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Far Beyond The Three R's
The skills we learn in elementary school — reading, writing, and arithmetic — last us through a lifetime of personal and professional productivity and provide the building blocks for our continued education. But what other ways can our earliest educational experiences influence our lives? A recent study suggests that social skills, theoretically based and intentionally taught during the elementary school years endure beyond childhood and support a person's success in early adulthood.
A fifteen−year follow up study published in the December issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine describes the long−term outcome of an educational intervention used in several Seattle elementary schools in the 1980s. Students in the initial study participated in a program designed to teach social skills in order to promote positive school and community functioning, and to decrease mental health problems, risky sexual behavior, substance abuse and crime. When the researchers followed up with the same group of subjects, now ages 24 and 27, (participant retention averaged 93%), the results were impressively positive.
Teachers were trained in proactive classroom management skills, such as how to establish clear expectations for classroom behavior and how to keep disruptions from interrupting instruction. They also learned how to model the sorts of social skills being taught to students and to teach more interactively, making sure students are understanding as they are teaching.
Parents were trained to be consistent and positive about desired behavior and to consistently provide negative consequences for undesirable behavior. Parents also were taught how to create a home environment supportive of learning and encouraged to reach out to teachers if they felt their child was having trouble.
Finally, children were trained in interpersonal problem solving, learning to work with their classmates to resolve conflicts and make decisions. They were made aware of how social pressure can influence behavior and learned how to find alternatives to problem behaviors as well as how to refuse pressure effectively.
The invention groups were all elementary school students and had varying lengths of exposure to the curricula. One group participated in the program one semester a year from grades one through four, with an additional semester in grade 5 or 6. Another group participated for a semester in grades 5 and 6 only; the control group had no exposure.
For the recent follow−up study, investigators looked at how the students they had taught these skills were doing as young adults in a variety of areas, using measurable indicators. For example, school and work functioning were assessed via attainment of a high school diploma, and mean household income at age 24 and 27. Mental health problems were assessed with a diagnostic interview to identify psychological problems. Sexual behavior was assessed via history of having a sexually transmitted disease, having a pregnancy or fathering a child, Substance abuse and dependence was assessed through standard diagnostic criteria. Crime index was assessed from self−reports and official state and federal crime records, Civic engagement was measured via reports of community involvement and volunteerism.
The results: Fifteen years after the intervention, there was strong evidence of positive impact on educational attainment or household income and, at age 24, increased civic involvement. There were, fewer symptoms of mental health disorders than he control group at ages 24 and 27, and reductions in STD's compared with young adults who were not part of the intervention.
There were no significant effects on substance abuse and dependence and there were no significant intervention effects for any specific measures related to crime.
The findings suggest that teacher, student and parent training based on sound principles of social development, when taught in elementary school, positively influence some though not all indices of adult functioning in individuals into their 20's. This strongly suggests that educators would do well to consider adding such life−influencing programs to the traditional three R's.
More information about the Seattle Social Development project can be obtained at http://depts.washington.edu/ssdp/. The cohort continues to be followed by the Seattle Social Development Program.
December 16, 2008
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