Monday, June 8, 2015

ENHANCING SOCIAL SUPPORT IN THE CLASSROOM

In the past decade, there has been a greater emphasis on social-emotional learning, apart from academic abilities, in schools. Social-emotional learning involves developing of social and emotional competence in students that has a positive influence on their mental health.
Having a sense of social support is a major aspect of social-emotional learning. Social support refers to the feeling or experience of being cared, helped, esteemed, and valued by others, and that one belongs to a supportive social network. Social support has been found to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It is also beneficial for an individual’s physical health.
The school environment can be stressful for students. Because of this many schools have been trying to create an environment in the classroom in which students can develop a sense of social support.
A good way of developing and enhancing social support in the classroom is to encourage proper social interaction among students.  For this, many classrooms have a sociopetal arrangement, that is, the seats are arranged in such a manner that students are facing each other. Usually this is done by placing seats in a circle/oval or in a semi-circle.
In sociopetal arrangements, facing each other in a classroom, students get more opportunities to interact with each other. It enables classroom discussions to occur appropriately and it helps to make the class highly interactive, which further creates a friendly environment.
Another very common way of enhancing social support, which may be facilitated by the sociopetal arrangement, is getting students involved in group tasks/assignments. These group activities provide more opportunities for students to interact with each other and help in developing skills like collaboration and cooperation.
A great emphasis on group activities also goes in line with the concept of group emotional intelligence. Group emotional intelligence refers to the ability of a group to generate a shared set of norms that manage the emotional process in a way that builds trust, group identity, and group efficacy.
A group with high emotional intelligence creates a positive cycle through the norms it develops to influence the emotional process. Thus, group activities not just help in enhancing social support but it also enhances group emotional intelligence. Higher the group emotional intelligence the better it will be for the individuals (students) belonging to that group.
These simple methods have been found to be effective in enhancing social support, but they are accompanied with some underlying issues that are of major concern and are something that cannot be ignored. As mentioned above, these methods encourage social interaction. Therefore, they are situations that are highly socially stimulating. These highly socially stimulating situations can be discomforting for many type of people. There are specific types of people such as introverts and shy individuals that due to their physiological structure feel uncomfortable in situations that are socially stimulating.
Introverts like to keep to themselves. They prefer solitary activities and like to have limited social interactions. Introverts have a high level of brain arousal (specifically, in the area known as the reticular activating system), which causes them to have a low threshold for social stimulation. This low threshold for stimulation means that introverts are highly sensitive and get easily aroused by their surroundings.
A situation that can be highly socially arousing such as when social interaction is encouraged to enhance social support can cause a lot of discomfort to introverts. Due to introverts being highly sensitive in social situations, they prefer to be in situations that are less socially stimulating, and thus, are more involved in solitary activities or situations that require very limited social interactions.
Like introverts, shy individuals face a lot of discomfort in situations that are socially stimulating. Shy people have an anxious temperament and experience anxiety in social situations. The reason for this is that people who are shy have an overly sensitive amygdala. The amygdala is the seat of emotions and is responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction. It is a part of the limbic system, which is the brain area that prepares an individual to respond to threat and novelty in the environment.
The amygdala, when stimulated, triggers the nervous system to freeze and assess the situation and then tells the rest of the body either to stay calm or avoid the situation. When the amygdala is overly-sensitive, it determines that there is reason for fear, which can cause anxiety. For shy individuals, who have an overly-sensitive amygdala, a regular and routine social situation may seem to be fearful and cause anxiety.
In the case of introverts and shy individuals, therefore, a situation in which social interaction is facilitated, such as a sociopetal arrangement or group activities, may not be very appropriate. In such situations these people feel uncomfortable, which may inhibit their performance. Due to their discomfort in such situations, they may not be able to perform to their full potential.
Introverts, contrary to popular belief, form a large part of the population. Similarly, the prevalence of shyness is a lot more than it is actually believed to be. The sociopetal arrangement and group tasks turn out to be insensitive to introverts and shy individuals. These methods do not cater to their needs, which is being in situations in which they can perform to the best of their abilities; a situation in which they do not feel uncomfortable.
Apart from being inappropriate for introverts and shy individuals, group tasks, in themselves can have certain issues. It has been found that group activities inhibit creativityYears of research has shown that creativity is best expressed in isolation. When individuals are by themselves, have their own time, and can work at their own pace without any pressure, only then they can be better at creativity. In a group, a number of ideas can be generated, but they do not always turn out to be useful. Research suggests that the best of scientific innovations and the best ideas have been generated when individuals were in isolation.
