Social Competence Research Paper

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1. Definitions

Social competence refers to the effectiveness of a person’s functioning as an individual, in dyadic relationships and in groups. Like other general constructs used by psychologists (e.g., risk, stress and ulnerability), competence refers to a general class or category of phenomena. In this respect, competence brings together a set of ideas or concepts regarding individuals’ capacities to function in their environments. Insofar as competence refers to a property of the relationship between the individual and the environment, one cannot think of individuals as being competent without knowing the contexts in which they are engaged. Competence is also a metatheoretical construct in the sense that it is not linked to a single theoretical perspective. Instead, it serves as an organizing principle for research programs and it allows scientists from diverse areas of study to see the links and commonalities among them.

1.1 Initial Conceptualizations

An etymological analysis of the word competence shows that it refers to the engagement of an individual in activity oriented toward the achievement of a state or goal (Bukowski et al. 1998). Therefore, a competent person is not a person who possesses a particular skill or ability but is a person who is able to engage in the activities needed to achieve particular goals or outcomes. This exact view—that competence is a process—serves as the centerpiece of White’s (1959) seminal conceptualization of competence as an organism’s orientation toward an efficient interaction with the environment. For White (1959), this orientation was a profound and basic form of motivation, as critical as any fundamental drive. According to his view, competence is not a form of motivated behavior that serves other drives, but is a fundamental form of motivation in and of itself. To support this argument, he referred to the high rates of exploratory behavior seen in many animals and the infant’s instinctual curiosity in novelty. Both of these phenomena show that organisms are inherently oriented toward interaction with the environment. He found evidence of this ‘instinct to master’ in the observations and interpretations provided by neo-analysts (e.g., Fenichel 1945, Hendrick 1942). Hendrick, for example, went so far as to write that individuals have an ‘inborn drive to do and to learn to do.’ Again, White was careful to point out that according to these neoanalysts, such activity is not in the service of another goal (e.g., anxiety reduction), but is instead a basic human motivation by itself. White noted that this proposal was central also to the ideas of Erik Erikson. In Erikson’s (1953) description of the latency years, he emphasized that this developmental period is a time in which competence is the main developmental struggle that children confront. Erikson wrote that ‘children need a sense of being able to make things and to make them well and even perfectly: this is what I call a sense of industry.’

1.2 Current Definitions

The impact of White’s views is, in part, apparent in the definitions of competence that subsequent writers have offered. These include the following: ‘the effectiveness or adequacy with which an individual is capable of responding to various problematic situations which confront him’ (Goldfried and D’Zurilla 1969 p. 161); ‘an individual’s everyday effectiveness in dealing with his environment’ (Zigler 1973); ‘a judgment by another that an individual has behaved effectively’ (McFall 1982 p. 1); ‘attainment of relevant social goals in specified social contexts, using appropriate means and resulting in positive developmental outcomes’ (Ford 1982 p. 324); the ability ‘to make use of environmental and personal resources to achieve a good developmental outcome’ (Waters and Sroufe 1983 p. 81); and ‘the ability to engage effectively in complex interpersonal interaction and to use and understand people effectively’ (Oppenheimer 1989 p. 45). In a review of these definitions, Rubin et al. (1998), pointed out that they share at least two points: (a) an emphasis on effectiveness, and (b) an understanding of the environment so as to achieve one’s own needs or goals. One has to presume that the dynamism that stood at the center of White is implicit in these definitions even if it is not stated explicitly.

Using definitions noted above, as well as from others found in the work of Attili (1989), Dodge (1986), Gresham (1981), Strayer (1989) as a point of departure, Rubin and Rose-Krasnor (1992, 1986) have defined social competence as the ability to achieve personal goals in social interaction while simultaneously maintaining positive relationships with others over time and across situations. A significant feature of this definition is its implicit recognition of the importance of individual and social goals. This emphasis reflects essential duality of self and other, placing the individual within a social and personal context. The conceptualization of self and other as indistinguishable is an important feature of theory from several domains including personality theory (Bakan 1966, Sullivan 1953), gender role theory (Leaper 1994), feminist psychology (Jordan et al. 1991), and philosophy (Harre 1979, 1984). Accordingly, this definition is valuable as it points to the complex goals that persons confront as individuals and as members of groups. It is in this regard that individuals, as well as social scientists, have struggled with the tension between agentic and communal orientations.

