SUNY Oswego interns help district youngsters' social skills SOAR

SUNY Oswego students have worked since spring to help the Oswego City School District’s youngest students lift their social and emotional skills under a program called SOAR.

More than a dozen students interning with SOAR—which aims to promote SOcio-emotional Adjustment and Resilience—have gone twice a week for six weeks this spring and fall into all universal pre-kindergarten classes in the district’s five elementary schools.

Holly Santimaw leading a lessonThe college students aim to use fun, highly visual and frequently reinforced exercises to help teach 4-year-olds how to be friends, how to listen, how to respect each other’s space, to make a compliment, identify and deal with their own and others’ emotions and how to cooperate.

“My students have been engaging in a lot of basic science about understanding parent-child relationships,” said Matthew Dykas, an assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Oswego and director of SOAR. “We wanted to branch off into applied science to help people in the community by helping children develop positive social and emotional skills, and to work with their parents.”

With approval from the district’s First Step universal pre-kindergarten director, Francine Latino, and Cathleen Chamberlain, assistant superintendent for curriculum in the district, among others, Dykas and two graduate students put together a team of 13 undergraduates to learn a social-skills group intervention program called S.S. GRIN to take into the schools.

Making friends

Margaret Talamo, a universal pre-kindergarten teacher at Minetto Elementary School, said SUNY Oswego intern Holly Santimaw’s efforts with 13 young students have reinforced the district’s own lessons about good manners and getting along with others.

“It complements what we are doing—the children get the message twice and more, in different ways,” Talamo said.

For example, one of the exercises in the lesson on personal space is to pretend each child is inside a bubble, and if another child gets too close, the bubble pops—providing a child’s-eye view of an important interpersonal concept.

In a recent SOAR unit, Santimaw, a senior psychology major, gathered the children into a semi-circle around the Rainbow Rug in Talamo’s classroom. To reinforce a lesson on giving compliments, each child in turn chooses a classmate and makes a compliment: “I like your shoes.” “You’re very nice.” “You make me laugh.” At the same time, Santimaw stretches purple yarn from each complimenter to the next student and tapes it down, eventually making a “spider web” of yarn to show how this behavior can spread good feelings throughout the class.

Talamo noted that in succeeding weeks, she and Santimaw ask the children to explain and demonstrate the skills they have already learned, and that the 4-year-olds’ grasp and recall is remarkable.

“At this age, the more you can reinforce, the better,” Talamo said. “We have this college and all these great resources. I like the college and community working together.”

Among Oswego’s SOAR interns are majors in several disciplines: psychology, childhood education, broadcasting and mass communications, public justice and wellness management. Two graduate students in counseling and psychological services, Samantha Engel and Alyssa Peterson, assist Dykas with training and administration of SOAR.

Future steps

To date, Dykas said, SOAR has provided services pro bono. The program will continue in the district this spring with third-graders, with a data-gathering component to measure pre- and post-protocol results.

To expand the program to parents will take money, and Dykas said he has applied for a local grant and continues to look for other funding. His background and primary research is in attachment theory—the bonds, often between parent and child, that create a secure base for infants and influence children through adolescence and adulthood. “I’m an attachment researcher,” he said. “The purpose … would be to enhance parental sensitivity and promote each child’s secure attachment.”

Dykas emphasized that while Oswego city and county have risk factors relating to parents’ socioeconomic hardships, the training in social and emotional skills is essential for building children’s self-esteem and confidence, leading to improved behavior.

UPDATE: SOAR has now evolved into Prevention Support Partners; visit for more information.

PHOTO CAPTION: Bubbling with enthusiasm—SUNY Oswego senior psychology major Holly Santimaw shows a picture of a child in a bubble of personal space to reinforce a social-skills lesson for pre-kindergarteners in Margaret Talamo’s class at Minetto Elementary School. The lesson was part of a project in Oswego schools directed by Matthew Dykas of the college’s psychology department and staffed by interns.

- 30 -

(Posted: Nov 21, 2012)

Tags: vibrant community, solutions, psychology, matthew dykas, engagement, education pipeline, counseling and psychological services