How Do You Spell Success?
S-o-c-i-a-l S-k-i-l-l-s

As parents we worry about our children's future and wonder how we can best prepare them for "real life." What will they really need to make it out there, to live fruitful, productive Jewish lives, to find and keep a job and build relationships? So much of our efforts go into choosing the right school and making certain our children's academic potential is fully tapped. But is this enough?

Filtering through the educational world as a result of current research, is the revelation that success in life is more contingent on social and emotional intelligence than on our intellectual or vocational aptitudes.

Many of us have always sensed this instinctively. Now the research confirms it. The extent to which children and adolescents possess good social skills, say experts, can heavily influence their academic performance, social and family relationships, and later, their success on the job.

How do these dynamics work? Can improving social skills actually sharpen children's mathematical acuity? Is it possible that knowing how to get along with others could boost performance in creative writing or understanding of literature?

"Yes," says Stephen Elliot, a prominent educational psychologist connected with Vanderbilt University. "If we increase social skills, we most definitely see commensurate increases in academic learning, but that doesn't mean that social skills make you smarter. It means that these skills make you more amenable to learning."

Elliot and some associates recently completed a study that found that "when we incorporate cooperation, self-control and consideration toward others into the curriculum, we reduce problem behaviors and maximize effective learning."

Top Ten Character Traits

The top 10 social skills the researchers identified were: listening to others, heeding the rules, ignoring distractions, asking for help, taking turns when talking, getting along with peers, staying calm with others, good sportsmanship, taking responsibility for one's behavior, and doing nice things for others.

If that list, cited in a recent UPI article, sounds like it came straight out of a yeshiva curriculum for teaching good middos, it certainly could have.

In a sense, educators and psychologists are "reinventing the wheel," discovering a fundamental truth about education established by the Mishnah two thousand years ago! Before education can proceed, good character traits must be developed [Derech eretz kodma l'Torah.]

For decades, IQ tests that measured intelligence focused on logical reasoning, math skills, understanding analogies, as well as spatial and verbal skills. Researchers were puzzled by the fact that while IQ scores could most often predict academic performance and to some degree, professional and personal success, there was something missing in the equation.

Some of those with fabulous IQ scores were doing poorly in life-both at their jobs and in their interpersonal relationships. It seemed that often they were thinking, behaving and communicating in a way that hindered their chances to succeed.

A groundbreaking book by Daniel Goleman, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It May Matter More Than IQ," sought to explain the phenomenon of finding excellent IQ aptitudes in a person coupled with poor performance "at life."

Goleman suggested that the missing part in the success equation is emotional intelligence.

For various reasons, he said, people with high emotional intelligence [EIQ] tend to be more successful in life than those with lower EIQ, even if their intellectual ability is average.

Goleman defined emotional intelligence as the abililty to understand oneself and others, relate well to people, and to adapt to one's immediate surroundings.

He also notes that a deficiency in EI is often reflected by a lack of self-awareness, as well as difficulty with problem solving, stress tolerance and impulse control.

Goleman attests that the best remedy for battling our emotional shortcomings is preventive medicine. In other words, we need to place as much importance on teaching our children the essential skills of emotional intelligence as we do on more traditional measures.

What Comprises Emotional Intelligence?

Researchers point to the following ingredients of emotional intelligence that most enhance and enable learning:

Self-awareness: Abasic emotional skill involves being able to recognize feelings and put a name to them. It is also important to be aware of the relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions. What thought sparked that feeling? What feeling was behind that action?

Managing emotions: Many people continually give themselves negative messages. Recognizing that tendency and reversing it with hope and self-affirmation can be liberating. In addition, finding ways to deal with anger, fear, anxiety and sadness is essential. Learning how to soothe oneself when upset is an invaluable tool. Understanding what happens when emotions get the upper hand and how to regain perspective before reacting are some of the most precious life skills.

Empathy: Grasping a situation and being able to act appropriately requires understanding others' feelings and being able to tune into their verbal and non-verbal cues. It involves training oneself to see things from different vantage points and conveying to others that their feelings resonate with you.

Communicating: What feelings are you communicating to others? Enthusiasm and optimism are contagious, as are pessimism and negativity. Being able to express personal concerns without offending or intimidating others is a key asset.

Co-operation: Helping each other work on common goals involves knowing how and when to take the lead and when to follow. It also calls for understanding that actions and decisions carry consequences and that commitments must be kept. Recognizing the value of others' contributions and encouraging their participation is of vital importance and often accomplishes far more than hogging power and giving orders.

