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No. 616, September 7, 2009

Social training and the prefrontal cortex

An important objective in both school and parenthood is giving the next generation social competence by "social training". But how do we really learn to function socially as civilised members of society?

A common view in Sweden is to offer an intense social environment with group activities in school, and preferably also in evenings and on weekends. But we also see rising social problems among our youth.

There is a new paradigm on young people’s social development emerging. Strategies’ favourite educator Gordon Neufeld explains the basic idea.

The ability of the brain to handle mixed feelings has its focus in the prefrontal cortex and is the basis of all social competence. Neufeld calls this the integrative process which entails: simultaneously feeling anger and compassion gives self-control; simultaneously feeling fear and drive results in courage; feeling frustration and consideration at the same time creates patience; to simultaneously contain one’s own viewpoint and the viewpoint of another, gives the prerequisites for collaboration and conflict resolution.

We are not born with this ability, and it cannot be taught. It is the result of maturation. In the best of circumstances this ability will come by the age of 5–7. A four-year-old may say: "I want an apple" and get the reply: "But honey, the apples are finished", but still insist: "But I want to have an apple". A four-year-old seldom has the ability to feel mixed feelings.

In school and adult life this ability is the key in being able to function socially. Without this ability we lack impulse control, get stuck in conflicts, are not be able to take in another viewpoint, or loose ourselves in the group.

Children with serious deficiencies in this area are often given neuropsychiatric diagnosis’ like ADHD. The new knowledge says that more social training will often do them more harm than good.

Instead, here is what is needed to start the process of maturation in the brain:

1) A close emotional attachment with an adult who cares – like a parent.

2) A space where it is safe to feel vulnerable, a place where tears can be shed.

3) Ample room for happiness, curiosity and emergent energy in the child’s life.

In real life this often means less contact with peers and more contact with adults – contrary to common belief in Sweden.

I learned this intuitively when I worked at a treatment home 30 years ago. I connected to the children I was responsible for on a one-to-one basis for an hour a day. This personal contact was often enough to get the maturation process started.

The final "exam" in social training is to be able to successfully be with others without losing the experience of being your own person.

Creative regards! Jonas Himmelstrand


© 2009 Strategies to Learn & Grow Newsletter • Printable version

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