Importance of social competence, Social competence deficits and peer rejection, Developmental changes and social competence
Mastering the social, emotional, and cognitive skills and behaviors needed to succeed as a member of society.
Social competence refers to the social, emotional, and cognitive skills and behaviors that children need for successful social adaptation. Despite this simple definition, social competence is an elusive concept, because the skills and behaviors required for healthy social development vary with the age of the child and with the demands of particular situations. A socially competent preschool child behaves in a much different manner than a socially competent adolescent; conversely, the same behaviors (e.g., aggression, shyness) have different implications for social adaptation depending upon the age of the child and the particulars of the social context.
A child's social competence depends upon a number of factors including the child's social skills, social awareness, and self-confidence. Social skills is a term used to describe the child's knowledge of, and ability to use, a variety of social behaviors that are appropriate to a given interpersonal situation and that are pleasing to others in each situation. The capacity to inhibit egocentric, impulsive, or negative social behavior is also a reflection of a child's social skills. The term emotional intelligence refers to the child's ability to understand others' emotions, perceive subtle social cues, "read" complex social situations, and demonstrate insight about others' motivations and goals. Children who have a wide repertoire of social skills and who are socially aware and perceptive are likely to be socially competent. Social competence is the broader term used to describe a child's social effectiveness—a child's ability to establish and maintain high quality and mutually satisfying relationships and to avoid negative treatment or victimization from others. In addition to social skills and emotional intelligence, factors such as the child's self-confidence or social anxiety can affect his/her social competence. Social competence can also be affected by the social context and the extent to which there is a good match between the child's skills, interests, and abilities and those of the other children in his/her environment. For example, a quiet and studious boy may appear socially incompetent in a peer group full of raucous athletes, but may do fine socially if a better peer group "niche" can be found for him, such as a group of peers who share his interests in quiet games or computers.
Importance of social competence
Whereas parents are the primary source of social and emotional support for children during the first years of life, in later years peers begin to play a significant complementary and unique role in promoting child social-emotional development. Increasingly with age, peers rather than parents become preferred companions, providing important sources of entertainment and support. In the context of peer interactions, young children engage in fantasy play that allows them to assume different roles, learn to take another person's perspective, and develop an understanding of the social rules and conventions of their culture. In addition, relationships with peers typically involve more give-and-take than relationships with adults, and thus provide an opportunity for the development of social competencies such as cooperation and negotiation. During adolescence, peer relations become particularly important for children. A key developmental task of adolescence is the formation of an identity—a sense of the kind of person you are and the kind of person you want to be. Adolescents "try on" different social roles as they interact with peers, and peers serve as a social "stepping stone" as adolescents move away from their emotional dependence upon their parents and toward autonomous functioning as an adult. In many ways, then, childhood peer relations serve as "training grounds" for future interpersonal relations, providing children with opportunities to learn about reciprocity and intimacy. These skills are associated with effective interpersonal relations in adult life, including relations with co-workers and with romantic partners.
When children experience serious difficulties in the domain of peer relations, the development of social competencies may be threatened. Rejection or victimization by peers may become a source of significant stress to children, contributing to feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem. In addition, peer rejection can escalate in a negative developmental spiral. That is, when children with poor social skills become rejected, they are often excluded from positive interactions with peers—interactions that are critical for the learning of social skills. Rejected children typically have fewer options in terms of play partners and friends than do accepted children. Observations of rejected children have revealed that they spend more time playing alone and interacting in smaller groups than their more popular peers. In addition, the companions of rejected children tend to be younger or more unpopular than the companions of accepted children. Exclusion from a normal peer group can deprive rejected children of opportunities to develop adaptive social behaviors. Hence, the social competence deficits of rejected children may increase over time, along with feelings of social anxiety and inadequacy.
Social competence deficits and peer rejection
Many children experience difficulties getting along with peers at some point during their youth. Sometimes these problems are short-lived and for some children the effects of being left out or teased by classmates are transitory. For other children, however, being ignored or rejected by peers may be a lasting problem that has lifelong consequences, such as a dislike for school, poor self-esteem, social withdrawal, and difficulties with adult relationships.