Resolving conflicts: In resolving conflicts, one must understand some of the psychological mechanisms at play. People in conflict are generally locked into a self-perpetuating emotional spiral that blows the conflict out of proportion and often obscures the real issue. Much of the resolution of conflicts calls on using the other emotional skills mentioned above.

The concept of emotional and social training being pivotal to education is inspiring research and curriculum development in public and private schools.

A recent issue of Edutopia, an education magazine, profiled Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey, where a traditional curriculum has been restructured to include social and emotional training as an integral part of the learning in grades 6-8.

An English class discussion on a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto is directed in such a way that it becomes a conversation about what students can do to combat injustice they witness in their own lives.

A journal-writing session first includes a discussion on what it must feel like to be a foster child.

A lesson aimed specifically at emotional skills has students naming conflicts that create the most stress for them and coming up with ways to abate that stress.

Teachers working on a project on the Holocaust and genocide meet to come up with ways to engage the students on a personal, emotional level.

"I believe that the social/emotional component is clearly the most important of a child's life," the article quoted Principal Tony Bencivenga as saying. "If we can create an environment where we feel good and care for each other, everything else falls into place.'

The True Trailblazers

Ironically, while researchers and educators like Daniel Goleman regard themselves as pioneers in the field of social/emotional training, a close look at the dynamics inside a normative yeshiva would reveal that Torah chinuch and mechanchim have long preceded them.

In fact, an excellent blueprint for social/emotional training can be found in the many middos training programs that are part and parcel of many Bais Yaakov curricula, and in the mussar sedorim that are a vital component of yeshivas. For centuries, ethical values such as self-control, kindness, self-awareness, honesty and responsibility have been the cornerstone of Jewish education.

Of course, the Torah system of middos-training cannot be equated with a social/emotional training course in a public school, which carries no higher "moral authority."

As opposed to teaching children to uphold values because the Creator of the universe has commanded them to do so and bestows reward and punishment in accordance with one's compliance, a secular program draws its mandate from the feeble authority of "pragmatics."

At bottom, its message is, "Do things our way because it works; because you'll have friends; because it will make you happy; because it's good for society."

In a 1994 report on the current state of emotional literacy in the U.S., Daniel Goleman stated:

" navigating our lives, it is our fears and envies, our rages and depressions, our worries and anxieties that steer us day to day. Even the most academically brilliant among us are vulnerable to being undone by unruly emotions. The price we pay for emotional "illiteracy" [social incompetence] is in failed marriages and troubled families, in stunted social and work lives, in deteriorating physical health and mental anguish."

How Our Children Benefit

The new emphasis in educational circles on teaching social competence and developing emotional intelligence is bestowing dividends on yeshiva and day school children as well.

"There was a time when telling a parent at a PTA conference that their child needed coaching in social skills brought a blank stare," remarked Mrs. Stern, a fifth grade teacher in a boys' school in Monsey, N.Y. 'Alright, so he lacks social polish,' you could hear the parent thinking, 'What difference does that make as long as he can read and write?'"

"Today, there's an awareness among parents that when we assess a child's progress, we're using a much broader focus. We're looking at the whole child, because good scores in the three R's alone does not a happy child make."

For one reason or another, some children do not develop social skills as easily as others. They may earnestly seek peer relationships and then, having endured rebuffs, if not downright cruelty, retreat to the safety of home, family, and their own company.

Seven-year old Yehudit, the oldest of four children, was such a child. Energetic, with a precocious vocabulary and a vivid imagination, she eagerly sought out other playmates. Yet, despite repeated efforts to make friends at school, she came home dejected and sad. "No one wants to play with me," she told her mother tearfully. "No one ever invites me or wants to come to my house."

There is probably nothing so painful for a parent as the rejection of their child. Most parents have a difficult time grasping that the child's isolation might be a product of her own conduct, and not merely because the children in the class are snobby and ill mannered.

In Yehudit's case, it took a caring teacher to tactfully explain that while Yehudit loved outdoor games, she could not tolerate the disappointment of losing a game or being "out." She invariably broke down in tears, even throwing a tantrum when she was "out" at jump rope or dodge ball. Her immature behavior and poor sportsmanship antagonized her classmates. After a while, no one wanted to include her in games.

While maturity is not a "skill" one can learn like good table manners, parents need to take the long view of social deficits and, with the help of a professional, map out a plan to address them as carefully and thoughtfully as they would approach academic or health problems.

There are tried and proven approaches in teaching good sportsmanship and other essential social skills, which, if the parent is willing to take time and initiative to follow, will almost inevitably yield success.

