Helping Pre-Teens and Teens Navigate Their Social World: It Takes Social Workers and the Rest of the Village

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July 11, 2007 at 11:11 am  •  Posted in Youth Development by  •  0 Comments

By Julie Baron, MSW, LCSW-C
 

Introduction
Creating a Climate of Safety and Respect
Teaching Social Skills
Predictable Expectations and Consistent Behavior Management
Driving the Message Home by Including Parents
Conclusion

Introduction

The social development of pre-teens and adolescents has become increasingly complicated with a social world defined by bullying, social aggression, and cyber-bullying. Many people minimize bullying, as having been around for generations, but the saying that boys will be boys, and girls will be girls is no longer relevant. Bullying today is more potent and the effects have more costly consequences. Adolescents live in a social culture where the norms and expectations are overwhelmingly present, yet are not always clearly defined. The struggle for power and status is a strong motivator, often guiding the flow of friendships. Kids know it, they feel it, and often times, simply do not have words to describe their social experiences. They need an open and understanding forum to make sense of things. Kids need a context where they feel empowered to interact respectfully and develop healthy relationships.

Social workers who work in various settings with youth are in a unique position to address these social development needs. In schools, school-based programs, and other community youth organizations, there is a captive audience of young people in need of guidance. They will never admit this, but seem enlightened when they learn a common language to describe their social culture. Some kids are certainly better than others at intuiting social expectations and behaving accordingly. Others are much less equipped for this journey. Yet they all inhabit the same social environment. Understanding adolescents’ social culture and teaching them how to navigate within it is critical if kids are to survive the social jungle of adolescents with their sense of self and self-respect intact.

In schools, as well as other settings, the approach must be comprehensive and ongoing to effectively address adolescent social needs. Such an approach involves: 1) Creating a Climate of Safety and Respect; 2) Teaching Social Skills; and 3) Defining Predictable Expectations and Implementing Consistent Behavior Management. The final component of such a comprehensive effort is to include parents and other supportive adults involved in the child’s world.

Creating a Climate of Safety and Respect

Imagine the following scenario. You walk into one of those enormous superstores that sell everything from groceries to home goods. Only this store has no greeters. No employees will make eye contact with you, let alone answer your stupid questions. None of the aisles are marked and none of the merchandise is labeled with a price. There is only one cashier open. A person, totally unaware that there is a long line, walks right up to the front to pay. The cashier sternly tells that person to go to the end of the line. The person retreats apologetically. Five minutes later, another person marches up to the cashier and demands to be checked out. The cashier looks intimidated, so rings up that customer. The people in line are now really annoyed and angry, but do not say anything until the demanding customer leaves. Then they confront the cashier and multiple arguments break out.

Ask yourself: Would you shop at this store? How safe and respected would you feel in this situation? Why are the rules different for different people? Where is the leadership to define the store policies? When schools and other organizations that service kids stay out of the social world of their students (youth), those students are essentially left to fend for themselves. For many, this can feel like a climate of disrespect, fear, and uncertainty. Under these circumstances, the adolescent social hierarchy prevails. Some kids get to feel safe and respected and some do not.

Schools and other youth organizations have a responsibility to define their climate and promote behaviors that are safe and respectful for all. Climate refers to the look, the feel, and the general “temperature” of the environment. Climate consists of the attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors of those individuals within the (school) community and contributes to shaping interactions. Climate defines the boundaries for acceptable behavior. Engaging all community members and stakeholders to shape the climate, fosters collective investment and an ownership in the system. One way to accomplish this is by developing “climate committees”. Student, staff/faculty, and parent climate committees can meet on a regular basis to make sure all voices take part in shaping the climate. These committees offer a forum for concerns to be discussed and for problem solving to take place with all perspectives in mind. In any climate plan, opportunities for connection and collaboration generate empathy and thus reduce the propensity for violence. Social workers are often in positions to be coordinators of such efforts and can act as a catalyst for energizing constituents to keep those efforts progressing in a productive manner.