Considerable research has been undertaken to try to understand why some children experience serious and long-lasting difficulties in the area of peer relations. To explore factors leading to peer difficulties, researchers typically employ the sociometric method to identify children who are or are not successful with peers. In this method, children in a classroom or a group are asked to list children who they like most and those who they like least. Children who receive many positive ("like most") nominations and few negative ("like least") nominations are classified as"popular;" those who receive few positive and few negative nominations are designated"neglected," and those who receive few positive and many negative nominations are classified as"rejected."
Evidence compiled from studies using child interviews, direct observations, and teacher ratings all suggest that popular children exhibit high levels of social competence. They are friendly and cooperative and engage readily in conversation. Peers describe them as helpful, nice, understanding, attractive, and good at games. Popular and socially competent children are able to consider others' perspectives, can sustain their attention to the play task, and are able to "keep their cool" in situations involving conflict. They are agreeable and have good problem-solving skills. Socially competent children are also sensitive to the nuances of "play etiquette." They enter a group using diplomatic strategies, such as commenting upon the ongoing activity and asking permission to join in. They uphold standards of equity and show good sportsmanship, making them good companions and fun play partners.
Children who have problems making friends, those who are either "neglected" or "rejected" sociometrically, often show deficits in social skills. One of the most common reasons for friendship problems is behavior that annoys other children. Children, like adults, do not like behavior that is bossy, self-centered, or disruptive. It is simply not fun to play with someone who doesn't share or doesn't follow the rules. Sometimes children who have learning problems or attention problems can have trouble making friends, because they find it hard to understand and follow the rules of games. Children who get angry easily and lose their temper when things don't go their way can also have a hard time getting along with others. Children who are rejected by peers often have difficulties focusing their attention and controlling their behavior. They may show high rates of noncompliance, interference with others, or aggression (teasing or fighting). Peers often describe rejected classmates as disruptive, short-tempered, unattractive, and likely to brag, to start fights, and to get in trouble with the teacher.
Not all aggressive children are rejected by their peers. Children are particularly likely to become rejected if they show a wide range of conduct problems, including disruptive, hyperactive, and disagreeable behaviors in addition to physical aggression. Socially competent children who are aggressive tend to use aggression in a way that is accepted by peers (e.g., fighting back when provoked), whereas the aggressive acts of rejected children include tantrums, verbal insults, cheating, or tattling. In addition, aggressive children are more likely to be rejected if they are hyperactive, immature, and lacking in positive social skills.
Children can also have friendship problems because they are very shy and feel uncomfortable and unsure of themselves around others. Sometimes children are ignored or teased by classmates because there is something "different" about them that sets them apart from other children. When children are shy in the classroom and ignored by classmates, becoming classified as "neglected," it does not necessarily indicate deficits in social competence. Many neglected children have friendships outside of the classroom setting, and their neglected status is simply a reflection of their quiet attitude and low profile in the classroom. Developmentally, peer neglect is not a very stable classification, and many neglected children develop more confidence as they move into classrooms with more familiar or more compatible peers. However, some shy children are highly anxious socially, and uncomfortable around peers in many situations. Shy, passive children who are actively disliked and rejected by classmates often become teased and victimized. These children often do have deficits in core areas of social competence that have a negative impact on their social development. For example, many are emotionally dependent on adults, and immature in their social behavior. They may be inattentive, moody, depressed, or emotionally volatile, making it difficult for them to sustain positive play interactions with others.
The long-term consequences of sustained peer rejection can be quite serious. Often, deficits in social competence and peer rejection coincide with other emotional and behavioral problems, including attention deficits, aggression, and depression. The importance of social competence and satisfying social relations is life-long. Studies of adults have revealed that friendship is a critical source of social support that protects against the negative effects of life stress. People with few friends are at elevated risk for depression and anxiety.
Childhood peer rejection predicts a variety of difficulties in later life, including school problems, mental health disorders, and antisocial behavior. In fact, in one study, peer rejection proved to be a more sensitive predictor of later mental health problems than school records, achievement, and IQ scores or teacher ratings.
It appears, then, that positive peer relations play an important role in supporting the process of healthy social and emotional development. Problematic peer relations are associated with both concurrent and future maladjustment of children, and hence warrant serious attention from parents and professionals working with children. When assessing the possible factors contributing to a child's social difficulties and when planning remedial interventions, it is important to understand developmental processes associated with social competence and peer relations.
