CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It's every parent's problem: how to get the kids to get along. Researchers at the University of Illinois report a new approach to strengthen interaction. Table the videotapes and advice books; instead, take the time to teach, demonstrate and practice the right positive social skills.
During the summer of 1995, two groups of young children between the ages of 4 and 6 who had younger siblings at home attended a special program, Fun With Brothers and Sisters. One group simply heard stories and watched videotapes -- the kind commonly found in bookstores and video stores to gain insight on how to improve interaction with younger siblings.
The other group watched live demonstrations of desired social skills for dealing with younger siblings -- such as initiating play, resolving conflict, delaying joint play and considering a younger child's perspective. The children took part in role-playing and were praised when they exhibited warmth toward others during play time. At home, the parents reinforced the laboratory learning.
At summer's end, the behavior of the children in the control group that watched videos worsened. Levels of agonism (making threats or displaying aggressiveness) increased. Children who received the direct instruction and demonstrations showed dramatic improvement in their social skills.
"We were shocked by what we found," said Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies in the department of human and community development. "It's frightening to think that kids in the control group who were exposed to these readily available books and videos got worse over time in their social behavior. In contrast, kids in the experimental group showed increased warmth and decreased rivalry, while their levels of agonism remained stable."
The study, which was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, followed a graduate-level seminar in which Kramer directed an extensive review of academic research and of the popular media where parents normally go for information and advice.
"It became clear that the focus of most previous work was on stopping kids from behaving inappropriately," Kramer said. "I felt that while that was important, there was also a growing literature on the significance of conflict for kids -- that conflict might actually help kids develop some interpersonal skills that might be useful to them. Maybe siblings in our culture are supposed to fight to some extent. Maybe we were on the wrong track in focusing only on trying to get kids to stop fighting."
Former graduate student Chad Radey, now a clinician at Champaign's Centerpoint mental health center, used the seminars' findings and recommendations to organize the study as his master's degree project. The new approach also incorporated previous findings by researchers Gary Ladd and Steven Asher, professors of educational psychology at the U. of I.
The research by Kramer and Radey was published in July in the journal