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The Social Competence of Chinese Boarding School Pupils Shengjie Zhang Tsinghua University

Author Note Shengjie Zhang, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Tsinghua University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Shengjie Zhang, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Tsinghua University, Zijing Apartment, 5th Building, Room 523A, Haidian District, Beijing 100084. E-mail: zhangsj1990@gmail.com


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Abstract In recent years, China has witnessed a tremendous increase of elementary boarding schools in both rural and urban areas. Under such circumstance, the genuine impact of Chinese boarding system on children should be carefully examined. Spending much time of their childhood at school and away from home, boarding school pupils and their families may go through significant changes in peer relation, parent-child attachment and parenting styles. These three dimensions can all affect children’s social competence. Therefore, this research aims to study the social competence of Chinese boarding school pupils from those three dimensions. An anticipated experiment and its method are included in this research paper. The assumption of the research is that the social competence of Chinese boarding school pupils is weaker than that of day school pupils. In other words, boarding system can have a negative impact on children’s social competence. Key words: Chinese elementary boarding school, social competence, peer relation, parent-child attachment, parenting styles


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The Social Competence of Chinese Boarding School Pupils Introduction Elementary boarding schools in China refer to elementary schools where most students study and live for six years with their fellow students and teachers, usually from the age of eight to thirteen. Students spend most of their childhood and adolescent life away from their families, and return home on weekends and school holidays (Dong, 2005). Compared to day schools, boarding schools take over a large part of families’ responsibility in education. Many Chinese elementary boarding schools set up the principle of “self-care, self-reliance and self-control” (Dong, 2005, p. 63) as the aim for children’s development. Social competence, as Gale Group (2001) defines, refers to an individual’s social, emotional and cognitive skills and behaviors which he needs for social adaptation. According to Gale Group (2001), it can be regarded as a broader term which describes an individual’s social effectiveness – his ability to establish and maintain high quality and mutually satisfying relationships as well as to avoid negative treatment or victimization from others. A child’s social competence is based on several factors including his social skills, emotional intelligence and self-confidence. A socially competent child is capable of using variety of social behaviors which are appropriate to a given interpersonal situation, and can understand others’ emotions and subtle social cues (Gale Group, 2001). Chinese Ministry of Education in 2007 showed that the number of elementary boarding schools in both rural and urban areas of China was rapidly increasing in recent years. According to the statistics collected by Chinese Ministry of Education, in 2007, the number of elementary


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boarding schools in China was 10% of that of elementary schools in the whole country. In rural areas, elementary boarding schools have been highly praised for their capability of enhancing educational quality and efficiency and solving problems caused by the long distance between students’ homes and schools (Chen, 2010). In cities, people believe children from one-child family can have more chance to interact with peers and thus develop their social skills in elementary boarding schools. Adults feel their life pressure is partially released as they are already under intense pressure of work and taking care of the elders (Dong, 2005). The noticeable role of elementary boarding schools in today’s China makes it important to study the boarding system’s impact on Chinese boarding school pupils, such as their psychological development and social competence. In this research, the social competence of Chinese boarding school pupils will be studied from three dimensions: children’s peer relation, parent-child attachment and parenting styles of their families. Peer relation is a crucial aspect which both reflects and influences children’s social competence. Compared to day pupils, boarding pupils have longer time to interact with each other and most of them need to live in the same room with others, which may have a positive or negative impact on their peer relation. On the other hand, since boarding pupils spend most of their childhood life away from their parents, the parent-child attachment and parenting styles of boarding pupils’ families may be different from those of day pupils’ families; and these two dimensions can be key factors in the development of children’s social competence. In general, boarding system can have a significant influence on the peer relation, parent-child attachment and parenting styles boarding pupils experience, and consequently on their social competence.