Developmental changes and social competence
The key markers of social competence listed in the previous section are remarkably consistent across the developmental periods of the preschool years, middle childhood, and adolescence. Across these developmental periods, prosocial skills (friendly, cooperative, helpful behaviors) and self-control skills (anger management, negotiation skills, problem-solving skills) are key facets of social competence. In addition, however, developmental changes occur in the structure and quality of peer interactions which affect the complexity of skills contributing to social competence. That is, as children grow, their preferences for play change, and the thinking skills and language skills that provide a foundation for social competence also change. Hence, the kinds of interactions that children have with peers change qualitatively and quantitatively with development.
The ways in which children spend their time together, for example, changes with development. During the preschool years, social competence involves the ability to separate from parents and engage with peers in shared play activities, particularly fantasy play. As preschool children are just learning to coordinate their social behavior, their interactions are often short and marked by frequent squabbles, and friendships are less stable than at later developmental stages. In addition, physical rough- and-tumble play is common, particularly among boys.
By grade school, children begin to develop an interest in sports, structured board games, and group games with complex sets of rules. Being able to understand and follow game rules and being able to handle competition in appropriate ways (e.g., being a good sport) become important skills for social competence. Children play primarily in same-sex groups of friends, and expect more stability in their friendships. Loyalty and dependability become important qualities of good friends.
During the preadolescent and early adolescent years, communication (including sending notes, calling on the phone, and "hanging out") becomes a major focus for peer interactions. Increasingly, social competence involves the willingness and ability to share thoughts and feelings with one another, especially for girls. When adolescent friends squabble, their conflicts typically center around issues such as gossiping, disclosing secrets, or loyalty and perceived betrayal. It is at this stage that friends and romantic partners consistently rival parents as the primary sources of intimacy and social support.
In addition to developmental changes in the content and focus of peer relations, development brings changes in the structure of peer relations. During the preschool and early grade school years, children are primarily focused on group acceptance and having companions to spend time with and play with. However, during the middle to late grade school years, children begin to distinguish "regular" friends from "best" friends. The establishment of close, best friendships is an important developmental milestone. That is, in addition to gaining acceptance from a group of peers, one of the hallmarks of social competence is the ability to form and maintain satisfying close friendships. Many of the positive characteristics that promote popularity (such as cooperativeness, friendliness, and consideration for others) also assist children in developing and maintaining friendships. Friendships emerge when children share similar activities and interests and, in addition, when they develop a positive and mutual bond between them. Group acceptance and close friendships follow different timetables and serve different developmental functions, with the need for group acceptance emerging during the early grade school years and filling a need for belonging, and the need for close friends emerging in preadolescence to meet newfound needs for affection, alliance, and intimacy outside the family. Key features of close friendships are reciprocity and similarity, mutual intimacy, and social support.
A third major shift in the complexity of peer relations involves the changing role of cliques and crowds. Grade school children often have little conception of peer groups. For example, when we interviewed fifth graders and asked them about groups at their school, a typical reply was, "what do you mean, reading groups?" In contrast, by eighth grade, children had distinct ideas about groups at their school, responding to our questions with labels such as"the jocks, the brains, the nerds." The recognition of cliques and crowds as organizational structures of the peer group usually emerges during early adolescence. In part, the understanding of cliques reflects a cognitive advance, as children in adolescence are able to use formal operational thinking to consider abstract ideas such as "cliques" and apply them to their thinking about peers. In part, the rise of cliques in the organizational structure of peer groups reflects the structure of American schools, which typically transition from small elementary schools to large middle schools or junior high schools around sixth or seventh grade. The change in the school context has a large impact on the nature of the peer group, as the typical middle school or junior high school peer group involves a very large and diverse set of peers. In the context of this large group, children associate with smaller networks of familiar classmates. Typically, the grouping into friendship networks takes place on the basis of shared interests, activities, and attitudes. Children in the same friendship networks influence each other in matters of dress, behavior, and language, leading to identifiable characteristics of group members that become the basis for group labels (e.g., jocks or brains).
