In an increasingly introspective society, teaching children more than just the academic curriculum is more important than ever. In my previous role, leading inclusion, health and well being in a highly successful primary school, I learnt and developed many strategies that contributed to us achieving “outstanding” for behavior and safety (and all other areas) in our Ofsted inspection.Expecting children to just “know” how to behave and relate to other children and adults isn’t fair. It needs teaching and practicing just as much as any other skill taught in school. Yet, for some reason it sometimes seems to be something that is given less of a priority. I have worked in many schools in very different settings—from the most elite private school in Sydney to one of the most deprived estates in the UK and these skills matter just as much in any setting. Here are just a few of the things that have worked for me and the children I have worked with:
Ask any parent and they will most probably tell you that their child idolizes their teacher. I can tell a lot about the teachers of my own children by the way that they imitate them when they are playing teachers at home. If you are modeling the values that you want to instill in the children you teach, it will naturally feed down into their behaviors. Speak to your children with kindness and respect, listen to them, be patient with them, and if you get it wrong—say sorry!
Pick out the values that are important to your class or your school—there are some great examples here. Focus on one value every few weeks and involve everyone. Read stories that show examples, take photos, share examples, display them, praise and share with the parents. Parents seem to be less and less present at the school gates so using a service such as Remind is priceless in involving the parents. You can send them reminders of the current value, tips for developing the value at home and praise texts to share when their child has shown excellent social skills, so they can continue to develop the theme at home. When everyone is looking for it, you will find it everywhere!
Develop ways to make the children responsible and accountable for developing the values you want to develop in your school. Use friendship benches, where children who are feeling lonely can sit until another child spots them and asks them to play. Pair up older children with younger children—we always linked a year 5 child with each new reception starter (we called ours “Gardeners and Seedlings”). The older child had responsibility for two years for the well being of the younger child. Train up the older children to become play leaders, referees or coaches, they will love the responsibility and will learn their own strategies for dealing with friendship issues, arguments and anger.Let the children take the lead in the topics they would like to discuss or develop. I have successfully used the Philosophy for Children program to facilitate some very mature discussions between the children, they choose their own stimuli from things they have seen in the news, stories, posters and art. There are some excellent ideas here. On one occasion, the children wanted to discuss graffiti in their community, resulting in them writing to the local council. Amazingly, the council not only replied, but came to the school to discuss and develop the issue with the children. The children designed and contributed to a new “Graffiti Tunnel” in their community and saw how powerful their words and actions could be. I could never have planned such an amazing learning opportunity alone.Developing a School Council and carefully orchestrating it so that the children are leading and driving it is a fantastic way to encourage the children to think about the needs of others. It will also develop key team working and negotiating skills for the future. Some excellent guidance can be found at the Smart Schools Council.
The curriculum is so demanding these days that some subjects always seem to be lost behind the endless drive for standards in English and math. It is so important to prioritize the teaching of social skills and try, where possible, to make sure that you teach it yourself and don’t leave it for cover teachers. There are some fantastic ready-made lessons that focus directly on developing citizenship skills.Relaxation and mindfulness is also something that I believe can have an incredible impact on children, particularly ones who may have quite stressful home lives. Relax Kids have developed some beautiful meditation resources for children (I use one of the CDs to get my son to sleep every night) and the great thing is, there are some free downloads on their website.
Where possible, try to develop the way you deal with conflicts and behavior incidents. Try to spend some time with the child, helping them to understand the effect that their behavior has had on other people and helping them to think of a way that they can make things better. More information on restorative justice can be found on Edutopia.
The opportunities for developing social skills are everywhere and in everything that we do. The more you prioritize these skills, the more you will see the children you teach grow in character. It is worth a little effort as the rewards are massive. If we can train our children to be kind and respectful to each other, to resolve conflicts positively and to support each other, that can only make our role as a teacher happier and more rewarding.