Teaching Social Skills

Some kids take a calculated approach in traveling through their social world. Others wander aimlessly happening upon unpleasant and even dangerous situations and interactions. Social skills education helps to more clearly define how the social culture of youth operates. There are many social skills resources and educational curriculums out there. Key components are programs that help students (and the adults): define a common definition of bullying behaviors; address the dynamic of power in social interactions; discuss ways to empower bystanders to intervene positively; and describe how gender differences and pressures affect social behaviors and relationships. In addition, important issues such as safe and appropriate technology use, sexual harassment, and the affects of media in our culture need to be discussed. Effective teaching tools utilize interactive exercises to engage participants in understanding the material. Conflict resolution curriculums are also quite useful in helping kids to deal effectively with day-to-day confrontations and to learn productive decision-making strategies.

There are a few resources that in my work have been useful in addressing the above components. The “Owning Up” curriculum developed by Rosalind Wiseman is targeted to Middle and High School ages. This curriculum can be found on Ms. Wiseman’s website at www.rosalindwiseman.com . Bully Proofing Your School by Marla Bonds, Psy.D. And Sally Stoker, M.S.W. (Sopris West, 2000), have both Elementary and Middle School editions. There is also a version for parents titled, Bully Proofing Your Child. Bully Busters: A Teacher’s Manual by Dawn A. Newman, Arthur M. Horne, and Christi L. Bartolomucci (Research Press, 2000) is a teacher-based intervention program that can be implemented in the context of larger climate efforts. These are only a few among many valuable resources.

In many settings, social workers provide the trainings mentioned above. A shared knowledge of social culture and pressures creates a remarkable foundation for ownership of behaviors and for future problem solving. When kids feel settled in their social worlds, they are freed up to devote their resources to other important growth efforts, such as learning, self-exploration, and developing talents and interests.

Predictable Expectations and Consistent Behavior Management

Using core values to define clear expectations for behavior and making those expectations known and visible in a school or community are critical components of a positive climate. A great way to focus on positive behaviors is to collectively implement a creative positive reinforcement system. The PRIDE program was developed during my work as a middle school counselor, coordinating school climate committees. PRIDE is an acronym that stands for Positive Interactions, Respect and Responsibility, Individual Safety, Dependability, and Effort. PRIDE banners are issued to students who demonstrate behaviors consistent with PRIDE. The banners are small triangles (shaped like banners) that display the school mascot on the front and the student’s name, date, and behavior on the back with the teacher’s initials. PRIDE banners are posted on a bulletin board for all to see. In addition, PRIDE posters with the acronym hang in every classroom and in other prominent places throughout the school as a visual reminder of community expectations. Other rewards can also be issued for earning PRIDE banners.

By both rewarding behaviors consistent with the expectations of the school/community and by providing consequences for unacceptable behaviors, the social playing field becomes equalized. When negative behaviors are tolerated and not addressed appropriately, kids may feel scared or socially isolated. Social isolation may increase the likelihood for some to engage in inappropriate or even unsafe behaviors to feel protected. Fostering a sense of pride in ones actions and intentions elevates kids to behave responsibly and with others in mind.

Social workers have valuable input regarding social dynamics and the needs of those individuals who may be involved. This input is extremely useful in assisting administrators and program directors to define effective disciplinary responses. Utilizing a continuum of consequences with a problem-solving model for addressing behavior helps students (youth) learn from their mistakes and helps parents to be more supportive of the outcomes.

Driving the Message Home by Including Parents

Social Workers have often been described as bridges between various systems. Ongoing communication and collaboration with parents has many collective benefits. Research shows evidence that parent involvement contributes to student success. It is important for parents to have opportunities to share their voice and hear from others. This can be done through parent climate committees, parent education efforts, or participation in other parent-school/community partnerships. Parents have a lot of valuable information to share, not only about their children, but also about their perceptions of social dynamics and interactions. We all have pieces of the puzzle and when we communicate to put them together, it is amazing how all parties can feel empowered to act.

Conclusion

Bullying, social aggression, and cyber-bullying can be addressed effectively when all community members are actively engaged. Establishing a climate of safety and respect, teaching social skills, and defining clear expectations and consequences, contribute to a predictable environment. Social Workers have the knowledge to understand the many facets of bullying and adolescents’ social culture. Those of us who work with youth have a responsibility to empower them to live respectfully in their social world. A comprehensive approach to address bullying will give our youth a chance to grow and mature toward a strong sense of self and to offer confident contributions to the larger world.

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