From an emotional standpoint, adolescents are focused on developing a sense of themselves and in sorting out how their identities fit (or do not fit) with the expectations of others and the social niches available to them. As a correlate to identity formation, adolescents become keenly aware of group peer norms and increasingly seek to associate with peers and use peer standards to evaluate their own and other's social behavior. Whereas in grade school peer status referred to one's state of acceptance or rejection from the classroom group, by adolescence one's peer status is complicated by the nature of the various groups toward which one may seek and attain (or be refused) membership status. In other words, in addition to finding friends, adolescents often worry about their placement in the larger social structure of cliques and crowds.
The increased level of social awareness and self-consciousness that accompanies the advanced social reasoning of adolescence and the increased importance that adolescents place on peer acceptance may strengthen the impact of perceived peer rejection on emotional adjustment and self-concept. Social ostracism or self-imposed isolation my also become a more important determinant of peer rejection during adolescence than at younger ages.
At all ages, the treatment a child receives from peers may influence his or her social adaptation. Once rejected by peers, disliked children may find themselves excluded from peer activities and exposed to ostracism, or more severely to victimization by peers. Peers may develop negatively biased attitudes and expectations for rejected children and treat these children differently (with more counteraggression and hostility) than they treat their well-accepted peers. Children who are particularly stressed by the academic demands of school, such as those aggressive-rejected children with attentional deficits or hyperactive behaviors, may be at increased risk for negative interactions with teachers and peers. Over time, teachers tend to become less positive and less contingent in their reactions to these problematic students, decreasing their effectiveness at managing social behavior.
During the preadolescent and later adolescent years, the combination of ostracism from conventional peer groups and the evolution of peer group cliques and crowds can be problematic for rejected children. That is, adolescents who feel pushed out of the conventional peer groups may begin to affiliate with defiant peers. As cliques of deviant peers form in adolescence, these groups may begin to exert a strong influence on children, shaping their attitudes and social behaviors and increasing the likelihood of future antisocial and deviant behavior. Particularly in adolescence, youth turn to their peer groups for guidance in matters of dress code, social behavior, social attitudes, and identity formation. In peer networks containing many members who exhibit high rates of aggression, group norms are likely to be accepting of aggression. Hence, although affiliations with deviant peers may provide companionship and support, the"cost" of such affiliations may be great in terms of their negative influence exacerbating antisocial behavior and attitudes. Preadolescent children who form friendships with antisocial peers appear to be at heightened risk for later antisocial behavior, including delinquency, drug use, and school dropout.
Family contributions to social competence
Because the family is the primary context for social development, there are a number of ways in which family interaction patterns may help or hinder the development of children's social competence. Some researchers have speculated that the origins of social competence can be found in infancy, in the quality of the parent-child attachment relationship. Studies have shown that babies whose parents are consistent and sensitive in their responses to distress are less irritable, less anxious, and better emotionally regulated. By contrast, parents who are inconsistent and insensitive to their infants' signals are more likely to have anxious, irritable babies who are difficult to soothe. These children may learn both to model their parents' insensitivity and to rely on intrusive, demanding behavior of their own in order to get attention. If they then generalize these socially incompetent behaviors to their peer interactions, peer rejection may result.
As children get older, family interaction styles and the ways in which parents discipline may play a primary role in the development of noncompliant or aggressive behaviors in children. In families where parents are extremely demanding and use inconsistent, harsh, and punitive discipline strategies, family interaction patterns are frequently characterized by escalation and conflict, and children often exhibit behavior problems. When children generalize the aggressive and oppositional behavior that they have learned at home to their interactions with peers, other children often reject them. Indeed, research has revealed that aggressive behavior is the common link between harsh, inconsistent discipline and rejection by peers.
By contrast, parents of popular children are typically more positive and less demanding with their children than parents of unpopular children. In addition, parents of popular children "set a good example" by modeling appropriate social interactions, and assist their children by arranging opportunities for peer interaction, carefully supervising these experiences, and providing helpful feedback about conflict resolution and making friends.