2. The Socially Competent Child And Adolescent

Children’s competence within social contexts depends upon their social skills. These skills are both behavioral and cognitive. The cognitive skills include the ability to understand and predict the internal states (i.e., the thoughts, feelings, and intentions) of other children and to understand the meaning of these states within the present context. Using this information, a competent child is able to develop plans for interacting with others to achieve desired outcomes and to evaluate the flow of the interaction as it unfolds. Part of this evaluation concerns the consequences of one’s actions as well as those of the partner, on both instrumental and moral grounds, so as to maintain positive interaction, and either repair or terminate negative interactions. In the behavioral domain, a competent child is able to act prosocially and is capable of displaying appropriate positive affect while avoiding or inhibiting negative affect and is able to communicate verbally and nonverbally so as to facilitate the partner’s understanding of the interaction. (These issues are discussed further in chapters found in Asher and Coie (1990) and Schneider et al. (1989).)

2.1 Competence As Process

Recent approaches to social competence have gone beyond the emphasis on skills per se and have argued that social competence needs to be understood as a hierarchical process. Two models of this sort have been proposed by Rubin and Rose-Krasnor (1992) and Crick and Dodge (1994). In parallel to previous process-oriented approaches to social cognition and behavior (e.g., Miller et al. 1960) these models include a series of steps that are presumed to underlie social interaction. Rubin and Rose-Krasnor adopt an interpersonal problem solving model of social competence which is largely predicated on the view that most social interactions appear to be routine, reflecting an automaticity in thinking and a scriptedness in social interchanges (Abelson 1981, Nelson 1981, Schank and Abelson 1977). They note, for instance, that children quickly learn many rudimentary scripted forms of social behavior, such as greeting and leave-taking sequences, as well as acquiring an understanding that many social relationships ‘slot’ members into particular roles that are played out in highly predictable ways (e.g., Strayer 1989). Such scripts and role understandings allow children easy access to sequences of actions corresponding to highly familiar social situations thus facilitating social competence. Indeed, for both competent and less-than-competent children, familiar social situations easily elicit routine, scriptdriven behavior. In the absence of such familiarity, when appropriate and routine eliciting conditions are not present, this sort of script driven enactment of social behavior is precluded.

2.2 Rubin And Rose-Krasnor Model

Rubin and Rose-Krasnor propose that in such novel conditions, social competence derives from the following sequentially organized steps. First, a goal needs to be chosen. Often several goals are apparent, and they can often conflict with each other. For this reason Dodge et al. (1989) argued that the successful coordination of goals is more likely to be a challenge to an individual’s competence than is the achievement of a particular goal. Second, the chosen goals need to be understood according to contextual factors, such as whom they are interacting with (e.g., stranger, acquaintance, friend) and this person’s characteristics, and the features of the context (e.g., school, home, or playground), population density, and visibility (public versus private encounters). Next, strategies for achieving that goal need to be chosen. To do this, a child may retrieve one or more strategies from long-term memory or new strategies may be constructed from those already available. Once selected, the child must produce the strategy in its relevant context and the results need to be evaluated. If the strategy is judged to be successful, the problem-solving process ends and relevant information concerning the social interchange is retained in long-term memory. If a strategy has been judged as partially successful, the actor may accept the outcome as ‘successful enough’ and proceed as if the outcome was a success; alternately, the individual may decide to judge the outcome as a failure.

If this case, the child may stop the sequence and leave the goal unattained or may choose to either repeat the original strategy or choose to alter the previous strategy in some way while maintaining the same goal.

