The children of today are living in fast times. When left to their own devices, most of our beloved digital natives, AKA, "screenagers, will spend more time interacting with their digital gadgets than with their peers. As a long-time educator, I have noticed in the past decade or so that many of them lack perfunctory face to face socialization and conflict resolution skills as a result. We all know that having the skills to build and maintain meaningful relationships is essential for leading a fulfilling and successful life. In fact, the importance of teaching children to build strong relationship skills is significant enough for CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, to list Relationship Skills as one of its five core SEL (Social & Emotional Learning) competencies.
There are a myriad of reasons why the cultivation of relationship skills is important for us. On the most base level, meaningful relationships with other people improves the overall quality of our lives. In addition, robust social networks and friend groups nourish our bodies and our souls. In a 2011 Cornell University study, it was discovered that the average American had only two friends whom they feel comfortable confiding important, personal matters. Similar research shows that this type of social isolation has negative repercussions for maintaining our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. For instance, when we are stressed or going through a difficult situation alone, our hormones spike. However, being around friends during times of stress can reduce the level of these stress hormones.
Having meaningful relationships can also increase our life spans. We have all seen the headlines over the past few years about the "Loneliness Epidemic." Typically, when we hear about this, we think of the elderly, but it is not just the elderly. In a recent survey of 20,000 Americans, nearly half of them reported always or sometimes feeling lonely. Young adults, ages 18 to 22, are the loneliest, according to the survey. Research shows that people who are lonely are up to 32% more likely to die early than those who are more socially connected. There are several theories why socially connected people live longer. One reason may be that they have people in their lives to remind them to take better care of their lives. Another reason may be that people who are alone are more reactive to the stresses in their environment. Over time, these stresses can lead to health problems such as heart disease or high blood pressure.
The lack of social connection in our society has become so widespread that the former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has classified "Loneliness" as a public health crisis. When we examine this closely, it is not surprising that teen depression and suicide rates in the USA are at an all-time high. It would be safe to assume that the social distancing and quarantine protocols brought on by the COVID-19 Pandemic have only increased the feeling of social isolation in our collective consciousness.
When I was in grade school, most learning was done in an individual manner. I think back to how the desks were all in straight rows, facing the front, and the teacher stood at the chalkboard and delivered our instruction. We sat in our seats, minded our own business (most of the time), and did our work. There was very little interaction or collaboration between us students during the academic course periods. Times are different now. Schools now see the benefit of "active learning" and collaboration during the lessons. A student may be very intelligent with a high IQ, but if he or she is deficient in relationship skills, this child will not reach full potential in our modern-day learning environments.
It is not just in classrooms where it is imperative to have strong relationship skills. It is just as crucial in the boardroom, as places of employment need workers with emotional intelligence who can work peacefully and productively with one another. Depending on the domain, strong working relationships between individuals working for a common cause builds a better work, school, or team culture. Case in point, look at some of the best sports teams over the years. Many of them were lead by coaches who developed unbeatable team chemistry by putting an emphasis on developing strong relationships. Examples include legendary coaches like Phil Jackson, Pat Summitt, and Pete Carroll.
A few suggestions on how to strengthen kids' relationship skills:
Problem solving tasks in a group. Have them frequently design, build, and create things together in a group.
Team Sports. Participating in teams sports where everyone has a role and different abilities but must work together.
Team Debates. Working together against another team in a civil and structured argument.
Cooking Together. It's fun and practical. Plus, they are learning a lifelong skill.
Helping each other with homework. It teaches them patience. In addition, it shows them that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
Schools should have class meetings, shared norms, and class contracts and/or charters. These things cultivate buy-in from the students because they have a voice in drafting the class expectations for the ways in which they interact with each other.
After school groups or clubs. This gives kids an opportunity to work on relationship building skills with children they do not go to school with while engaging in something they enjoy.
Unstructured play time with friends. Make them put their electronic devices down and go outside with their friends. Natural socialization.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com