School’s Secret Lesson: The Social Life of a Teenager

August 23, 2019

Socialization is the secret reason we send kids to schools in the first place. Interpersonal relationships, emotional regulation, social-emotional intelligence, these are every bit as valuable to young people as geometry, geology, and geography.

It starts as early as kindergarten. A recent study by the American Public Health Association showed that developing prosocial skills in the early grades leads to success later on. Noncognitive skills such as reading social cues, speaking engagingly, taking the initiative, challenging authority, and acting conscientiously and with integrity are as crucially important as cognitive (higher level thinking, knowledge retention) achievements. Maybe more so. What good is being the smartest person in the room if you don’t know how to express yourself?

School is the ideal setting to learn about playing with others, sharing ideas and materials, making friends, even making enemies (who will become friends again because middle school). All skills that are directly transferrable to the adult world. Whether it’s a small group in a home, or in a more traditional setting, school teaches young people so much more than if they just googled stuff on their phones all day.

That’s why those chatty middle schoolers are actually learning valuable skills when they’re talking in class, in the hallway, in the yard, at lunch—they never stop talking. According to a report by the National Education Association, all of that chit chat is as important as completing their algebra worksheets. The NEA recommends that “teachers, parents, and other adults in the lives of young adolescents begin to think of this social behavior as a normal part of human development and not an aberration.”

Of course, this is also an area of great emotional turbulence for them, too, as they reach out to others and try to make friends. Parents and teachers can play matchmaker to some degree, but the children need to go through that trial and error part on their own, making tearful mistakes, but learning what works and what doesn’t.

The best way to help children make friends and learn how to be with others is to reinforce that they are worthy in their own right. Give them responsibilities that they can handle, encourage them to join clubs or to work in strategically chosen group projects, provide a culture where they feel trusted and cared for and where what they say is heard, and most of all, let them talk. They discover themselves talking to others.

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