Most would agree that the earliest institutions of education were in the form of apprenticeships. The Master Carpenter would take on a student and teach them how to construct buildings through on the job training. The student would learn math, science, physics, and business while actually doing it. Indeed, our schooling systems still rely heavily on the apprenticeship model. Doctors spend the majority of medical school in clinics and hospitals, internships are required for graduation in business degree programs, and teachers often spend their final year teaching in a classroom. It is through these experiences that students witness the inextricable link between theory and practice.
The social skill deficit
Arguably, the most important skills we learn in life are social skills. In Daniel Goleman’s landmark publication, Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ, he makes the argument that perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotion is essential for success. Nevertheless, we assume most students will develop these traits simply through implicit instruction, such as modeling, daily experiences, and peer feedback. However, the development of these skills relies heavily on one’s innate Emotional Intelligence. Thus, we are expecting those with poor social skills to develop social skills through being more social.
Social thinking curriculum
Many schools and educational programs have adopted various social skills curriculum to address these deficits. Many of these evidenced-based strategies assist students in developing the interpersonal attributes necessary to navigate an often-foreign social landscape. At Mansfield Hall we admire Michelle Winner Garcia’s Social Thinking® curriculum, an excellent program to help students develop their ability to develop the requisite social skills to develop friendships, maintain employment, and have healthy relationships.
Anchoring social skills in the real world
So where is the social skills apprenticeship? This is the missing link in many schools that offer social skills instruction, but no context to employ their skills. There is no doubt that Ms. Winner Garcia’s and other social skills experts would argue that their programs are meant to increase the amount of social opportunities and thus, reinforce their curriculum. It is then the responsibility of the teachers and care-providers to provide these apprenticeships and “on the job training” to give students the opportunity to practices these vital skills. Unfortunately, the double-edged sword for schools and programs is that those who have the greatest need to develop social skills are also the ones who have the least opportunities for socialization.
At Mansfield Hall, a central tenet of our philosophy is providing social skills instruction that is then anchored in the real world. Many of our students are using Garcia’s Social Thinking, but we are also taking it as our responsibility to be sure they have authentic situations to use the curriculum. Therefore, we immerse our students in daily opportunities for authentic social opportunities. Our Mansfield Fellows, traditional college students participating in our program and living at the Hall, provide daily modeling of developmentally appropriate social skills. All of our students are required to volunteer weekly to develop vocational and communication skills while developing perspective. Our students must participate in weekly recreational and social activities on the college campus, such as chess club, intramural sports, or outing clubs. In addition, our staff is trained in guiding students through social situations, so that they are able to assist students practicing their skills in a safe and respectful atmosphere.
With any pertinent skill in life, people must have the opportunity to both learn the skill and practice it.
Students who are challenged by social skills often find a vicious circle, where their social deficits mitigate the opportunities needed to develop their skills. Consequently, it’s imperative that we find the “social apprenticeships” in life that allow for the authentic development of social skills.