Theoretical Concepts

Almost everything we do involves either interacting with other persons or inhibiting interactions with other persons. If we fail to follow the often unspoken rules about these interactions, the consequences will be clear: others will judge us to be social incompetent [Peter, etal 1998].

Social competence has a major impact on the ability to form trust relationships that are fundamental to all types of social interaction. Social competence and the resultant social affiliation has both an individual and a collective social impact. While public schools can certainly not take responsibility for the entire cultural capacity for social affiliation, they can and should take a formal responsibility for the social competence of those they teach.

In order to be socially competent, a child will need to have:

Self-Awareness: Knowing what s/he is feeling at the moment; having a realistic assessment of his/her own abilities and a well-grounded sense of self-confidence.

Social Awareness: Sensing what other are feeling: being able to take their perspective; appreciating and interacting positively with diverse groups.

Self-Management Handling emotions so they facilitate rather than interfere with the task at hand; being conscientious and delaying gratification to pursue goals; persevering in the face of setbacks and frustration.

Emotionally Balanced Relationships: Handling emotions effectively in relationships; establishing and maintaining mutually satisfying and gratifying relationships; resistance to inappropriate social pressure, negotiating solutions to conflict and seeking help when needed.

Responsible Decision Making: Accurately assessing risks, making decisions based on a consideration of all relevant factors and the likely consequences of alternative courses of action, respecting others and taking person responsibilities for one’s decisions.

Unfortunately almost all efforts to deal with the outcomes of social incompetence, which include mental health issues, substance abuse as well as antisocial, violent and juvenile delinquent acts have been reactive, rather than proactive. Thinking, feeling and acting are the three mediating factors of social competence. Historically, the focus has been on the behavior aspect. The problems of focusing on these external interventions are apparent.

Serious antisocial behavior in children and adolescents constitutes a significant problem in children’s mental health services and may be one of the most serious public health challenges in American society” [Earls, 1989; Prinz & Miller, 1991]. In fact aggressive and violent behaviors, whether identified as mental health issues or not, are increasing among children in America. “Although many children and adolescents occasionally exhibit aggressive and sometimes antisocial behaviors in the course of development, an alarming increase is taking place in the significant number of youth who confront their parents, teachers, and schools with persistent threatening and destructive behaviors” [Rutherford, Jr. & Nelson, 1995].

While the advent of Goleman’s book [Emotional I.Q.] has raised interest in affective aspects, a person’s feelings are very difficult, if not impossible to change. The primary focus, therefore, is on teaching children to learn to act differently when their emotions run rampant; rather than addressing how to change the way you feel. While anger, sadness and fear are normal emotions and have an evolutionary purpose, they can be terribly concerning in modern society. Because of the changes in environment, the emotion is often not helpful and, in fact, can become a chronic problem. To suggest that a person who is in a rage should control his anger and therefore his behavior is a virtually impossible task.

The overlooked factor is thought. It is thought that creates fear and anger. A stimulus occurs and the person interprets that experience, and it is the interpretation that engenders the feeling. If I interpret a sarcastic remark as a joke as opposed to an insult, I have a very different emotional response. What is being proposed is that an SEL education can help children interpret experiences more rationally and with more flexibility – creating a resilient personality that is capable of enduring relationships.

This proposal seeks to prevent social incompetence through a process of helping children acquire life long skills that will increase in value over time. Because we are interested in all children, schools are the ideal setting for teaching such skills in modern society.

In order to address this learning process, the planners posit a fundamental assumption that people are the sum total of what they think. This assumption is predicated on the fact that thought influences emotions and emotions influence behaviors. We posit further that people will only behave differently when their thoughts change. Thus, the primary premise of this proposal is that we can change the way children think about themselves, others

The components of the model being proposed include dealing with three factors outline by Meichenbaum:

overt behaviors referring to directly observable behaviors, or what the individual does both verbally and nonverbally in an interpersonal context;

cognitive processes referring to the automatic thoughts and images (self-statements, expectancies, appraisals, etc.) that precede, accompany, and follow overt behaviors, as well as the thinking skills and styles of information processing that the individual employs in social situations; and

cognitive structures which refers to the individual’s meaning system [theory of meaning, model of the world, world view, etc.], which provides motivation and direction for both thought and behavior. The core beliefs of this meaning system are concerned with thoughts about self, thoughts about others [including projected thoughts about what others think about oneself] and thoughts about future prospects.

Historically, the focus has been on overt behavior. However, the only direct methods available to us are external methods: we will shape the environment to reinforce what we would like to see happen. Such positive reinforcement actually works, if the reward is sufficient and if there are not thoughts and feelings that interfere. Failure of such external methods, either because of implementation problems or thought orientation, often lead to force and coercion. Furthermore, as an external process, such efforts do nothing to teach the skills necessary to create internal responsibility, self-confidence and self-affirmation that is necessary for competence.