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This research will compare the social competence of Chinese boarding and day pupils of the first, the second and the third grade. The purpose is to compare the social competence of boarding and day pupils, and to study the developmental characteristics of the social competence of boarding pupils at different ages. Consequently, this research can provide an analysis of advantages and disadvantages of elementary boarding schools on cultivating children’s social competence. It can also assist parents in choosing schools (boarding schools or day schools) and teachers in improving teaching methods. Literature Review As the result of Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) shows, not many studies have been done on the issue of the social competence of Chinese boarding pupils. When the words “boarding students” were used as the key words in searching articles published from the year 1975 to 2012 in CNKI, about 45 essays and articles were found related to Chinese boarding pupils’ psychological condition and development, including their peer relation and their families’ parent-child attachment and parenting styles. Since this research will analyze students’ social competence based on these three dimensions, this literature review part will also focus on them. As Lieberman, Doyle, and Markiewicz (1999) pointed out, peer relation can be conceptualized into two terms: friendship and popularity. They defined friendship as a close relation between children, while popularity as how well a child is accepted by his peers. They found that the quality of friendship (closeness and security) and popularity can in particular contribute to children’s social adjustment and development. Rubin, Bukowski and Parker (1998)


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have demonstrated the significant influence of peer relation on children’s social competence, self-recognition and sense of security. Children accepted by most peers are less likely to encounter later adjustment problems than those who have social problems with peers (Lieberman, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 1999). Peer relation is an important method utilized by pupils to achieve socialization, and children with better peer relation tend to show more pro-social behaviors (Zhao, 2007). To evaluate children’s social skills with peers, sociometric assessment techniques, questionnaires and scales can all be applied. One of the most common measures to evaluate various types of peer relation is the peer nomination technique devised by Moreno in 1934. The essential characteristic of this technique is that students are asked to nominate classmates with whom they would prefer to study, play or engage in some other positive ways (Merrell, 2003). Another method is the peer rating technique which is quite different from peer nomination. In the peer rating procedure, the children within a group would be provided with the roster that has the names of all other group members and a list of sociometric questions. They need to rate other members on each question using a five-point scale (Merrell, 2003). An important index reflecting peer relation is sociometric status related to overall peer acceptance. In 1982, Coie, Dodge and Coppotelli pointed out the inconsistency in the operational definition of peer popularity or acceptance: sometimes peer popularity was defined by social acceptance and sometimes the acceptance score was combined with a measure of social rejection. Using sociometric nomination measures, they subtracted the nominations the child received on a “like least” question from the nominations he received on a “like most” question and calculated


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the social preference of each child. Then they divided the children into five categories of sociometric status: popular children who received many positive and few negative nominations; rejected children who received many negative and few positive nominations; controversial children who received many positive and negative nominations; neglected children who received few positive and negative nominations; average children who received average amount of positive and negative nominations (Coie, Dodge & Coppotelli, 1982). Scholars from East China Normal University put forward a hypothesis based on the Scale of the Ability to Associate with Partners among the Children Aged 4-6 formulated by Yuan Zhang (Li & Jiang, 2008). They divided the inner structure of infants’ ability of peer interaction into four dimensions: social initiative, prosociality, linguistic and nonverbal ability, and social phobia. Based on this hypothesis, the scholars devised the Questionnaire of the Ability to Associate with Partners among the Children Aged 3-6. It is a closed questionnaire, filled in by the teachers of the children being tested. There are twenty questions in it, related to the four dimensions postulated by the researchers, and it uses the five-level Likert scale. Questions related to the issue of social phobia use the method of reverse scoring, and other questions are all scored in the forward direction. The coefficient of internal consistency of this questionnaire is 0.91, and its split-half reliability coefficient is 0.82 (Li & Jiang, 2008). This questionnaire will be used in this research. Furthermore, taking into consideration that pupils have the ability of reading, writing and comprehension, they will need to fill in the questionnaire by themselves. For the children around the age of the first grade, a variation of this questionnaire will be applied. Five faces ranging from frowning to smiling will substitute scores from one to five and children


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will be required to circle one of the faces. This variation was indicated by Asher, Singleton, Tinsley, and Hymel in 1979. Different results have been shown in the studies of Chinese boarding pupils’ peer relation. Some scholars have believed elementary boarding schools can provide systematic instructions under which students will develop some peer interaction skills they cannot learn from imitating peers, such as how to join in peers’ games, how to provide peers care and support, and how to repay for others’ kindness (Zhao, 2007). Lili Zhang and Xiaolong Zhang in 2011 conducted a research on 169 boarding pupils in Gansu province by using the peer nomination technique. She concluded that children’s sociometric status would not be significantly affected by their attending boarding schools. She suggested that perhaps boarding pupils would consciously adjust their ways of interaction. However, results of some other studies are contradictory to their conclusion. Jing Zhao conducted a research in 2007 on 290 pupils of an urban boarding school and 288 pupils of another urban day school. She found that compared to the day school, there were a higher percentage of rejected and neglected children in the boarding school. Yuan Xue in 2012 carried out a study on 184 boarding pupils and 210 day pupils of the same rural school. The result of the research showed that 41.9% boarding students and 19.5% day students felt extremely nervous in interaction with new friends, and 4.5% boarding students and 25.6% day students could deal with conflicts with peers. There was a significant difference in peer relation of boarding and day pupils (Xue, 2012). In the research on 246 pupils of a rural boarding school and 250 pupils of another rural day school in Shanxi Province, Yanfang Chen (2010) concluded that the difficulty


