Monday, March 2, 2009

Social Skills Soapbox

If I want my children to learn how to behave in a way that helps them navigate this world, it seems reasonable that I would want them to spend their time with people who set a good example.  I would want them to see people solve problems efficiently, settle their differences peacefully, and generally treat others with respect.  We call those abilities social skills, and children learn them by example.  

Unfortunately, children can also learn poor social skills by example.  My children are getting weary of spending most of their waking hours with a group of people who argue, curse,  insult, interrupt, throw tantrums, and exhibit complete disregard for the feelings of others.  I'm talking about their peers in the classroom, of course.  Even if my children don't start acting like their peers, they still suffer from the stress and inconvenience of spending their days with rude, disruptive kids.
I have spent many hours as a volunteer in the classroom, on field trips, and at after-school activities, and I'm amazed by the behavior problems I see.  Girls who dare each other to spank boys on the behind.  Boys who solve disagreements by yelling curses and insults.  Groups of kids who amuse themselves by taunting other groups.  Vulgar comments, rude gestures, deliberate exclusion, the list goes on and on.
You might say that my kids need to face these situations in order to learn how to handle them.  I disagree.  I don't let my kids put their hand in the fire to learn that it's hot, so why would I let them get teased and insulted to learn that it hurts?  I teach them to hold themselves to a higher standard.  I try to set an example of good behavior, and when we witness bad behavior, I point it out and talk about better ways to handle the situation.  

Why am I on my soapbox today? Well...

My kids participate in an extracurricular activity that they really enjoy.  But lately, they have been asking to drop out.  I was surprised that they wanted to quit, so I asked them why.  "Because of Todd."  Who is Todd?  "He's the one who steps on our feet on purpose, calls us names, and sticks his tongue out at the teacher."  

I wasn't about to let one mean kid ruin the activity for my kids.  So today, I stayed for the entire session and watched.   To be honest, most of the boys behaved so badly that at first I couldn't guess which one was Todd.  Of 16 kids, about half were able to sit and listen to the teacher's instructions.  The other half ran around the room.  When the teacher was finally able to get the group seated, many of the kids talked over her while she gave instructions.  Then, the same kids complained that they didn't understand what to do!

I found Todd when the teacher reprimanded him for talking and he stuck out his tongue at her.  Another time, he muttered under his breath and used his fist to mimic punching her.  And it turns out, he wasn't the only one ruining the experience for the others.  A girl wandered out of the room and started playing with equipment in the hallway.  When the teacher called her back in, she ran through the room shrieking and then lay down on the floor.  Another girl found this hilarious, so she lay down on the floor, too.  These two were asked to sit next to the teacher. Within minutes, they had found a way to disrupt by rolling on the floor and giggling.

Meanwhile, a boy and a girl pressed a notebook into another boy's face.  While the teacher dealt with that, the rest of the group lost their focus and began to leave their seats and mill around the room.
The children who were earnestly trying to participate (including mine) needed help, but the teacher was busy with discipline problems.  I felt myself wanting to help her but unsure if she wanted my help.  And if I did step in and help, what could I do?  Actually, I felt very sorry for her--she was trying to do something enriching and interesting with a group of children after school.  Half of her students were eager to learn.  The other half were (I suspect) signed up by their parents for an hour of after-school babysitting.  These kids were clearly not interested in the activity, so unfortunately, they spoiled it for everyone else.  

After the class, I asked my kids if it was always so chaotic.  "Yes."

If I sound judgmental in this post, it's only because I'm being judgmental!  I do recognize that kids can face some very stressful emotional issues that cause them to behave badly.  Divorce, an illness in a family, financial difficulties, even neglect or abuse--I have no way of knowing what these children live with at home.  So I don't judge the kids.  But I do judge the adults who are responsible for them!  

If your child is not ready to sit still in a seat and listen to instructions, don't sign him up for an activity that requires him to sit still in a seat and listen to instructions!  If he wants to run around, sign him up for track!  If your daughter would rather turn in circles making high-pitched noises than participate in a group activity, perhaps she should be in...I don't know, interpretive dance and opera lessons?  The point is, know your child, know what they are capable of, and choose their activities accordingly.  

Some kids are really wound up after a day of school, and they need physical activity.  If they don't want to play a sport, then go for a swim, or get them a pogo stick.  Chess club is probably not the answer.  Maybe your child really needs some quiet time alone to decompress.  An activity with other kids might be more than they can handle.  So, go straight home after school and put on some soft music or read a book together.  You should be tuned in with your child's personality so that you know what helps them settle down.
Now, my kids aren't perfect.  They can be loud.   Sometimes they argue.  Sometimes they interrupt.  They even stick out their tongues occasionally!  But they do have the social skills required for participating and learning from this particular enrichment activity.  We have practiced and prepared for it just by living daily life.  When we sit down and eat together, we gently remind them to be still.  During conversations, we point it out when they interrupt and we ask them to wait their turn.  They learned to be quiet by going to church, and they learned to be polite and respectful by spending time with others who are polite and respectful.

I'll step down off my soapbox now.  But I won't put it away yet.  I'm leading the kids' reading group tomorrow, and I have a feeling I'll be needing it.


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