Putting Social Skills to the Test

For Middle Level

My increased efforts in building community supported my advisory class through a challenging process of welcoming a student with difficult behavior. I wanted to build a better community for my students this year in the hopes that they would be more engaged in class if they felt comfortable with their classmates. Just as our work together was beginning to pay off, an unexpected request from a student to join our group threatened to upset everything.

Building social skills
I began the year with my students by addressing cooperation, responsibility, and self-control on multiple planes. After completing charts about how these social skills look, sound, and feel, students completed a written assignment and provided a definition for and real-life examples of each skill.

Student definitions of cooperation included:
- Working together to reach a goal

- Being responsible for completing your part of a task

Classes described responsibility in many ways, including:
- Anything we do because it is expected, necessary, or appropriate

Most students felt that self-control was:
- Thinking about what you do before you do it

- Controlling your actions and emotions

With the expectations for the above-mentioned social skills mapped out and modeled, the class and I felt we were prepared to try practicing them in context. I felt good about how I had modeled and scaffolded these social skills, and believed students' self-management skills would improve. Things were progressing swimmingly.

Middle-level student working together

An unexpected challenge
In early November, I was asked to accept a new student. Todd had many behavioral issues, including:

  • Bullying
  • Making rude noises
  • Showing defiance
  • Making unwanted physical contact with other students
  • Lying
  • Manipulating

He had burned many bridges between himself, his teachers, and his peers. All parties involved, including Todd's parents, felt Todd needed a fresh start—one we could provide in our advisory. While I make an effort to see the best in all students, viewing Todd in this positive, nonjudgmental way was not easy at first. I was given control over the decision, and I decided to discuss it with my advisees.

Gathering student input
I called a meeting in advisory one Friday morning, during which I explained the situation. Initially, a few students were highly opposed to the idea of bringing Todd into our community. One boy said that he did not believe Todd was capable of being appropriate; this student "did not want trouble." Another thought he was "too mean, too cool, and too bad" to be a part of our group. One student said she would be willing to accept Todd into our group if he could improve his behavior and have a good year. We were split over the matter, and everyone had concerns.

I asked my advisees to generate a list of questions and concerns about Todd's behavior and present it to him. If he responded positively to our concerns, I argued, Todd should be given a chance. My students felt that, after addressing their questions, Todd's effort should culminate in a plan detailing what he would do to be a successful part of our group.

Here are some of my advisees' questions for Todd:

We respect each other and enjoy each other. Will you show us the same respect we show each other?

We have a routine that we are comfortable with. Will you follow our routines or be disruptive?

We are comfortable with each other and sometimes act silly with each other. Will you make us feel "stupid" about the way we behave, or can you be silly with us?

We trust each other and we know that we will not hurt each other's feelings. Can you promise that you will not break our trust or hurt our feelings?

We respect each other's personal space. Will you take our stuff from us, hide things, or damage our property?

We're working on cooperation and being responsible. Will you be co¬operative and take responsibility for your actions?

Are you going to behave in a way that will create tension or discomfort in our advisory or can you show us self-control?

I liked the list, and I was glad to see my students had included the social skills we'd been highlighting all year.

I gave the student-generated set of questions to Todd and asked him to think about them over the weekend, discuss with his family some strategies he could employ to meet the community's expectations, and join our advisory for lunch the following Monday, where we would await his response. Todd agreed to consider our requests. On Monday, he assured us that he wanted a "fresh start" with us because we had shown him respect. He had not associated much with my advisees in the past, and I think he realized that this was an opportunity for him to grow. We decided to hold him to this declaration and allow him to join us. I was proud of those students who had initially opposed the idea. They showed empathy and the ability to change their minds in giving Todd a chance. Once we committed to Todd Joining our advisory, we were determined to make it work for all of us.

Todd's growth
We began moving forward under the proposed agreement. One day, after Todd had been with us for just over a week, I observed the following:

As my students entered advisory, I greeted each one personally, as I do every morning. My students then greeted each other and engaged in conversations. Most greeted our new member, though some were still cautious.


On this day, we were preparing for our student-led conferences. We read the daily greeting, which asked students to get work from all of their subjects to put into their portfolios. Students gathered their materials and sat on the floor in a circle. We shuffled through each subject, brainstorming the traits of high quality work that would merit including in our portfolios. Students asked each other for recommendations of work samples, and even discussed what they had learned in the assignments. They engaged in conversation without talking over one another, and they remained on task. No one shunned our new student. Rather, they listened when he had input; one student even asked him for ideas about work.

Before the students left my classroom that day, I noticed one student having a personal conversation with Todd. I couldn't hear their conversation, but I could tell from their smiles and gestures it was positive. This student was one who had been highly opposed to Todd joining us.

This anecdote is only one example of how Todd was fitting in, having a better year, and how students were able to see the good in him.

I think that having his peers set expectations for his behavior meant more to Todd than any teacher's concerns. The meeting we had before Todd's arrival was key. I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out, and I didn't expect them to come up with the idea of framing their concerns positively, in the form of questions. But my students took control of the meeting, and the quality of the outcome was outstanding; frankly, it went far better than it would have had I made the decision by myself to accept Todd. Giving them some autonomy was integral to our success, and all of them, including Todd, demonstrated cooperation, responsibility, and self-control!

Sarah Colby teaches science to 7th and 8th graders at Hartland Elementary School in Hartland VT.

Published September 2009