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in social adaptation was the primary influential factor in boarding students’ mental health. She divided social adaptation into two dimensions: interpersonal adaptation and adaptation to frustration and stress. Chen pointed out that the issue of children’s interpersonal adaptation mainly appeared to be problems in their peer relationship. Apart from peer relation, parent-child relation is also a focus of scholars’ study of children’s development. In the studies of the past, at least two dimensions of parent-child relation appeared to be related to individuals’ personal development: the responsiveness and demandingness of parents (Baumrind, 1991). Many studies concerning parent-child interaction have been based on the belief that such interaction affects children’s social behaviors in other times and occasions and their interaction with new partners. Attachment theorists have argued that children tend to reconstruct the relationship they had with parents with new partners (Maccoby, 1992). Since boarding pupils spend less time with parents compared to day pupils, the parent-child attachment and parenting styles they experience may change to different patterns. Such change can influence patterns of children’s social competence and relationship at present as well as in the future. Parent-child attachment was defined as “an enduring affectional bond of substantial intensity” (p. 428) by Armsden and Greenberg (1987). It was evidenced to be classified as secure and insecure attachment types by Ainsworth and her associate in 1969. Armsdem and Greenberg (1987) have pointed out that secure attachment originates from the availability of the attachment figure, and from the situation in which children’s confidence in the availability of the figure can overcome their phobia when they found the attachment figure is unavailable. They have


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indicated that the security of attachment of one-year-old infants is often associated with preschool ego strength, social competence and good peer relation. According to Armsdem and Greenberg, children with secure attachment have more chance to keep a balance between independence and asking for help from the outside. Adolescents with higher secure attachment have stronger self-satisfaction, a higher likelihood of seeking help from the society and weaker psychological symptomatologies. On the contrary, children sensing the potential or actual loss of attachment relation may experience negative feelings such as anxiety and anger (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987). Lieberman, Doyle and Markiewicz (1999) have discussed the link between parent-child attachment and peer relation mainly in three dimensions: cognitive, behavioral and affective. They have argued that, in terms of the cognitive dimension, secure children may have a positive view on them and trust others’ responsiveness to their needs, while insecure children cannot behave in such a way. Consequently, secure children may behave in a cooperative manner while insecure ones expect rejection and behave in a resistant way. At behavioral and affective levels, secure children can explore social environments within the secure base given by their parents, develop their social skills, and learn to regulate negative affect and display positive emotions to peers. On the contrary, insecure children may present affect in an inappropriate manner which is unconstructive to positive peer relations. In all, the interaction manner (for instance, cooperative or resistant) children learn from the parent-child attachment may in turn generalize to their relations with peers (Lieberman, Doyle, &Markiewicz, 1999). Besides parent-child attachment, parenting styles also have an important impact on


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children’s social competence and peer relation. Psychologist Diana Baumrind (1967) conducted a study on over 100 preschool-age children based on research methods such as naturalistic observation and parental interviews. She pointed out three major different parenting styles displayed by most parents, and further researches added a fourth parenting style (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Therefore, in general four parenting styles are widely accepted: authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, permissive parenting and uninvolved (rejecting-neglecting) parenting (Baumrind, 1991). Authoritarian parents set up strict rules, have high demands, and are not very responsive to their children. Authoritative parents also establish rules for their children, but they are more democratic, responsive, nurturing and forgiving. Permissive parents have few demands and low expectations, and at the same time they are responsive and nurturing. Rejecting-neglecting parents have both low demandingness and responsiveness. They mainly reject or neglect their responsibilities for children (Baumrind, 1991). In The Family Socialization and Developmental Competence Project, Baumrind (1991) has examined the development of instrumental competence through socialization. He has concluded that children under authoritative parenting are more competent than other children. The instrumental competence referred to social responsibility, independence, achievement orientation and vitality (Baumrind, 1973). He has also indicated that generally speaking children under rejecting-neglecting parenting may be the least competent of all (Baumrind, 1991). Numerous studies have been conducted concerning the optimal parenting style. Some scholars raised the point that the optimal parenting cluster should include the quality of psychological autonomy or democracy (Maccoby, 1992). They argued that children should be involved in


