This is a guest post written by Rebecca Willette, a special education teacher of 9 years and co-owner of Connections: Social Skills Camp. She lives with her husband in Minneapolis. She has a Master’s Degree in Education from Bethel University and her Autism Spectrum Disorder Certificate from Hamline University. For more information on Connections: Social Skills Camp that she mentions below visit her website at www.socialskillscamp.org For more information on the series or to submit your own perspective on education click here.
Spring is here, the snow is melting, and high-stakes standardized testing season has begun. Teachers with students as young as 7 years old are encouraged to show the kids their scores, have them set goals, and explain to the children how seriously they need to take the test. Because if students don’t do well, it is reflected in the ‘grade’ the school gets, how much money the school gets from the state, and in the worst case scenario, if a school can even keep its doors open.
A friend of mine recently had her daughter’s kindergarten conference. She said that the teacher showed her all kinds of data about her 5 year old daughter’s reading, writing, and math scores. My friend said to me, “I don’t want to know about all that data in the 10 minutes I get with the teacher! I’m her mom, I know she can read. I want to know how she is in school. Does she listen? Does she have friends? Does she share her toys and take turns?” There wasn’t time for any of that at the conference though, after they got through how many words per minute the child could read and how many math facts she knew. The truth is, data is the driving force in education today, and standardized tests start the first week of kindergarten.
If you’ve ever read the classic by Robert Fulghum “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,”you know that these days it just isn’t true. Since No Child Left Behind was enacted, we’d better hope that children today learned everything they need to know in life in preschool or daycare, because Kindergarten is now for learning reading, writing, and arithmetic; with little time left for warm cookies and milk, nap time, drawing or dancing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against reading and writing and arithmetic. Hardly! I’m a teacher at heart, and there is nothing quite as satisfying as watching a child read words out loud for the very first time on a bulletin board they’ve been staring at all year. When the pieces fit together, magic happens, and a new world opens up to a child. In fact, I’ve been teaching special education in a suburb of Minneapolis for 9 years now. Reading is great. Knowledge is power.
What’s even better, though, is to be nice to others, get along, and learn how to say sorry while doing what we do. The most important skills in this life cannot be measured by a standardized test. The ability to be a good friend, use teamwork, show respect, and share, will not ever be able to be normed against a cross referenced group of reflective races across all 50 states in the USA. In my opinion, social skills, not simply academic skills, are the most important skills we can teach our children. That’s why my friend and I started a small business five years ago to teach to this gap. We had a parent of very bright (academically) child (who also happened hardly any friends), ask us to tutor her son in social skills. At first we said no. Tutor someone in social skills? How exactly does one tutor a child in social skills? Reading, writing math…now that I can teach! Give me a scope and a sequence and some curriculum and I can teach the ‘standards’ for sure. Teaching social skills, on the other hand, is a whole new ball game.
With that said, have you ever met someone who only wanted to talk about herself? I bet you didn’t stick around for long! Have you ever been stuck talking to someone who talked too close, or so softly you couldn’t hear him, or just seemed ‘weird?’ Someone who you knew was smart, but just didn’t seem to ‘get it?’ Connections: Social Skills Camp was created for those types of kids… to teach youth who had not generalized the social skills of society, explicitly explain social skills that ‘typical’ peers may have learned already, and let them practice these skills in the community, at places they really go to. The students we work with have all different abilities…some are ‘typical,’ and some have other atypicalities, including ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and a host of other medical problems that have made it difficult for them to understand and apply the social rules in our world.
At Connections: Social Skills Camp we teach them how to get along in our great big world, how to act when you get a gutter ball at the bowling alley, and how to encourage the other kids who can climb the high ropes course better than them. We practice following the ‘secret’ rules of the mall & restaurants. We use weights and measures to visually show them how to have ‘balanced’ conversations. After all, anyone who has a friend or is a friend knows that it is important to be a “Thinking about Others” person instead of a “Just Me” person. We explain why eye contact is important (it shows others what we are thinking about), and then we practice in the community with clerks and waitresses and people who are different than us.
While you can’t ‘measure’ these skills, we know they are important. And while we will never be able to prove it with a standardized test, we hope that by teaching the social thinking skills many didn’t have time to learn in Kindergarten, we can help improve our students’ lives for years to come.