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Promoting social competence: Implications of work with mentally retarded children and adults in residential settings

Shaunit Reiter and Diane Nelson Bryen

Social competence can be viewed as the ability to cope with the natural and social demands of one’s environment. It includes skills, capacities, motivations, knowledge, and personality attributes, all of which are applied to interact with the immediate environment more or less effectively. According to Leland [1977], to interact with the immediate environment effectively, a person must "take from the environment the cues and behavioral guides critical to successful comprehension of the demands of that environment, and having comprehended these demands, he must through his own processes [and intentions], adjust his behavior and modify his approaches to develop individual strategies to deal with these demands." Since this concept is quite broad and abstract, it may be helpful to define social competence in more familiar terms, such as interpersonal relations, social behavior, adaptive behavior, social interactions, social skills, adequate self-image, self-acceptance, initiative, and cooperativeness, all of which describe particular components of the concept of social competence.

In terms of what is learned and taught, social competence includes three interrelated content categories: (1) performance skills (the what: for example, vocalizing "Hello"); (2) societal norms (the when and where of skill utilization: for example, saying "Hello" to known people when you first greet them and not to people who are strangers or to a staff member every time contact is made with him or her during an activity); and (3) value judgments (the why of skill utilization: for example, social greetings such as saying "Hello" that reflect the value of being polite while maintaining some physical distance, rather than ignoring familiar persons or touching them).

These three social competence factors – skills, norms, values – cut across two general concepts of social competence, one of which is "daily living skills" and comprises those social competencies that enable the individual to act independently within a social setting. Within this general category are more specific competencies, such as dressing, toileting, washing, moving from place to place within and between settings, and so forth. One basis for this category of competencies is the value of being as minimally dependent on others as possible. The second category is the social-interpersonal. Here, the goal is not independence from others, as with daily living skills, but rather to promote and sustain interpersonal and, thus, interdependent relations with others. Thus, becoming more socially competent means being able simultaneously to develop skills that enable independence and promote interdependence with others.

Leland, H. (1977). Adaptation, coping behavior, and retarded performance. In Mittler, P. (ed.), Research to practice in mental retardation (Vol.2) Baltimore: University Park Press

Reiter, S. and Bryen, D.N. (1991) Promoting social competence: Implications of work with mentally retarded children and adults in residential settings. In Beker, J. and Eisikovitz, Z. (eds.) Knowledge utilization in residential Child and Youth Care practice. Washington DC: CWLA pp.99-122

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