Our awareness is the end product of an immensely complicated and imperfectly understood process taking place in the central nervous system. What reaches our brain via the nervous system is not a meaningful picture of freestanding objects, but a deluge of nerve impulses. The framework of ordinary reality is made of our assumptions and expectations, our desires and fears.

The angry dwell in a world of enemies;

the ambitious, in a world of opportunities; and

the fearful in a world of threats.

These are not just ‘attitudes’ – they actually determine, to a large extent, our very perceptions. From this experience, we create ourselves and our own reality.

The socially incompetent child has much going on which leads to the overt behaviors whether they are bizarre or antisocial. There is an ‘inner logic’ which drives the process. The organizing of neural impulses into a meaningful experiential world is controlled by our beliefs and motivations. Out thoughts, are not merely commentary on these neural impulses, but are neural impulses in themselves, and therefore are a part of the input to the organizational content. Our beliefs are not random. They form a map of reality that informs us of what is possible and impossible, both for ourselves and the world we live in. This web of assumptions has various names in the human sciences – maps or models of the world, worldview or theory of meaning.

Humans are the tool-using species. And our most valuable tool is our theory of meaning. Without a theory of meaning to inform the experience building machinery about which stimuli to weave into the picture and which to ignore, individuals cannot organize their own actions. And, when the brain senses that the person is disoriented and helpless, it pulls the alarm. The result: fear – which can be reinterpreted as anger, sadness, and the like.

The infant is therefore driven to acquire a worldview, to quell the craving for meaning and control to reduce anxiety. The basic assumptions of this worldview are usually absorbed from the parents [accurately or inaccurately]. These beliefs are reinforced throughout childhood by the processes of socialization. It is important to note that we take in the basic features of the worldview early in life. The foundations of belief about the cosmos, society, body and self are laid even before we fully learn to speak. Throughout life, these primordial convictions will remain impossible to express – and therefore impossible to question. Howard Gardner terms them intuitive [naive or natural] understanding. He emphasizes that these understandings are often immature, misleading, or fundamentally misconceived.

In the child’s experience, there two options: s/he can embrace the worldview of the culture or suffer the anxious chaos of refusing to do so. The only worldview known to the child will quickly take on an aura of absolute reality, if the only known alternative is meaninglessness. The parental worldview, at least as it is interpreted by the child, thus can acquire the mantle of unquestionable truth.

Later in life, a person might challenge some of the details of their theory of meaning, trading them in for other beliefs; but the most fundamental, deeply buried assumptions continue, unnoticed, to sculpt the awareness in, and of, their own image. This need for change suggests that a theory of meaning requires some flexibility to adapt to changing circumstance. The person must have methods of preserving the theory from disintegration in the face of challenges. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget discussed two main mechanisms by which the worldview deals with new information. He called these processes assimilation and accommodation. Via these twin processes, we navigate our daily lives, either conforming our experience to our assumptions [assimilation] or changing our beliefs to absorb new facts [accommodation].

Our reaction to novelty – whether we assimilate, accommodate or simply ignore – is affected by the responses of those around us. One of the most powerful clues available to us about the reality we share with others is what those others tell us about it. Thus, if everyone else in the group agrees to the status quo, the observer who glimpsed an anomaly will usually convince him/herself that s/he did not see it. The conventions of culture stabilize an individual’s awareness from two direction: from within, via the theory of meaning and from without, via social influences.

An examination of the social competence literature indicates that much of the research has focused on the nature of the individual’s overt behavior. It has been noted that the nature and frequency of behavior patterns is often used to define social competence. One project suggested that social competence was reflected in the manner in which children secured adult attention and how they utilized adults as resources. Other behaviors found to reflect children’s social competence were the ability to express hostility and affection towards peers, to lead and follow peers.

However, it was Meichenbaum’s contention, and it is ours, that a focus on overt behaviors per se is a necessary, but not sufficient defining characteristic of social competence. We must also take into account the role of individual’s thoughts and cognitions in any definition of social competence. It is to these cognitive processes that we now turn.

Cognitive processes include the diversity of thoughts and styles of information processing that occur when an individual is confronted with in a social situation. These include the internal dialogue that accompanies behavior and reflects the individual’s thoughts and feelings about the situation and/or him/herself, the expectancies with which the individual approaches the situation and his or her appraisal of situational or personal outcomes, as well as the amount and nature of the social information that the individual possesses about the situation. The proposed model suggests that some form of cognitive processing takes place in all social situations. Because of the process of habituation, expectancies or thoughts that subtly control behavior are not particularly salient for the individual at the time but can be brought into awareness and captured by a variety of cognitive techniques.

On the other hand, they can be changed without conscious awareness if a novel construct is supplied and then habituated which is more satisfying and gratifying than the old thoughts. The process of ‘seeding’ the educational environment with constructs which are both novel and prosocial is the underlying universal1 aspect of the SEL prevention process.

