How Does One Teach Social Skills?

In 1999, the “late” Jewish Observer (partial archive here) ran a feature on how to teach middos, i.e. proper, morally upright, religiously inspired behavior. The major question was, whether behavior is most efficiently and most effectively acquired through formal or informal means. In his article Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin argued that formal middos education is neither the most efficient, nor the most effective way to help the students internalize these values. Sadly, I could not find R’ Joseph Elias’ article on the web, but IIRC in that feature, he argued for the utility of formal middos education.

In many yeshivot, the study of the underlying philosophical-ethical material, the so called mussar works, constitutes an integral part of the curriculum. However, some would argue that any such study only becomes truly useful after properly developing and nurturing a moral disposition. Take Lashon haRa’, for example, the sin of gossip and slander. Some would argue that the most effective way to train students would be through the intellectual study of works on this topic, such as the Chafetz Chaim. However, consider that the following reason for the prohibition on gossiping: that God wants people to live in peace and harmony with each other, while tale bearing and slander are major contributors to strife (Sefer haChinukh §236).

If the purpose is to increase interpersonal peace and harmony, perhaps it is best achieved by … promoting interpersonal peace and harmony. Which is why the following article caught my eye:

Elementary school students who participated in a three-month anti-bullying program in Seattle schools showed a 72 percent decrease in malicious gossip.

“Gossip is an element of bullying, and it can lead to physical bullying,” said Karin Frey, a UW research associate professor of educational psychology. “Kids will tell you that gossip is just as painful as physical bullying.”

But teachers tend to not view gossip as a significant form of bullying, Frey said. Since gossip can lead to physical bullying, she and her collaborators investigated whether the program would help suppress teasing, name-calling, rumor-spreading and other ostracizing chitchat.

“Gossip is surprisingly visible, because you have to have more than one person, and it can last awhile,” said Frey, who led development of the Steps to Respect program in 2000.

After observers heard gossip on the playground in the fall, the anti-bullying program began in half of the 36 classrooms. During three months, teachers taught Steps to Respect lesson plans that encouraged empathy, taught assertiveness and emphasized that bullying is not a social norm.

The article also contains the following gem:

Frey said that bystanders are really important in decreasing gossip and bullying, but many times bystanders feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to do. Bystanders’ silence can give a lot of power to bullies, but if bystanders speak up, the bullying stops.

That’s true for adults, too. This reminds me of a young woman I know, who radiates an aura of empathy and of zero tolerance to gossip, without ever reproaching anybody. She will never allow herself o slip into gossiping or to stand by idly, but will instead discreetly leave a company. She does it so gracefully that people around her naturally learn to avoid gossip while she is around.

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