Curriculum, Engagement, School Community, Teaching

Teaching People Skills

Why interpersonal communication belongs on the curriculum

I work in an alternative school setting with students whose lives are complicated by emotional turmoil, substance abuse, anxiety and other mental health issues. They are typically referred to as “at-risk” students. They do not do well in school partly because their desires do not comply with the primary mandate of schooling, which is the development of a capable workforce able to participate successfully in society as economically productive citizens.1 Yet many of them desire an education, because a high school diploma has become an essential prerequisite to basic survival in a consumer society.

The development of healthy beings capable of contending with the emotional vagaries of living is peripheral to the primary goal of schooling. Yet in discussions with my colleagues, we agreed that one of the most outstanding difficulties our students have is in dealing with human relationships, particularly when in conflict. They tend to lack the interpersonal skills that are essential for success in school, in work and in life.

Typically, in our classrooms, students work independently on the different credits they need to accumulate toward graduation. We decided that we could enrol the entire class of students in a single course which had, in its curriculum, components of ontological development. In doing so we would be able to have students work as a communal group on various problems that fulfilled other curriculum goals. More important to our purpose was the ability to create an environment in which the students would feel safe in confronting previously uncomfortable social development issues.

Recognizing the human need while respecting our duty to the social mandate and credit integrity created complications. There are very few courses in the standard curriculum that encompass aspects of human development that include communication and dealing with conflict, or that address the process of learning, with all its psychological and emotional influences. Further, students typically do not want to spend time on programs of a more developmental nature. Such programs are not given social value within school culture, even though the skills they develop are recognized as essential to social success. Within this paradoxical dynamic, we searched for courses that had ontologically developmental aspects as core learning. Through these courses, students would be able to move toward graduation while discovering who they were and how to relate to others.

The three courses that offered the best fit were: General Learning Strategies, Managing Personal Resources, and Managing Personal and Family Resources. These courses have some ontologically developmental aspects embedded within their curricula, offering the opportunity to further develop these aspects without threatening their integrity within the system.

These courses are not recognized by most students as essential to their future goals.

However, many of our students don’t care what credits they get: they just want to accumulate enough credits to get out of school. They accept that getting their high school education is important, but they are not engaged in the process of schooling. Ironically, this is one of the conditions that made it possible to offer the courses we used in this study. For students motivated by the “snatch and grab” mentality of credit accumulation, they would work while allowing us to explore the value of meeting ontologically developmental needs.


We ran separate courses each semester, as some students continued with us from one semester to the next. We all used Tribes – an approach to the classroom as a learning community developed by Jeanne Gibbs and Teri Ushijima2 – to develop an environment in which students felt safe about sharing and reflecting on learning. Students learn how to work with the topics of their courses in an environment that respects them as individual learners. Being newer to the Tribes model, and at the suggestion of a colleague, I invited a program called Peer Power to lead group sessions so that I could learn through observation and participation.

Peer Power, provided through Saint Leonard’s Community Services of London (Ont.) and Region, uses a model exactly like Tribes. Saint Leonard’s supports schools implementing Restorative Justice. Peer Power engages students through an experiential and activity-based model. The activities raise issues of communication and conflict in a safe communal environment. The representative who ran our sessions had a calm, easy way with our students. She addressed issues as they arose. If two students had an issue with each other she would calmly acknowledge the tension and ask if there was something we needed to talk about before we continued. She was always ready to listen. When students said things that were questionable, they were responded to in a non-judgmental way: “We don’t do things that way, but everyone handles things differently.”

The content was central to the courses we were working on, so it was possible to assess students on their interactions in the Peer Power circle connected with topics we had been learning in class. The Peer Power experience gave the students an expert model of the kinds of things we were hoping to achieve in the course. It also offered me information on how better to run my own sessions, as what I was trying was out of my comfort zone.

In my class, the desk arrangement was changed so that the students formed an inward-facing shape around an open central area. My colleagues, working in separate classrooms across our board, used similar “community circles.” We also sometimes used a boardroom formation for meetings in which students made decisions about the direction of the course. The boardroom formation provided a glimpse at another social situation in which communication and respect was essential.

Students were given curriculum documents to determine what they had to know and do to meet curriculum expectations. Assignments had some aspect of group participation within them. Each assignment had to do with self-knowledge and how to interact with others. Communication and self-discovery were important to earning these credits.

Discussion of results

Our students, for the most part, enjoyed the activities included in the group courses. Those who did not – because they were made more uncomfortable by having to interact with a group – were the very students in whom we saw the greatest amount of positive change. That they learned the material was evidenced in their marks on assessments. Those who did poorly overall did not attend or did not complete all of the work. We believe the more important indicator was in students’ attitude to being in class and their demeanour. At our site we saw two very self-conscious boys bravely get up and do a presentation when they might just as easily have skipped that day. Another student opened up about the things that were going on in his life and agreed to meet with a psychologist, but only in our space. Previous attempts at the school to get this boy to speak with someone had not been successful.

There is obvious value to including interpersonal communication and personal self-awareness in the educational curriculum. I have witnessed the value of providing a learning environment where students can explore their doubts and assertions and have their opinions respected, even if we don’t all agree. Granted, the structures we put in place this year nowhere near met our vision. I had hoped, for example, to have students have more responsibility in planning learning experiences. However, our experience in using these courses has demonstrated some real success with some truly hard-to-serve students.

Disciplines can act as anchor points from which to explore more poignant issues. We have seen that when we link learning with personal growth, students increase their capacity to reflect and therefore to learn.

EN BREF – Travailler avec des élèves qui ne réussissent pas bien dans un environnement scolaire typique pose d’authentiques problèmes. Après avoir constaté que des facteurs développementaux de nature ontologique étaient courants dans une population d’élèves à risque, un groupe d’enseignants a élaboré des programmes pour répondre aux besoins de communication interpersonnelle des élèves tout en leur permettant d’accumuler les crédits requis. Bien que le curriculum normalisé n’inclue que quelques cours comportant des éléments développementaux de nature ontologique, les enseignants ont cerné trois cours qui pouvaient légitimement servir à rehausser la capacité de connaissance de soi et de communication personnelle des élèves. En utilisant des stratégies pour créer des communautés d’apprentissage fortes et respectueuses, les enseignants ont constaté que le fait d’acquérir des habiletés pour la vie est fondamental pour favoriser la réussite personnelle et scolaire.

Photo: Courtesy Sam Oh Neill

First published in Education Canada, November 2014

1 The language here is paraphrased from the Ontario Ministry Of Education’s mission statement in Achieving Excellence: A renewed vision for education in Ontario (Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2014).

2 J. Gibbs and T. Ushijima, Engaging All by Creating High School Learning Communities (Windsor, CA: CenterSource Systems, 2002). See also www.tribes.com.

Meet the Expert(s)


Sam Oh Neill

Teacher/ Thames Valley District School Board

Sam Oh Neill has been working in education and studying the learning process for 25 years. He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Western University and is about to begin Doctoral work.

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