was no avoiding Zeb. But he was death as a dinner companion.

Later, when we’d become young adults, one of my sisters brought a Boyfriend who was a sports fanatic. Over drinks before dinner, the Boyfriend made a scene with his genuine thrill to meet, in the flesh, the minor baseball star, Zebulon Terry. Zeb was a baseball player? The Boyfriend’s garrulous, arrogant personality didn’t give a fig what anyone thought of his booming, appreciation of the wizened old man.

My dad and I gave each other the eye. We quickly ran back to adjust the seating to put him with the Boyfriend. That Thanksgiving and for another two or three hence, we had Zeb solved. We were fawningly grateful to the Boyfriend, whom we liked anyway because he was funny. He dismissed us as clods who were blind to our very own rock star.

But most impressive was watching Zeb come to life. He was still sharp and a witty guy in his own right. In the warmth of appreciative attention, this social non-entity became a player – laughing, swapping stories and winning disputes. The loud, public aspect of their lively conversation attracted others to join. Zeb’s wife of a billion years, Aunt Lucille, got teary watching him hold court.

I was quite chagrined. A truly cool guy had been trapped in deafness that we hadn’t penetrated because of our challenged egos. God knows what I would have talked with him about – certainly not baseball. But clearly I’d been far more worried about looking cool, or in this case sounding clever, than I was about a man who was always left out. My take-away was that I’d gotten too caught up in surface appearances and was not, in fact, gracious, giving and well-mannered. The foundation of truly elegant deportment is paying good attention to others.

And that was a dinner-table lesson in excelsis.

I wonder what would have worked with Aunt Jean. At least she was always included – in the true spirit of Thanksgiving.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

, ,

Leave a comment