2.3 Crick And Dodge Model

Another approach to understanding the process of social competence is seen in a model proposed by Crick and Dodge (1994). They also emphasize the importance of information processing as the basis of social competence. Their model involves six stages, each of which involves a form of information processing that draws upon currently available information as well as a data base of rules, schemas, and social knowledge. The six steps in their model are as follows. First the child encodes social cues by attending to relevant social information such as who is in the social milieu (a friend, a stranger, a popular child, an unpopular child), how it is that this person is expressing him or herself (affectively happy, angry, or sad), and so on. Second, the child must interpret the encoded cues. This requires that the child search his or her memory store in an effort to understand the meaning of the encoded information. For example, one of the social cues encoded at Step 1 might be a facial expression denoting anger. Interpreting the facial expression correctly may lead to the assumption that the social situation involves hostility and anger. Third, the child Develops a goal or set of goals based on his/her interpretation of the encoded cues.

Fourth, the child accesses or constructs potential responses to achieve the selected goals. The fundamental question asked here is ‘What are all the things I can do in this situation?’ Next, she or he must decide on a particular response to be enacted. This selection depends on various considerations including the expected outcomes of particular responses, his/her confidence that the selected strategy can be enacted, and their evaluation of the response itself. For example, the individual might consider the potential interpersonal consequences (‘Will she still like me?’), the instrumental consequences (‘Will I get what I want?’), and the moral value of the strategy. Finally, the child enacts the chosen response.

The models of Rubin and Rose-Krasnor (1986) and Crick and Dodge (1994) are similar in that they both emphasize (a) that the processing underlying social competence occurs rapidly in real time, (b) that the steps of information processing follow a particular sequence, (c) that they are dynamically interrelated, yet separable, and (d) that processing can proceed automatically at the unconscious level. Most importantly they regard social competence as a plan of action by which social goals are achieved.

3. Competence At Different Levels Of Social Complexity

Thoreau, in his description of his cabin near Walden Pond said ‘I have three chairs—one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.’ This multilevel scheme applies equally well to social competence. As we state above, competence is not a feature of a single domain of functioning but instead can be seen at multiple levels of social complexity, specifically, the individual, the dyad and the group. This recognition that competence needs to be assessed at multiple levels of experience is a central theme in the writings of Bronfenbrenner and Crouter (1983) and Hinde (1979, 1987, 1995). Our point is that these different levels of complexity provide different contexts for competence. One goal of research on peer relations has been to identify competence at different levels and to understand how these levels are related to each other. In the following sections we describe briefly the ways that competence is manifested at these three levels of analysis.

3.1 The Individual

The level of the individual refers to the behavioral, affective, and cognitive characteristics and dispositions that a child brings to social interaction. These characteristics include behavioral tendencies, either derived from experience or temperament, cognitions about self and other, motivations and goals, relationship history, and affective states and traits. The level of the individual is the most basic level of social complexity. While it might appear that the level of the individual has no social complexity, such complexity can exist in a child’s representations of self and other (e.g., in internal working models) as well as in their planning for social interactions and relationships. Certainly, characteristics from the level of the individual can be interpreted as indicating social competence. The two features from the level of individual that have been studied most broadly concern individuals’ general social behaviors and their social cognitions. In parallel to psychology’s general concern with the processes of (a) moving against others, (b) moving toward others, and (c) moving away from others, research on social behavior and competence has been largely organized around the constructs of aggression, sociability and helpfulness, and withdrawal. This interest in how the child’s individual behaviors influence experiences with peers has comprised a large portion of research on the peer system during the past 15 years. In fact, the very large literature on children’s popularity has been typically focused on behaviors at the level of the individual. Information about the correlates of popularity is important as it reveals which characteristics from the level of the individual are related to effectiveness in establishing a general place within the peer group.

