From Addressing Barriers to Learning,
Vol. 1 (3), Summer, 1996

Safe Schools: Enhancing Motivation for Interpersonal Problem Solving

Safe schools, violence prevention, conflict reduction -- all are of major concerns in addressing barriers to learning. One response to these concerns are the many programs to improve interpersonal functioning and problem solving -- including a variety of "social skills training" approaches.

How promising are programs for training social skills? Reviewers are cautiously optimistic, but outcomes tend to be limited to what is specifically learned and to situations in which skills are learned. Moreover, the behaviors learned usually are maintained only for a short period. This is the case for (a) training specific behaviors, such as teaching what to think and say in a given situation, and (b) strategies to develop specific cognitive or affective skills, such as how to generate a wider range of options to solve interpersonal problems.

As with other skill training strategies, these limitations seem to result from a failure to understand the implications of recent theory and research on human motivation. Improving relationships among students and between students and school staff requires a major emphasis on translating ideas about enhancing intrinsic motivation into practice. All interpersonal problem solving training programs need to include a systematic emphasis on enhancing motivation to avoid and overcome interpersonal problems, as well as facilitating the learning of skills for doing so. In this respect, it also is important to remember that

  1. not all problems with social functioning are indications that a person lacks social skills;

  2. assessment of social skill deficiencies is best accomplished after efforts are made (a) to minimize environmental factors causing interpersonal problems and (b) to maximize a student's motivation for coping effectively with such problems;

  3. regular teaching and remedial strategies to improve skills for social functioning are best accomplished in interaction with systematic strategies to enhance motivation (a) for avoiding and overcoming interpersonal problems and (b) for continuing to apply social skills.

Some steps in addressing motivation to overcome interpersonal problems are outlined in the shaded box. As indicated, a general problem solving sequence is used. Small group instruction is favored because it provides a social context for learning about social matters; however, as an initial step, some youngsters may have to be worked with individually.

Recognizing that both motivational readiness and developmental capabilities must be accommodated, the following guidelines are stressed:

It is unlikely that any program to make schools safer will achieve its objectives without incorporating a sophisticated, systematic approach to enhancing students' intrinsic motivation to solve interpersonal conflicts. Skills are necessary, but insufficient, and often are not the problem in the first place.

The work of Ed Deci provides a fine review of the literature on intrinsic motivation with a discussion of applications for educational and psychological practice. For example, see E.L. Deci and R.M. Ryan (1985), Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

A Few References on Making Schools Safe

Hathaway, J. (Ed) (1996). Safe schools: Policies and practice. Education and Urban Society, (entire August issue).
Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (1995). Why violence prevention programs don't work and what does. Educational Leadership, 52, 63-67.
La Cerva, V. (1996). Pathways to peace: Forty steps to a less violent America. Tesque, NM: Heartsongs Publications.
Bey, T.M. & Turner, G.Y. (1995). Making school a place of peace. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press.

In its Practicing Administration Leadership Series, Corwin Press offers several, concise works relevant to safe schools.

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