Group activities/tasks involve a lot of collective decision making. Research shows that group decision making may not always be effective and that there are ways in which individual decision making is advantageous over group decision making. There are times when the group’s decision making may be forced by one individual or a couple of members in the group. The effectiveness of the group may also suffer if the dominant individuals, along whom the whole group sways, are relatively incompetent.
Further, group decisions take more time as a lot of dialogue and discussion is involved. Additionally, this discussion and dialogue may not always necessarily be very stimulating and focused. It may lead to diverting from the main issues and many a times might give rise to conflicts within the group, in all affecting the group performance in a negative manner.
A number of group processes hamper the performance and productivity of groups. Individuals often experience conformity while being in a group. They sometimes are compelled to go along with a group, neglecting their own views and perspectives. They act in such way that their behavior fits within their group, usually, in order to not feel out of place.
Some members, while being in a group, might feel evaluation apprehension. Evaluation apprehension is the concern of being evaluated and judged in a negative manner. Due to this, individuals may not express their views, and may unwillingly go along with the group. They might feel conscious about expressing themselves and thus, are unable to perform to their full potential. This may also occur while in a sociopetal arrangement, when individuals know that their actions are easily being viewed by others.
The mere presence of others also can make a person not perform up to his/her true potential. This is called social inhibition. The presence of others might lead individuals to inhibit their performance. The person might feel restrained in the presence of others, might become very conscious, and might lack a certain level of confidence when being in the presence of others.
In group activities, many a times, people also go through what is referred to as social loafing. Social loafing is the tendency to put in less effort while working together in a group. Individuals might think that others are putting in a lot of effort and thus, it will not matter much if they put in less effort. Due to this, all members of the group do not always put in their maximum effort, which may result in a less effective performance.     
Group tasks also seem to violate an individual’s personal space. While working on a task, in a classroom, students like to have their own private space. Working in a group, with constant interference from others or simply finding the surroundings to be crowded does not provide them with that privacy. They always feel themselves to be under a scanner and due to that work under a constant pressure.
Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking and co-founder of Quiet Revolution, an organization that works for the empowerment of introverts, has given an alternative of group tasks/assignments. This alternative helps in dealing with all the issues regarding enhancing social support in the classroom.
Instead of making students work in groups, Susan Cain has suggested that they should be made to sit in pairs. This suggestion was made by her specifically keeping introverts in mind. However, it can be very well used in dealing with all the other issues.
Introverts, as mentioned above, due to their physiological make up, feel uncomfortable in highly socially stimulating situations. Sitting in pairs does not put them in a social situation that is highly stimulating, yet gives them good opportunities to interact with others. Similarly, shy individuals will not feel very fearful when sitting in pairs as even though they will have to interact with someone else, it will still not be very discomforting for them.
Sitting in pairs will automatically take care of all the aforementioned group processes that affect performance in a negative manner. It will also give individuals enough private space in which they could work without any pressure and enable them to express their creativity to the maximum.
Apart from making students sit in pairs, students of similar personality traits can be made to interact and work together. A lot of researches suggest that similarity helps in developing better interpersonal relationships. Within this, trait similarity has been found to be most effective.
Individuals with similar personality traits are like-minded, behave in a similar manner, have similar beliefs, and are more likely to have similar ideas. Making students interact with other students of similar traits will provide them a very comforting, friendly, and enthusiastic environment to work in. It will create an environment for cooperation and collaboration among the students.
Students in such a situation will be able to easily express their ideas, they will not feel inhibited, and will feel very relaxed. It will facilitate proper social interaction and develop good interpersonal skills, which will lead to being both recipients and providers of social support.
However, this should be done only for a specific time period so that the students do not become accustomed to interact with individuals who only have similar traits. They should be gradually made to intermingle with individuals of dissimilar traits as well, once they develop proper interpersonal skills. This will help them to advance their interpersonal skills and will enable to further enhance social support.
A classroom having a socially supportive environment is highly significant for students who are constantly at the receiving end of various sources of stress. However, it should be kept in mind that a classroom has all kinds of individuals, each having their own needs and their own comfort level. Further, the existing approaches used in classrooms need to be critically evaluated and all the underlying issues should be taken into consideration before their application.
Social support is very significant for both mental and physical health. Encouraging proper social interaction facilitates social support. This encouragement of social interaction needs to be done in an appropriate manner, keeping in view various perspectives and issues. The use of appropriate methods to ease social interaction will enable proper development and enhancement of social support in the classroom.

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