As it turns out my Battle-chess days weren’t the best way to make and retain friends in elementary school. However, as social skills become more recognized as developmentally key, the body of research has expanded to give school some guidance as well. This goes beyond group projects to embrace a whole school approach. The National Association of School Psychologists offers several school wide approaches to assist teachers and school administrators to foster inclusive and authentic social skills development in their schools. While there are curricula in a box that work on structured lessons, modalities and plans to address social skills development or specific deficits, being an intentional community often is a good first step in creating an environment that lends itself to social connections. This concept is not a new one in society and community planners have had this idea for decades. For example, one reason that community mailboxes are clustered together is to provide a venue for neighbors to be in the same place at the same time to foster social interaction and a sense of community.
As a teacher of gifted students and exceptional learners, I’ve had the chance to work in a wide variety of schools in the US and abroad. The best structure for increasing social competency can be as simple as the mailbox model. This means providing an environment where interaction between individuals can occur naturally and authentically. One school, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia took a hard look at their physical surroundings and has, in the last several years changed the focus of what the students see in the halls every day. Gone are the large portraits of principals from the early days of the school and displays that fade into the background as students walk by. Candid photos of their kids engaged socially and academically with each other have replaced these stoic portraits. There is a hallway lined with quotes, dreams and photos of members of the 5th grade class. What this has done is two-fold. Firstly, it has placed value on the children at the school and helped to buoy their self-esteem and sense of belonging. Secondly, it has set up a situation where near-peer mentoring and support can exist and fosters conversations about shared values, dreams, goals and ideas as evidenced by conversations in the hallway, in the cafeteria and in the classrooms.