Child characteristics and social competence
In addition to family interaction patterns and various aspects of the parent-child relationship, children's own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes may influence their social behavior. Research has revealed that many rejected children make impulsive, inaccurate, and incomplete judgments about how to behave in social situations and are lacking in social problem-solving skills. They may make numerous errors in processing social information, including misinterpretation of other people's motives and behavior, setting social goals for themselves that are unrealistic or inappropriate, and making poor decisions about their own conduct in social situations. For example, aggressive children are more likely to interpret an accidental push or bump from a peer as intentionally hostile, and respond accordingly. Similarly, socially incompetent children are often more interested in "getting even" with peers for injustices than they are in finding positive solutions to social problems, and expect that aggressive, coercive strategies will lead to desired outcomes.
Many children who are rejected by peers have lower self-esteem, feel lonelier, and are more dissatisfied with their social situations than are average or popular children. These feelings can cause them to give up and avoid social situations, which can in turn exacerbate their peer problems. Interestingly, not all rejected children feel badly about their social difficulties. Studies have shown that aggressive-rejected children, who tend to blame outside factors for their peer problems, are less likely to express distress than withdrawn-rejected children, who often attribute their problems to themselves.
Assessing social competence
There is an important difference between not being "popular" and having friendship problems. Some children are outgoing and have many friends. Other children are quite content with just a good friend or two. Either one of these friendship patterns is fine. Distinguishing "normative" friendship problems from problematic peer relations that signal serious deficits in social competence is an important goal of assessment. There are several key signs that a child's peer difficulties may be more serious and long-lasting rather than temporary. First, the nature of the child's social behavior is important. If children behave aggressively with peers, act bossy and domineering, or are disruptive and impulsive at school, they are more likely to have stable and long-lasting peer difficulties than are children who are simply shy. Children who display aggressive or disruptive behavior often have many discouraging experiences at school, including discipline problems and learning difficulties as well as poor peer relations. School adjustment can be a downhill slide for these children as teachers may get discouraged and peers may get angered by their behaviors. Peers may attempt to "get back" at these children by teasing, which only increases the frustrations and helplessness experienced by aggressive, disruptive children.
Second, children who are actively disliked, teased, or ostracized by peers are at more risk than children who are simply ignored. It is not necessary for a child to be popular in order to gain the advantages of peer support. When children are ignored by peers and are neither disliked nor liked, teachers and parents can take steps to foster friendship development and peer support. When children are actively disliked by peers and the victims of teasing or ostracism, the task is harder for parents and teachers and the likelihood of the child reestablishing positive peer relations without help is slimmer.
Third, the stability and chronicity of peer problems should be considered. It is not unusual for children to experience short-term social difficulties when they are moving into new peer situations, such as a new school or a new classroom. Peer problems may also emerge if children are distressed about other changes in their lives, such as a reaction to parental conflict or the birth of a sibling. When peer problems emerge at a time that corresponds to other family or situational changes, they may serve as signals to let parents and teachers know that the child needs extra support at that time. When peer problems have been stable and have existed for a long time, more extensive intervention focused on improving peer relations may be needed.
There is a variety of methods available for the assessment of social competence. When choosing a particular assessment strategy, it is important to consider the nature of a particular child's problem. Some children have difficulty with all types of social relationships, while others do well in their neighborhoods or in one-on-one friendships but experience problems with the peer group at school. When problems occur in the school setting, teachers and other school personnel who have opportunities to see children interacting in several peer group situations (such as the classroom, playground, and lunchroom) are often the best first step in assessment. Teachers can often provide information about how children treat and are treated by peers, and can also offer opinions about how typical or unusual a child's peer problems are relative to others of the same age. Teacher assessments can include behavioral checklists and rating scales and direct observations of specific social behaviors.
Similarly, parents can also provide information about children's social competence. Parents can help to identify problem behaviors such as aggression, withdrawal, and noncompliance that may interfere with social skills. In addition, parents are usually more aware than teachers of their children's social activities outside of school, such as their participation in sports, clubs, or hobbies.
Because they do not have access to the full range of situations in which children interact, however, teachers and parents may not always be the best source of information on children's peer problems. In some cases, it is most helpful to get information directly from peers themselves. One method of obtaining such information is the use of sociometric ratings and nominations. With these procedures, all of the children in a classroom are asked to rate how much they like to play with or spend time with each of their classmates. In addition, they nominate specific peers with whom they particularly like or dislike, and may be asked to identify peers who exhibit particular behavioral characteristics (e.g., nice, aggressive, shy, etc.). The sociometric method, although cumbersome to administer, identifies children who are popular, rejected, and neglected by their peers more accurately than parent or teacher reports, and provides useful information about the reasons for peer dislike.