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making decisions concerning their lives, and it would improve their self-regulation and impulse control. In 1995, Lei Lin, a scholar from Beijing Normal University, studied Chinese parenting styles and the characteristics of Chinese parents’ behaviors. He took into consideration various aspects of parenting behaviors in order to avoid absoluteness in division. He evaluated and identified parenting styles from seven dimensions: indulgency, absolutism, permissiveness, expectancy, inconsistency, rejection, and democracy. He concluded five parenting styles based on quick-cluster analysis: extreme parenting, stern parenting, indulgent parenting, achievement-pressure parenting, and positive parenting. Positive parenting ranked the second on the democracy dimension and the last on the rest six dimensions among all the five parenting styles. Lei Lin have pointed out that the result indicates positive parents have following characters in parenting. They have relatively high consciousness of democracy, can listen to children’s ideas, respect children’s independence, require no absolute obedience from children, harbor positive affection towards children, are used to reasoning with children, seldom scold children, and the couple maintain high consistency in specific conducts (Lin, 1995). In the research, 39.81% families were using positive parenting, which implies children in China generally enjoy a healthy environment for their psychological development (Lin, 1995). British scholars have carried out studies on the impact of boarding school experience on children’s psychological development and future attachment patterns. Sending children to boarding schools is regarded as a social practice and even a privilege in Britain (Schaverian, 2004). The concepts of boarding schools in Britain and China are not congruent; however, they


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do share some basic similarities. For instance, in both of the boarding school systems children would spend most of their childhood life away from family. Considering the importance of boarding schools in Britain and the similarity between British and Chinese boarding systems, it is meaningful to learn studies and findings concerning British boarding schools. Studies related to British boarding school system and its impact on individuals and the society have been mainly based on case studies, personal accounts, and sociological researches (Schaverian, 2011). Joy Schaverian (2011), a Jungian analysist, put forward the concept of “boarding school syndrome” (p. 139). By using the word “syndrome” she referred to “a set of opinions or behavior that is typical of a particular group of people” (p. 140). She has pointed out that early boarding can cause profound developmental damage to children and have a lasting influence on attachment patterns in children’s future development. Boarding children suffer the sudden loss of early attachment figures and are thrown into an inflexible environment with strangers taking care of them. Under such circumstance, their vulnerable selves need protection, and consequently they may acquire a form of defensive encapsulation (Schaverian, 2004). Children may learn to be emotionally unaffected, self-sufficient and shut down the pain caused by the loss of attachment (Schaverian, 2011). However, Schaverian (2004) has argued that the yearning for the intimacy of the parent-child bond and the pain of being “rejected” by parents will unconsciously affect the individual’s later life. Children in their future life may long for intimate relationships and anticipate rejection at the same time, which leads to their dependence and lack of investment in relationships (Schaverian, 2004). Then a pattern usually appears in the relationship of an individual who has attended boarding school in his early childhood: the


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individual, usually a man, may build up a deeply dependent relationship and suddenly abandon the loved person (Schaverien, 2002). Schaverian (2011) has also indicated that although children in day schools may suffer from bully and abuse, boarding pupils will have more trouble with such experiences. Day and boarding pupils may all feel ashamed and culpable for the humiliating experience, and think the pain cannot be articulated to their parents. However, day pupils can return home every day and it is the refuge for them. Even though the child does not speak of it, most parents may notice and show their concern if the child appears upset. On the other hand, for boarding pupils it is hard to find a place to respite or a person to confide their innermost secrets. Their sense of having been abandoned and loneliness may be extravagated, which can affect their future relation patterns (Schaverian, 2011). In terms of Chinese elementary boarding schools, issues of parent-child attachment and parenting styles for boarding pupils have also come up to the foreground. 21st Century Education and Development Research Institution (2009) has pointed out rural elementary boarding schools separate students from the outside, especially from their parents. The study showed around 58% boarding pupils were not willing to tell their inner secrets to family members, and around 45% boarding pupils could not get encouragement and support from their families (21st Century Education and Development Research Institution, 2009). In Yuan Xue’s research in 2012, 40.9% boarding pupils and 11.6% day pupils reported that they seldom had affective interaction with their parents. She used Chi-Square test and found there was a significant difference in the parent-child interaction of the two groups. According to Yuan Xue, there are mainly two reasons