As we use the term ‘cognitive structures’ in the proposal of prevention through social competence, we are trying to account for the motivation, direction, and organization of social behavior. We want to use such a construct in order to understand why individuals differ in their responses to the same environmental stimuli [i.e., in their expectancies, appraisals of outcomes, and in their social behavior]. We also wish to use this concept to explain why a particular individual may show the same type of response to apparently dissimilar events. By invoking the present conceptualization of cognitive structures, we are seeking to understand why such individual differences may occur.

The conception of cognitive structure that we have chosen to focus upon is what we call the individual’s ‘meaning system’ or theory of meaning. As we have indicated earlier, it is our suggestion that any given social situation may hold a somewhat different meaning for each individual. For example, a child may see a test as a chance to impress or a distressing opportunity for failure. S/he may ‘decide’ that s/he is dumb or brilliant based on her core beliefs about self, others and future prospects which have been created through the process of linking neural impulses into patterns of meaning.

The meaning that individuals attach to general social settings (like school), as well as to specific social interactions within those settings, are part of a broader network of concerns or goals that determines what are important issues in the individual’s life and the position s/he takes in relation to them. These concerns may vary in intensity (how important or central they are) and in valence (positive or negative). An individual will normally have a multiplicity of concerns, some of which support and others that compete with one another, in situations that the individual encounters. In any given situation with which the individual is confronted (e.g., a performance situation), the overall meaning that s/he attaches to the situation will determine whether s/he will participate, what aspects of the situation s/he will attend and respond to, how intense the involvement will be, and the general positive or negative orientation of thought and behavior in that situation.

In short, the individual’s meaning system holds the blueprints for both thinking and behavior. The meaning system functions with an ‘inner logic’ to set behavior in motion, to guide the choice and direction of particular sequences of thought and behavior, and to determine their continuation, interruption or change of direction. In a complex chain of events, the meaning that an individual attaches to a social situation functions to influence his or her expectancies and appraisals of outcomes, to set in motion the internal dialogue that reflects the individual’s feelings about the situation or his or her attempts to cope, to determine the employment or nonemployment of social cognitive skills such as problem solving or role taking, and to influence the social behavior that the individual emits in any social interaction.

Finally, the hierarchy of thoughts that occur in the mental network are ‘chunked’ into interrelated networks often called schemata. We have certain ways to thinking about everyday things such as a restaurant. If the waiter came up to you as a customer and asked if you would prefer to sing, you first response is likely to be to ask him to repeat the question, for surely this does not fit your restaurant schema. Note that the schema sets a barrier as to what the person may even perceive in a certain context. Often when we are met by a blank look, we are operating in a schema that is different from the one in which the other person is operating. Sometimes the switching of schema can be helpful in ‘reframing’ a meaning, as it changes the context in which the person is thinking about the subject. Thus, describing failure as a positive form of feedback may take some time for a child who mourns failure to absorb, but it gives a clearly different way for the child to think about the issue. In a similar fashion, asking a teacher whether s/he thinks discipline is a noun or a verb – sets up a potential shift away from discipline as punishment – a verb – “I must discipline this child” – to training – “I must teach this child discipline” – a noun.

Douglas Hofstadter in his book, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, explores just how flexible the human mind can be in making these kinds of switches. Yet we know that people with severe and persistent problems in living are more rigid and less flexible than people with high social competence. So this flexibility is something that we want to encourage. Some researchers are concerned with the ‘demand characteristics’ that occur in this process. Demand characteristics are described as the multiple cues, salient or covert that lead the recipient to want to ‘please the researcher or counselor’ and lead to outcomes where clients describe their problems from the counseling perspective of the counselor. Changing counselors leads to a new way to describe the problem. In essence, the very communication of the counselor or researcher biases the sample.

While this is of course true, it begs the issue, since all communication carries the same demand characteristics. Part of the reason that a child may believe that s/he is worthless is that s/he has picked up these thoughts in a patterned way from those around him/her. Nonetheless, there is ultimately a selection of the belief. What we find is that people will believe what works and if two possible beliefs both work, they will accept the one that is most satisfying and gratifying. While being worthless may account for the world around you, the world around you can change if I can supply you with a different meaning. It is true that this give significant power to the counselor and if mishandled, can lead to enabling people to believe things that in the long run are not good for him/her. But let us not ignore the messages contained in everyday life, in medication, in traditional interventions. All send messages that are usually not as balanced and rational as the approach embodied in cognitive behavior management.

David Grove is exploring other ways to enable people to change their metaphors [or meanings] through the use of what he calls ‘clean language’. Further explorations in this direction may improve cognitive behavior management by motivating people with problems in living to create their own analogies and metaphors for dealing with the world, while at the same time encouraging them to identify and change distressing ideas. So far, only the ‘clean language’ and Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory have addressed the demand characteristic issues, but it is a direction in which cognitive behavior management is likely to move.

1Universal preventive interventions target the general public or a whole population group that has not been identified on the basis of individual risk. Exemplars include prenatal care, childhood immunization, and school-based competence enhancement programs. Because universal programs are positive, proactive, and provided independent of risk status, their potential for stigmatizing participants is minimized and they may be more readily accepted and adopted. 

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