During the period of emotional and social growth there will be minor triumphs, but the road will undoubtedly be rutted with an occasional major disaster. Parents should not be disheartened. Children tend to have spurts of social and emotional growth laced with periods of holding their own or even periods of regression.

The key words for parents are good parental modeling, structure, patience-and more patience. The key attitudes are warmth and optimism. And if you embrace your child with all her uniqueness while not losing sight of the hard work you both need to do to reach a happier place, it is much more likely that you will get there sooner than you think.

Look Out - Real Life Ahead!

After returning from a year of studying in seminary in Eretz Yisrael, Feigi was ready to join the "real world." Seminary had been a wonderful, spiritually uplifting experience, but now it was time to settle down, find a job, and think about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Feigi started job hunting. She had excellent credentials and was perfectly qualified to start a career in any of a variety of fields. Yet despite her intelligence and willingness to work, she was unable to focus on a clear sense of direction. She felt uneasy in the "real world," with its unique pressures and expectations. Feige was obviously bright and personable. Yet she was lacking some of the basic life skills she would need to cope with unfamiliar social situations.

Feigi is not alone. Like many other young adults who are just beginning to enter the "real world," she is at a loss. The dramatic transition from the protective cocoon of Bais Yaakov schools to independence can be overwhelming. Feigi and others like her may have underlying self-esteem issues. They may be overly dependent. Or they may simply be fearful of the unknown. Either way, chances are good that they can be helped. It's never too late to begin coaching life skills and training our young people to meet the challenges that may come their way.

An extensive study conducted by the World Health Organization cites several aspects of behavior crucial for young people to master in order to face adult life. Decision-making and problem solving are of the most important of these is. As strange as it may seem, members of this coming-of-age generation are ill equipped to deal with this basic coping skill. After all, their well-meaning parents (and teachers/rebbeim) have been guiding them and making decisions for them all of their lives. It's wonderful to be so loved, cared for and protected during childhood and adolescence. The problem is that when it's time to cut the apron strings, some of our young adults are simply at a loss. It has nothing to do with how bright, intelligent or popular they have been until now. At this point, they're being confronted with a new set of rules and for many, navigating these choppy seas can be confusing and frightening.

According to the WHO study, creative thinking is another coping skill that is essential for success in life. "Creative thinking," it states, "enables youngsters to explore the available alternatives and various consequences of their actions and non-actions. Creative thinking helps them to respond adaptively and with flexibility to the evolving circumstances of their daily lives." In other words, when you're in a jam or when life throws you a curve ball, creative thinking is the essential tool you need to solve the problem and overcome the crisis.

Most important of all, according to the study, is effective communication. People who can successfully convey their feelings both verbally and non-verbally, have an excellent chance of fostering good relationships with others. When young people are trained to communicate properly, they are able to articulate their opinions, their desires, their needs, and their feelings. These skills are, of course, important in developing friendships as well as in the workplace. When it comes to marriage, they are absolutely essential.

A good therapist or social skills coach can make a dramatic difference in the lives of young people. They can be empowered to achieve the skills outlined above as well as other valuable life skills. They can be trained to recognize the differences between passive, aggressive and assertive behavior. They can learn the practical applications of maintaining eye contact, giving appropriate responses, and recognizing various verbal and non-verbal communication cues. They can practice essential behaviors such as introducing one's self to others, keeping one's conversation interesting, and thanking others whenever appropriate.

To some of us, this may all seem elementary. We picked up these skills as we were growing up. And if there are those who didn't, then isn't it possible that they missed the boat? I get this question from worried parents all the time. Is my child destined to live like this forever? The answer is no. With proper guidance and regular sessions, these valuable skills can certainly be learned and internalized. I've seen tremendous improvement in so many of my young adult clients.

Like Feigi, a significant number of young adults lack a certain self-awareness. They are not in touch with their strengths and weaknesses, with their character and personality, with their likes and dislikes. Development of self-awareness makes a big difference in the life of a young person, especially when coping with the challenges of the shidduch world. If you know where you're coming from, you'll be better able to pinpoint your needs and expectations from a spouse. How many of our young men and women are having difficulties with dating simply because they haven't a clue of who they really are?

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is not an easy process, even though some of our teens do seem to have it easier than others. If someone you know seems to be "stuck" or is having a hard time making that leap there's nothing wrong with taking them for help. We're all so eager to send our school age children to therapists and counselors in order to help them achieve their personal best. Why aren't we just as eager to send them when they're about to embark on the journey that will shape the rest of their lives?

