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The Role of Social Development in Elementary School Curricula: Past, Present, and Future

By Tracy Elizabeth, M.A.T., Ed.M., and Robert L. Selman, Ph.D.

This white paper has been reposted with permission from its publisher, Saperstein Associates.

The Name Jar (Choi, 2001) is a picture storybook about Unhei, a young girl who is confronted with a difficult decision when she moves from Korea to the United States: Should Unhei keep her native Korean name, or should she adopt an Americanized name that will be easier for her classmates to pronounce and remember? Unhei’s dilemma challenges elementary grade students to consider the importance of personal identity and to respect the culture of others. This book is one of many published over the past thirty years that address relevant social concerns faced by children. Yet at the same time it promotes the use of complex vocabulary words, deep-comprehension strategies, and basic reading skills. Texts like The Name Jar provide teachers with an opportunity to bridge the teaching of literature, literacy standards, and social skills through discussion and writing activities that are enjoyable and engaging to students.

Despite the ease with which the promotion of social development can be integrated into academic content, the two are rarely presented in a single, well-integrated curriculum. The tension between the teaching of academic-content knowledge and social awareness may cause one to wonder: Is the promotion of social development in schools important? If so, why isn’t it more widely accepted as an integral part of school curricula? In this paper, we explore how the focus of American curricula has shifted over the past several decades—sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically—from an inclusion of prosocial education towards a heavy emphasis on mathematics and literacy. First, however, we provide a working definition of social development that may be promoted in the context of schools. Then, after a review of the educational policy shifts of the past 25 years that have affected the focus of social development in schools, we discuss how social skills can serve as a catalyst for academic success and suggest ways for educators to easily integrate social development into curricular frameworks supported by the recently promulgated Common Core State Standards.

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