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Can social competence be taught to older children and young adults?

Joanne Mills

As a practitioner within FE I have observed a variety of different levels of learners where the interaction between them may not always be as I would expect.  Some learners clearly display the embedded behaviours such as effective communication and acceptance of differing views, whereas others seem to struggle to adapt to various less familiar situations.  Within education it is our responsibility to support all our learners to develop the skills both technical and transferable to allow them to progress into the working world.  But what about those learners who struggle to interact and be accepted by others?

For children who do not gain these skills at an early age, could there be a lack of peer acceptance and possible links made to behavioural issues? 

Research suggests that children who do not have a basic level of social competence by the age of 6 may have trouble with relationships when they are adults (Blandon et al, 2010; Ladd, 2000; Parker & Aster, 1987). It is also suggested that the long-term risks for a child who cannot interact with other children may include poor mental health, low academic achievement and other school difficulties, and a poor employment history (Katz & McClellan, 1997).  Social competence includes knowing what is expected for different levels of social interactions, such as making eye contact, listening to others; “reading” other people’s facial expressions and gestures; recognising emotions in others and oneself; and being able to communicate effectively with others and responding appropriately, including family members, peers and adults.  These are all behaviours that children learn during pre-school and early year’s development through play and mimicking those around them.  For children who do not gain these skills at an early age, could there be a lack of peer acceptance and possible links made to behavioural issues? 

When we consider the possible factors which can impact on a child’s development such as learning difficulties, visual or hearing impairments and recognise them within a child, we already adapt our practices to enable conditions to become more supportive.  We are mindful of, and promote such things as equality and diversity to educate all learners to celebrate differences by fostering inclusive learning environments.  With this in mind, shouldn’t we also embed social competence development within such classroom practices?

If this is the case then my question is, can teachers create a classroom climate where social competence can be taught to older children and young adults who do not already display these characteristics?  If we as teachers provide a classroom climate conducive for learning and demonstrate professional characteristics then could we not influence the development of social competency?  Social interactions required for adult life can be simulated in a classroom through role play, group activities amongst other methodologies such as project-based learning where students are engaged and inspired to work together with focus, commitment and passion.  However are these a poor substitute for the real thing while preparing older children and young adults for the world of work?  By exposing young adults to a variety of industry experts and differing environments associated to their career aspirations could we increase their level of social competence, raising their ambitions and an awareness of acceptable behaviours, encouraging personal growth?  By exposure to as many working practices as appropriate for each individual, opportunity to strengthen his/her social competence by talking to, working and collaborating with and building stronger relationships could potentially result in greater success for the individual.   I propose that this exposure to industry for older children could also raise their aspirations and motivation to enable them to become more socially competent, having a positive impact on performance and gaining higher academic achievement. 



Blandon, A.Y., Calkins, S.D., Grimm, K.J., Keane, S.P., and O’Brien, M. (2010). Testing a developmental cascade model of emotional and social competence and early peer acceptance. Development and Psychopathology, 22, 737-748.

Parker, J.G, and Asher, S.R. (1987), Peer relations and later personal adjustment:  Are low-accepted children at risk? Psychological Bulletin, 102, 357-389.

Katz, L.G., and McClellan, D.E. (1997). Fostering children’s social competence:  The teacher’s role. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children