3.1.1 Individuals And Behavior. In a meta-analysis of this large body of literature regarding individual behaviors and popularity, Newcomb et al. (1993) were able to reach conclusions about differences between individuals from different popularity groups, especially, the popular, rejected, and neglected groups. They were able to interpret these differences as a function of what they reveal about competence. Specifically, they reported that popular children (i.e., those who were liked by many children and disliked by very few) are more likely to be helpful, to interact actively with other children, to show leadership skills, and to engage in constructive play (see Newcomb et al. 1993). These findings show that popular children are capable of pursuing and achieving their own goals while simultaneously allowing others to do the same. In other words, they not only engage in ‘competent’ action themselves, but they are able to promote it in others. One critical finding in regard to the behavior of popular children is that there are no differences between them and other children on all aspects of aggression. Newcomb et al. differentiated assertive behaviors and disruptiveness. Popular children did not differ from others on the dimension of aggression but they were significantly less disruptive. These findings show that although popular children engage in assertive and agonistic behavior, these assertive actions are unlikely to interfere with the actions and goals of others. Consistent with other reports (Olweus 1977, Pepler and Rubin 1991), it would appear as if some forms of aggression may be compatible with being popular and with the concept of social competence. As Hawley (1999) has argued, children’s strategies for controlling resources do not necessarily involve coercive or agonistic actions. In this way children can be dominant and competent. In contrast with the popular children, Newcomb et al. reported that rejected children not only showed high levels of disruptive behavior but also showed little evidence of engagement in activities with peers. In other words, their activities disrupted their peers’ effective engagement with the environment, and showed little effective engagement themselves. This latter point is true of the neglected group also.

3.1.2 Individuals And Social Cognition. A second phenomenon from the level of the individual is that of social cognition. Social cognition includes a broad array of processes, including the way that an individual interprets and understands the behaviors of one’s self and of others. Akin to research on the link between behavior and experiences with peers, much of the research on social cognition has focused on how an individual’s use of social information is linked to the person’s experiences with peers at the group level. Indeed, research on social cognition has also examined how an individual’s understanding and interpretation of experience may partially determine the impact that experiences with peers have on development. This sort of social understanding is likely to be a prerequisite for competence. Without knowing how others will act, and without having a means of understanding the motives of others, individuals do not have a ‘ground’ on which to base their action (Harre 1974). Moreover, in order to effectively interact with the environment, one needs to possess the ‘local knowledge’ about how this environment functions (Geertz 1983). Considering this, it is not surprising that most models of social competence place a strong emphasis on social understanding as a powerful antecedent to competent social action (Crick and Dodge 1994, Rubin and Rose-Krasnor 1986).

3.2 The Dyad

Peer experiences at the level of the dyad can be conceptualized as reflecting either interactions or relationships. According to Hinde (e.g., 1979, 1987, 1995) interactions are the series of interchanges that occur between individuals over a limited time span. Interactions are defined as interdependencies in behavior (Hinde 1979). That is, two persons are interacting when their behaviors are mutually responsive. If a person addresses someone (e.g., says ‘Have a nice day’) and the other person responds (‘Don’t tell me what to do’) they have had an interaction, albeit a rather primitive one. Relationships are based on these patterns of interaction. The relationship consists of the cognitions, emotions, internalized expectations, and qualifications that the relationship partners construct as a result of their interactions with each other.

3.2.1 Basic Aspects Of Friendship. Researchers can examine dyadic relationships, such as friendship, according to (a) what the partners do together (i.e., the content of the relationship); (b) the number of different activities in which the partners engage (i.e., the breadth of their interactions); and (c) the quality of the interactions within the relationship (e.g., reciprocal, complementary, positive, negative). As in the research on popularity in which associations between behavior and popularity were used as the basis of conclusions regarding competence, research on friendship, a primary form of relationship experience for children, informs us of the processes that are central to engagement at the dyadic level. In research on friendship, different characteristics of relationships can be contrasted empirically, for example, between friends and acquaintances or disliked others.