A third approach to assessment of social competence involves children's self-reports. Although input from parents, teachers, and peers can provide valuable insight into children's social behavior and their status within the peer group, information regarding children's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of their social situations can be obtained only by asking the children themselves. Depending upon the age of the child, information about social competence can be obtained through the use of questionnaires and rating scales that measure children's self-perceptions of their peer relations, the use of stories and hypothetical social situations to elicit information about the child's social reasoning, or simply talking with children to determine their perspectives on their social situations.
Because children may have different experiences in different kinds of peer settings and because no one particular method of assessment is entirely reliable or complete, it is desirable to use a variety of sources when attempting to assess children's social competence. Teacher, parent, peer, and self-reports may yield distinct but complementary information, and hence, by gathering multiple perspectives, a more complete picture of a child's social strengths and weaknesses can be obtained.
Interventions to promote social competence
Different strategies may be needed to help children develop social competencies and establish positive peer relations depending upon the age of the child and the type of peer problem being experienced. Different children have different needs when it comes to helping them get along better with others and making friends. The age of the child, the kinds of behaviors that are part of the problem, the reasons for the friendship problem—all of these may affect the development of the helping strategy.
One strategy involves social skill training. Observations have revealed that children who are well-liked by peers typically show helpful, courteous, and considerate behavior. The purpose of social skill training is to help unpopular children learn to treat their peers in positive ways. The specific skills taught in different programs vary depending upon the age and type of child involved. Commonly taught skills include helping, sharing, and cooperation. Often children are taught how to enter a group, how to be a good group participant, how to be a fair player (e.g., following rules, taking turns), and how to have a conversation with peers. The skills might also include anger management, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills. Problem solving skills (e.g., identifying the problem, considering alternative solutions, choosing a solution and making a plan) are often included in social skill training programs. Sometimes social skill training is done individually with children, but often it is done in a small group. A particular skill concept is discussed, and children may watch a short film or hear a story that illustrates the usefulness of the skill. They then have the opportunity to practice the skill during activities or role-plays with other children in the group. A trained group leader helps guide the children in their use of the skill and provides support and positive feedback to help children become more natural and spontaneous in socially skillful behavior.
Another intervention strategy focuses on helping children who are having trouble getting along with others because of angry, aggressive, or bossy behavior. It can be difficult to suppress aggressive and disruptive behaviors in peer settings for several reasons. For one thing, these behaviors often "work" in the sense that they can be instrumental in achieving desired goals. By complaining loudly, hitting, or otherwise using force or noise, children may be able to get access to a toy they want or they may be able to get peers to stop doing something noxious to them. In this type of situation, an adult's expressed disapproval may suppress the behavior, but the behavior is likely to emerge again in situations where an adult supervisor is not present. Often contracts and point systems are used to suppress aggressive behavior and bossiness; however, positive skill training must be used in conjunction with behavior management in order to provide the child with alternative skills to use in situations requiring negotiations with peers. Often parents are included in programs to help children develop better anger management skills and to help children reduce fighting. Trained counselors, educators, or psychologists work with parents to help them find positive discipline strategies and positive communication skills to promote child anger management and conflict resolution skills.
A third helping strategy focuses on finding a good social "niche" for the child. Large, unstructured peer group settings (such as recess) are particularly difficult situations for many of the children who have peer problems. These children need a more structured, smaller peer interaction setting in which an adult's support is available to guide positive peer interaction. Finding a good social "niche" for some children can be a difficult task, but an important one. Sometimes a teacher can organize cooperative learning groups that help an isolated child make friends in the classroom. Sometimes parents can help by inviting potential friends over to play or getting their child involved in a social activity outside of school that is rewarding (such as scouting, church group, sports groups). Providing positive opportunities for friendship development is important, as it provides children with an appropriate and positive learning environment for the development of social competence.
Janet A. Welsh, Ph.D.,
Karen L. Bierman, Ph.D.
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