Schools usually have a very strict and clear academic curriculum. The social curriculum can be less clear, but it’s just as important for the development of children into healthy adults. The social curriculum relates to teaching students how to interact and empathize with others. Learning these things helps young people to build healthy relationships and feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of schools don’t know how to teach the social curriculum. As a result, students who have trouble learning how to interact and empathize with others are usually labelled “troubled” or “disruptive,” and then punished. Instead of labelling and punishing people, schools ought to stick to what they are good at: teaching.
Impediments to learning the social curriculum
Students come to school from a myriad of different home situations. These environments are something the school, teachers, and students have no control over. Home is where we first learn how to react in certain social situations. Unhealthy or unstable home lives teach young people disruptive and antisocial behaviors.
- Students from coercive families are used to a constant battle at home. As a result, when their teacher requests them to comply with classroom rules and behaviours, they see it as the beginning of a battle and strongly resist any authority from the teacher through disruptive behavior.
- When a student has an inconsistent or unstable home, they crave structure and stability. Unstructured classes will prompt disruptive behavior designed to get more guidance from the teacher.
- Students who become aggressive in class often do so because they face the threat of violence at home. They strike others to avoid becoming the victim of violence, themselves.
- Students who have a history of low performance can be disruptive in the face of academics. For them, sometimes facing punishment is a better consequence than confronting the schoolwork they believe they cannot learn.
Methods of teaching the social curriculum need to address the reason why students act out, as opposed to punishing negative behavior without discovering its root cause. Understanding their behavior can help teachers get to the root of what is happening with disruptive students, and help them to understand their feelings and frustrations.
There has been no proof that disciplinary removal is beneficial to students in any way. If sending disruptive students out of class were beneficial to the individual student or the safety of the school, that would be different; however, neither of these is the case. Individual students who are sent out of class, or receive suspensions or expulsions are often repeat-offenders, proving that the punishment does not teach the lesson it intends. For these students, disciplinary removal is often more of an affirmation that they do not fit in, rather than a lesson about appropriate behavior. Similarly, schools do not become safer by having problem students suspended. Instead, students are more likely to want to retaliate against the school that repeatedly shows it does not want them there.
Teaching the social curriculum
One of the key aspects of teaching the social curriculum is the school environment, especially for those students who do not have good home environments. The school should be a safe, communal place where every individual has value. Students should learn from a young age to cooperate with one another, empathize, and use kindness in their interactions. A key part of teaching these skills is for teachers to lead by example, treating their students with respect and empathy.
The second key to teaching the social curriculum is to approach it as one would teach any other element of the curriculum, by providing a clear presentation of the material to be learned, opportunities for meaningful practice, and timely feedback on performance.
Framing the social curriculum has to be adjusted to the age of the learner. The Golden Rule, “do to others as you would have them do to you,” teaches young children empathy by referencing their own needs. As they get older, this rule is less helpful. Once a child is out of elementary school, he or she needs to learn to “treat others the way they want to be treated.” This second rule emphasizes that we cannot assume that our own selfish desires are universal. We have to be sensitive to what others want, as well.
In short, teaching the social curriculum involves making desirable classroom behaviours explicit to students, showing empathy and respect to students with difficult home lives, and providing timely feedback when expectations have not been met. When that happens, the class can focus more productively on the academic curriculum.