3.2.2 Conflict. One domain of interaction, which nicely illustrates the nature of competence in friendships, is that of conflict. Conflict is one of the few dimensions of interaction in which there are no differences between friends and non-friends. Researchers have shown repeatedly that during childhood and adolescence, pairs of friends engage in the same amount of conflict as pairs of non-friends (Hartup 1992, Laursen et al. 1996, Newcomb and Bagwell 1995). There is, however, a major difference in the conflict resolution strategies that friends and non- friends adopt. In a large meta-analysis of research on friendship, Newcomb and Bagwell showed that friends were more concerned about achieving an equitable resolution to conflicts than achieving outcomes that would favor one partner. More specifically, Laursen et al. and Hartup reported that friends are more likely than nonfriends to resolve conflicts in a way that will preserve or promote the continuity of their relationship. In this respect, competence in friendship appears to require the ability of the two partners to find a balance between individual and communal goals.

3.2.3 Self And Other. A significant feature of this interpretation of these findings is its implicit recognition that competence in friendship is based on achieving a balance between personal desires against social consequences. This emphasis reflects an essential duality of self and other, placing the individual within a social and personal context. The conceptualization of self and other as interdependent is an important feature of theory from several domains including personality theory (Bakan 1966, Sullivan 1953), gender role theory (Leaper 1994), feminist psychology (Jordan et al. 1991) and philosophy (Harre 1979, 1984). This view of the self as inseparable from the other underscores the complex goals that persons confront as individuals and as members of dyads. In this way competence in friendship involves resolving the tension between agentic individual and communal orientations.

3.3 The Group

Group experiences refer to experiences among a set of individuals who have been organized by either formal or informal means. Group phenomena do not refer to individuals but instead refer to (a) the links that exist among the persons in the group, and (b) the features that characterize the group. Groups can be measured according to (a) their structure and size (see Benenson 1990), and (b) the themes or the content around which groups are organized (see Brown 1989). Many of the best known studies of children and their peers were concerned with the group per se, including Lewin et al. (1938) study of group climate, and Sherif et al. (1961) study of intragroup loyalty and intergroup conflict.

3.3.1 Studying The Group. In spite of the apparent importance of phenomena at the level of the group, group measures have received far less attention than measures conceptualized at the level of the dyad and the individual. This is surprising because persons generally refer to the peer system as a group phenomenon. Indeed references to experiences with peers invariably refer to the ‘peer group.’ Moreover, as Hartup (1983) noted, early theory and research on the peer system was organized around the idea that group experiences were powerful determinants of behavior. Nevertheless, research on the factors related to the peer group per se has been relatively sparse. In spite of a relative lack of research, the studies regarding peer group behavior generally converge on the same conclusion. This conclusion is that groups that show the most effective engagement with the environment (e.g., those that can complete a task most efficiently) are those that have the strongest sense of cohesion and shared purpose (e.g., Sherif et al. 1961) or that have the most engaged leadership (Lewin et al. 1938). These studies show that a factor that may be critical for an individual to be competent within a group is the shared knowledge or understanding of a task or ritual necessary for a group to function toward a common goal.

4. Conclusion And Future Directions

Social competence refers to an individual’s capacity to achieve goals at the individual, dyadic, and group levels. Being competent means that one can balance one’s own goals with those of one’s partners and group members. Competent behavior is predicated on social cognitive processes underlying the encoding and interpretation of social problems and the development, execution and evaluation of plans to solve problems. The socially competent child and adolescent achieves his/her own goals while promoting the goaloriented actions of their friends and companions. In this regard they have enduring positive relationships with others. Research on the development of competence needs to be focused on how children resolve the demands required for functioning at the individual, dyadic, and group levels of social complexity. Consistent with definitions of competence, researchers need to treat competence as a process, rather than as a static individual entity. An emphasis on action and process is necessary to reveal the integrative mechanisms that underlie a child’s ‘competence’ in social and personal domains.


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