Don't let your daughter or son struggle through this stage of life needlessly. Stay on top of the situation and recognize the signals of a young person reaching out for help. Suggest to your child that it might be a good idea to schedule a meeting or a session with someone who can help them cope with the challenges of adulthood and who will give them the tools to acquire essential skills that will accompany them throughout their adult life. Chances are that they will readily agree and will be relieved to know that somebody out there can actually help.

As for Feigi, she has certainly come a long way. After a series of sessions, it was easy to see a marked improvement in her behavior and social skills. Her self-confidence and self-esteem grew, her thinking became more focused, and she was better able to communicate her emotions and feelings to others. Best of all, Feigi is really beginning to get to know herself. She understands who she is and is better equipped than ever to begin searching for her life's partner.

Can we really teach "social skills"? Absolutely. Does it make a difference? It certainly does. It's a big world out there and nobody knows what challenges or obstacles tomorrow may bring. But one thing's for sure. Those who have the tools to cope with life have a better chance at achieving success and happiness in all their endeavors. Just ask Feigi.

Who's Looking For A Social Butterfly?

"I am not asking for my child to be the life of the party or a social butterfly. I just want her to be happy and have some friends of her own. She is a wonderful kid, and I hope someday others can see that."

Many parents of children with deficits in social skills echo this sentiment. They know that their child has many wonderful qualities to offer others, but their poor social skills often hamper them from establishing meaningful relationships. All children want desperately to have friends, but those who lag behind their peers in social competence often fail miserably when trying to make friends.

When a friend expressed concern that her 10-year-old daughter, Shifra, was unhappy in school and had no friends, I suggested she find a way to observe her daughter closely when interacting with peers. That opportunity came up when Shifra's teacher grouped the students for a class project, placing Shifra with two other girls to work on a poster.

Shifra's mother invited the girls to her home after school to work on the project. Her daughter was delighted at this rare social opportunity. This is what her mother observed: Advertisement

"The two other girls were trying hard to create a poster while Shifra was clowning around, doing childish antics and showing off. One of the girls got upset and decided to go home before the work was half-finished. The other girl became provoked by Shifra's behavior and a fight broke out, with both ending up in tears. Shifra was miserable. 'I was just trying to have fun,' she sobbed. 'Everyone's so mean to me.'"

For most children, basic social skills (e.g. initiating conversation, working cooperatively, respecting boundaries and observing conventional rules of courtesy) are acquired naturally. But for others, the process is much more difficult. Whereas many children learn these basic skills simply by exposure to social situations and positive role models, those with social skills deficits often need to be taught skills explicitly.

Nonverbal Communication

Children like Shifra may not have a reading disability in the usual sense, but they are often unable to "read" cues related to social information - particularly nonverbal cues or "body language." Or they may read the cues but fail to gauge the strength of the emotions conveyed.

In understanding how these children repeatedly suffer failure in social situations, it's important to note that verbal language alone will often not convey all the information needed to understand a given social situation.

According to experts, between 25 and 65 percent of the communication in an average conversation is actually nonverbal, consisting of information that is related by facial expression, vocal intonation, pauses in the conversation and body language.

These nonverbal messages must be processed together with the verbal communication for the true overall meaning to emerge. Those with nonverbal deficits, however, may be forced to rely on as little as 35 percent of the communication in order to discern what is being relayed and how to respond. It is no wonder, then, that the messages they receive are often skewed and misleading.

This holds true not only in a social situation, but also in an academic setting, which explains why children with social skills deficits often experience learning difficulties.

Consider the following social interactions between six-year-olds that highlight the breakdown in communication when, due to lapses in social skill development, nonverbal messages are not absorbed.

Eli and Meir are playing "Hatzalah." They strap on walkie-talkies and zoom off in make-believe Hatzalah cars (scooters) to a Hatzalah call, while they simulate the wail of sirens.

Moshe comes along and asks to play. "I wanna be a Hatzalah guy, too," he tells them. "I can go on back of your scooter," he suggests hopefully.

Eli and Meir are clearly not interested; their faces show it (nonverbal communication). Eli moves his body to block the space behind him so Moshe cannot get on (body language). Without pausing to register that he is not wanted, Moshe turns swiftly to Meir and boards his scooter before Meir can block him.

"Hey, get off!" Meir yells.

"Why? There's room for me in back," whines Moshe.

"Tough. We don't let," Meir snaps, pushing him off.

Crestfallen, Moshe gives the scooter a kick and the scooter and Meir fall over together. Meir jumps up and shoves Moshe. In a moment, the two are fighting fiercely. Eli joins the fray. No one is seriously hurt, but Moshe, by his response to rejection, has reinforced the very dynamics that precipitated that rejection in the first place.

