Fostering Social Skills in Ethnic Diversity Through Inclusive Classroom Practices
There is ample evidence showing that social cohesion is a crucial factor in achieving sustainable economic development and prosperity. A cohesive society is a society that possesses a good collective character supported by the well-developed social skills of its members. Social skills refer to a wide range of individual characteristics that govern social interactions, including trust, reciprocity, and cooperation. Together, these skills form social capital to communicate effectively with others, engage in ethical economic interactions, and work together for common goals. Achieving social cohesion faces enormous challenges in ethnically diverse communities. Given the recent migratory flows and what is expected in the future due to climate-related events, it is crucial to think carefully about designing and implementing inclusive social policies that will protect and benefit all members of society.
Public education represents an obvious policy route in this regard. The childhood period is critical for the development of cognitive and socio-cognitive skills as it is the period when neuroplasticity of the brain is at its highest. There is now ample evidence suggesting that educational interventions targeting children’s socio-emotional skills may have long-lasting impacts on individual outcomes and collective outcomes related to social cohesion and intergroup relations. Given that the opportunities to develop such skills are limited for children of low-income families, the curricular and pedagogical school inputs are especially valuable for them. For these children, schools represent the only opportunity to develop social and emotional skills and learn how to form healthy social relationships.
This project aims to advance our understanding of how the school environment shapes our collective character as a community, influences the way we interact with out-groups, and develops essential social skills that form our social capital. The focus of the project will be on the role of teachers in a context where classroom ethnic diversity is salient. The team is particularly interested in (i) the role of pedagogy and teaching practices in shaping children’s social skills and peer relationships and in generating/reinforcing the differential developments of these skills across immigrant and native children, and (ii) designing a cost-effective pedagogical intervention that aims for teachers to adopt inclusive classroom practices to foster key social skills to improve peer relationships, with a particular focus on inter-ethnic interactions.
The pedagogical intervention will target socioeconomically disadvantaged children in Italian primary schools with a significant presence of migrant students. It will be implemented as a teacher training program. The content of the program will be developed by the partner (the team of Prof. Zanetti at the Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences of the University of Pavia). The program (DEvelopment of Social Skills: DESS) will have a specific focus on adopting inclusive classroom practices with the purpose of developing key social skills. It will build on two programs designed and implemented over the past five years in six European countries by a network of European universities. DESS will be randomly assigned at the school level. Teachers in treated schools will receive pedagogical training along with a toolkit to adopt inclusive teaching practices during the school year.
The team will implement this pedagogical program using a randomized controlled design and evaluate it with respect to a wide range of outcomes that are fundamental to the economic and social wellbeing of children. For this, they plan to work with 100 primary schools in peripheral areas in the city of Milan. The key outcomes of interest will be collected through surveys, incentivized experiments, and socio-cognitive tests. They will collect data on children (i.e., prosocial behaviors and attitudes, bullying and victimization, and ethnic bias), parents and teachers (i.e., attitudes, beliefs, practices, and parenting/teaching styles) both at baseline and endline. Children’s school performance will be measured through Italian administrative data provided by the Ministry of Education and the National Evaluation Center (INVALSI). The results of this project will generate much-needed evidence to identify inclusive pedagogical practices and therefore design effective educational policies to build social cohesion in ethnically mixed schools.