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New study aims to help children develop better social skills

* 15 September 2003 *

New study aims to help children develop better social skills

A major research project by University of Sussex psychologists is being used in Brighton primary schools to identify and help children who are rejected by their peers.

More than 330 children are involved in the three-year project, which is being funded by Brighton and Hove City Council and will be used to create classroom activities to develop better social skills.

Dr Robin Banerjee, a developmental psychologist leading the research, says the point of the study is to spot the children who are having difficulties before their problems become major. He says the first year's findings give an important indication of how these problems persist.

 "The children who were rejected by their peers at the beginning of the year were still rejected at the end of the year. Yet when we looked at how they felt about themselves, we found they were often the most socially anxious. Others found them aggressive and their behaviour unacceptable, but they had little idea how to improve their peer status."

The response so far from teachers and educators has been highly positive, he says. "The demands of the academic curriculum mean that schools and teachers are often not able to focus so much on the social context of schools. But children's peer interactions do have an effect on their academic performance."

Dr Banerjee, together with research fellow Dawn Watling and eight researchers, is working with local school children (with ages ranging from five to ten), who attend Whitehawk Primary, Moulescoomb Primary, Carden Primary, Our Lady of Lourdes Primary, Middle Street Primary, Somerhill Junior and Downs Junior. "These schools have all shown an interest in peer relationships," explains Dr Banerjee.

The children, who work with a computer interface, are seen three times during the course of each year. They are asked to identify their classroom friends, and are then given various story scenarios with a set of questions. Their responses give the researchers data not just about the child's behaviour, but also how they think and feel about their world.

During the first year the researchers found that, across the entire group of children, 14% were rated as popular by their classmates, 14% were neglected (neither liked, nor disliked) 12% were rejected (given negative responses), 6.8% fell into a 'controversial' category (whereby they receive many positive and negative responses), and the rest (53%) were classified as average.

The results are being fed back to Brighton and Hove City Council educational psychologists, led by Bob Daines and Hass Yilmaz, who are devising activities teachers can introduce in class to help children discover more appropriate modes of behaviour.  Bob Daines, working with teachers in Brighton and Hove schools, has already developed a preliminary 'Emotional Literacy Curriculum', which involves small-group and whole-class activities that allow children to explore their thoughts and feelings about peer interactions through drama, writing, art, and discussion. The university is due to hold a conference about the research project next spring.

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