In this typical conflict - that has a thousand variations wherever children are playing together -what is striking is that, in an effort to gain entry to the game, Moshe chooses the very tactics (aggressiveness, force) that are guaranteed to trigger, if not intensify, his social exclusion.

With the benefit of coaching in social skills, Moshe would have picked up the cues that Eli and Meir were set against him "piggy backing" on the back of their scooters. He might then have explored other avenues besides force to gain inclusion.

He might have offered to be the "patient" that the "Hatzalah guys" were on their way to help or to be a policeman who directs traffic or accompanies the Hatzalah members on foot. By being reasonable and flexible, choosing to add something to the game instead of taking over the game, Moshe could have turned the situation around completely.

Similarly, had Shifra grasped the extent to which her classmates were put off by her inappropriate behavior, the outcome might have been very different. Instead, she misread their protests and the strength of their objections, and persisted in thinking she could drag them along into "having fun" with her.

She was devastated when the get-together at her house - a social opportunity she had longed for - disintegrated. And she had no clue about what she had done to precipitate this turn of events.

"I used to think she was just immature," her mother said. "But it's more than that. It's like she's missing out on a certain sixth sense about how to behave, that for most people comes naturally."

Early Intervention

Special education experts are increasingly stressing a child's social competence as a critical developmental process that is every bit as important as scholastic achievement - and perhaps more so. Without intervention (and the earlier the better) they say, children who demonstrate poor social skills may continue to experience problems into middle childhood and beyond that affect all facets of life.

One of the most important things parents can do for children with social skills deficits is an obvious and simple one: observe them in interactions with others whenever possible. This will enable you to gain a deeper understanding of their social strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, the following steps - advocated by Dr. Richard Lavoie, a widely acclaimed expert in special education - have proven very helpful:

1. Design an unobtrusive "signal system" with the child to use in social situations. For example, if the child tends to "perseverate" (talking about only one topic of scant interest to the listener), excessively tease or roughhouse, design a signal (cross your arms, snap your fingers) that alerts him to stop. In this way, you can halt troubling behaviors without causing undue embarrassment.

2. Establish reward systems to reinforce and recognize appropriate social behavior. Be willing to recognize and reinforce even the smallest signs of progress and growth. Do not harp on the inevitable setbacks in your child's social interactions.

3. Continually reinforce social information. Many social skill deficits are caused by a lack of basic social information, such as how to break the ice when being introduced to someone. Tips such as smile, nod cordially; make eye contact, ask a question; and offer to help in some way may seem self-evident but they are far from obvious to the socially inept.

4. Provide the child with a positive model of appropriate social skills. Be certain that your behavior mirrors the skills that you are teaching your students (temper control, courteous listening).

Role-play situations, where the child is prompted to empathize with another person or practice new social skills by simulating life-like situations that call for the exercise of those skills (asking for directions; working out a disagreement; apologizing; giving praise; or initiating or disengaging from a conversation).

Things To Avoid Doing

Don't discourage the child from establishing relationships with students who are a year or two younger. He may be seeking his developmentally or emotionally appropriate level. By befriending younger students, he may enjoy a degree of status, confidence and acceptance that he does not experience among his peers.

Don't place the child in highly charged competitive situations. These are often a source of great anxiety and failure for students with learning problems and social deficits. Rather, focus upon participation, enjoyment, contribution and satisfaction in competitive activities - not on winning or losing.

Don't scold or reprimand the child when she tells you about social confrontations or difficulties that she has experienced. She will respond by refusing to share these incidents with you. Rather, thank her for sharing the experience with you and discuss optional strategies that she could have used.

Don't attempt to teach social skills at times of high stress. Rather, approach the child at a time when he is relaxed and receptive ("Suri, next week you will be going to Faygie's birthday party. Let's practice how you will hand her your gift and what you will say when she opens it and thanks you)."

Seize The Summer

r Helping a child overcome a deficit in this area, like any other form of remediation, is a process that takes time. Because summer vacation offers an expanded range of social opportunities that are not available during the more structured winter months, this is an ideal time for social skills coaching.

Within the framework of camp, group sports, family outings and neighborhood get-togethers, the particular social skills that are being worked on can constantly be tested "in the field." In addition, because of the more relaxed pace of day-to-day life, progress is more easily measured and observed.

In as much as social skills deficits often accompany learning difficulties, a program that combines the two forms of remediation - implemented over the summer months - can make an enormous difference in your child's development. Those children whose parents see to it that they capitalize strongly on the summer's opportunities for emotional and scholastic growth are the lucky ones.

© Rifka Schonfeld, Director SOS, copyright 2010.