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How to Be Social: Early-Childhood Edition

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Children, to say it plainly, learn from each other. They imitate one another's actions, language, and appearances. And it begins early.

The new issue of Digital Directions is out, and one of the stories discusses the benefits and drawbacks of virtual kindergarten. The most substantial drawback is the pure societal aspect of wanting children to be around other children; peer interactions help drive social adjustment.

But two caveats. First, of course, is that online learners aren't necessarily always online, and may have plenty of other opportunities to interact, although, presumably, fewer.

Second, though, is that socialization is about more than just socializing. Social interactions are not inherently positive unless you take the approach that everything builds character, and therefore must be positive. Bullying and teasing are forms of socialization.

The type of social interaction matters, and that's just one reason why a new method of socializing children with autism is so interesting. My colleague Sarah D. Sparks has a great story on LEAP schools. LEAP stands for Learning Experiences Alternative Program for Preschoolers and their Parents (though that last part wasn't good enough to make the acronym), and involves teaching young students to model behavior for students in their classes with autism.

"The teachers delegate most tasks during the day to students, to add opportunities in which students must interact with each other: One child may remind classmates to clean up and prepare to change to a new activity; another may ask each student what he or she has brought as a snack and then retrieve it for that classmate."

It's kind of funny that so much research emphasizes the benefits of socialization early in a child's life, and yet it's the start of a process that may also very well end in any number of negative behaviors. It's always a gamble what kind of social interactions a child will have, and what behaviors they'll be exposed to. (Or, to put it another way: "I don't want you hanging around that boy; he's a bad influence.") Studies are clear about the power of peer pressure, and it seems like, to some extent, LEAP schools are capitalizing on that same kind of influence, except in a positive direction, to establish good behavior early.

A longitudinal study of LEAP children is showing that the improvement in children's social skills continues across several years, in contrast to certain other styles of socialization that are adult-driven.

However, LEAP is also $20,000 for two years of teacher training and materials, which isn't exactly cheap. That's probably enough to make schools look before they ... well, you know.

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