Susan Buchanan, a teaching consultant, says that while the education system tries to ensure that all students develop basic skills in math, science and literacy, there is very little emphasis placed on building soft skills, or emotional intelligence (EQ). - Submitted
By Heather Killen
As the province introduces new approaches to crack down on bullies, it could try ripping a few pages from charm school.
Susan Buchanan, a teaching consultant living near Bridgetown, says that while the education system tries to ensure that all students develop basic skills in math, science and literacy, there is very little emphasis placed on building soft skills, or emotional intelligence (EQ).
These are the social skills that help students to relate to others in their personal lives and, later, in the workplace. Buchanan says that if society wants to create a bully-free world, it can begin by raising people’s EQs.
“Schools are overly concerned about academics,” she said. “I haven’t done long division in about three decades, but I use my manners every day.”
With a background in educational psychology and testing, about 10 years ago Buchanan was working as a high school teacher when she decided to take a different teaching approach with her class.
She assigned them a project that required them to work in teams and noticed her students didn’t have the social skills they needed to collaborate on the assignments. As much as she needed the teaching job, she realized that she couldn’t fulfill the teaching assignment and went home that night in tears.
Making a change
Even though she knew it was a financial risk, she quit her job and began working as an educational consultant, developing classroom resources that could provide students with soft skills to cope with a variety of situations.
Although not currently used in Nova Scotia, her anti-bullying and other resource kits have been used in about 300 communities across North America. This multi-media resource provides training for teachers, students and parents because it takes a village to create a bully-free world, according to Buchanan.
“I think by the time most of get to high school, we have a pretty good idea of the concepts of solids, liquids and gases, “ she said. “But how many of us know what to do if someone is mean to us at work? Bullies don’t just go away after high school.”
Bullying is not something that happens because children lack self-esteem, she says. It’s more often a lack of social graces. If we want to create a more compassionate world, we need to give children the tools they need to face life’s situations head-on and earn their self-esteem.
Buchanan defines bullying as a pre-planned, pre-meditated act to cause someone or something harm. Bullying is about imbalance of power, whether perceived or real.
Poor social skills
“A lot of what we see on the playground is rarely true bullying,” she said. “Most of it is not pre-meditated and it’s caused when someone wants to make friends, but doesn’t know how.”
While true bullying is intended to do harm to another, sometimes children will push others around because they don’t know how to express what they are feeling.
Various inappropriate behaviours are caused by this lack of social skills, she added.
Children can be rough when they tease each other as a sign of affection, or maybe shove in frustration, rather than malice. Buchanan says that if we can teach children how to be assertive and to recognize and express their emotions appropriately, we can build a more compassionate society.
“You can’t just say, ‘bad bully,’ and then send them out in society for the rest of us to deal with,” she added. “It’s fine to tell children, be nice. But what does that mean if they don’t have the skills?”
Expelling students from school for inappropriate behaviour serves to cut them off from positive social interaction and compounds the problem as the child develops. The child feels rejected by society rather than contrite for actions.
She added that too often, children are given “the right” to make choices they are often not ready to make, without being taught that rights usually have responsibilities attached. Choices will result in consequences.
She added one of the big problems classroom teachers face are parents who try to shield their children from the consequences of poor choices. Instead of working with the children to improve a situation, they lash out at the teacher.
“Dr. Spock made us worry about our children’s self-esteem,” she said. “Self-esteem is something that is developed over a lifetime, you can’t give it to a nine-year-old. Instead you give them tools, and the knowledge of right and wrong.”
She added that often parents try to protect children from difficult, or challenging circumstances and consequences, but overcoming adversity is how people develop character and build self-esteem.
“Every time you meet disappointment head-on, it builds self-esteem,” she said. “People who have done their homework along the way and are living well in middle age have built good self-esteem. It takes a lifetime to acquire that and people want to give it to eight, or nine year olds? You can’t do it, so you give them tools to build character instead.”
Buchanan offers workshops and teaching resources for students in all grades that teach how to recognize the difference between someone who intends harm, and one who lacks the social graces.
The components teach children how to give and receive apologies, how to join conversations and how to ask for help. The course also teaches possible strategies children can use to avoid being harmed.
Her resource kits are tailored for students in each age group, from Primary to senior high school, and offer real-life situations for kids to talk about. It could be what do you do if someone wants to fight with you, or someone kicks your bike.
She also offers other workshops to teach grown-ups how to cope with grief, or family violence, or stress and burnout.