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for the lack of affective interaction between parents and rural boarding pupils. On one hand, in most cases those parents would leave home and work in cities to earn money to support the family, which leads to the difficulty in parent-child interaction. Although parents of some day students would also work in cities for a long time, day students could still be attended to by intimate relatives. On the other hand, rural parents usually have insufficient educational background and lack the awareness of the importance of parent-child interaction (Xue, 2012). Moreover, in a research conducted by Shumei Dong in 2006, the lack of and inappropriate parent-child interaction are considered to be major reasons for low social competence and psychological problems of urban boarding pupils. Shumei Dong have pointed out that urban parents often hold extremely high expectations of elementary boarding pupils. With such high expectations, parents may be inclined to put most concern on children’s academic performance instead of their entire life. Consequently, parents and children will lack effective interaction of affection, and children can suffer from heavy pressure of their parents’ expectations (Dong, 2006). Two scales are usually applied to measure and evaluate parenting styles: the Child Report of Parent Behavior Inventory and the Colorado Self-Report of Family Functioning Inventory (Barber, Olsen, & Shagle, 1994). These two scales and Lei Lin (1995)’s division of Chinese parenting styles will be applied in the research. Assumption and Anticipation The hypothesis for the result of this research is that, the social competence of boarding pupils is weaker than that of day pupils in general. There are a higher percentage of rejected,


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neglected and controversial children in elementary boarding schools. There is a higher percentage of insecure attachment between parents and boarding pupils, and less percentage of authoritative parenting type in families of boarding pupils. Compared with day pupils, there is a larger differentiation in the social competence of boarding pupils. The latter students go through stages at which their social competence (reflected by the evaluation results of their peer interaction skills and their sociometric statuses) firstly gets to a lower level and then reaches to a higher level. Methods (Anticipated) Participants: The experimental group includes 120 students of a Chinese elementary boarding school, forty students in each of the first, the second and the third grade. The matched group includes 120 students of a Chinese elementary day school, forty students in each of the first, the second and the third grade. Students of each grade should be from the same class and know each other. Materials: Peer Nomination Questionnaire for Elementary School Students, the Questionnaire of the Ability to Associate with Partners among the Children Aged 3-6, the Child Report of Parent Behavior Inventory, and the Colorado Self-Report of Family Functioning Inventory. Teachers who students are most familiar with will be experimenters. The difficulty of inventories and questionnaires should all be within the first grade students’ comprehension capability. The first grade students should answer the questions under teachers’ assistance and instruction. Design and Anticipated Procedure:


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Boarding pupil’s peer interaction ability will be evaluated. The Questionnaire of the Ability to Associate with Partners among the Children Aged 3-6 will be applied. The first grade boarding students need to fill in the questionnaire before and after attending the school and the interval should be three months. The second and the third grade boarding students need to fill in the questionnaire for one time. Boarding pupil’s sociometric statuses after attending the boarding school will be evaluated. The Peer Nomination Questionnaire for Elementary School Students will be applied. The first, the second and the third grade boarding students need to take the evaluation for one time. Boarding pupil’s attachment to parents and their families’ parenting styles will be evaluated. The Child Report of Parent Behavior Inventory and the Colorado Self-Report of Family Functioning Inventory will be applied. The first grade boarding students need to fill in the inventories before and after attending the school and the interval should be three months. The second and the third grade boarding students need to fill in the inventories for one time. At the same time, the participants of the elementary day school need to be tested under the same procedure.


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Science Academic Press. Xue, Y. (2012). Nongcun xiaoxue jisusheng yu zoudusheng fazhan zhuangkuang bijiao yanjiu [A comparative study on boarding and day students’ development in rural boarding school] (Master dissertation, Southwest University, China). Retrieved from Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure. (G627) Zhang, L. L., & Zhang X. L. (2011). Jisu xiaoxuesheng tongban guanxi yu gudugan de xiangguanxing yanjiu [Study on the correlation between primary boarding students’ peer relation and their sense of loneliness]. Journal of Beijing Institute of Education (Natural Science Edition), 6(4), 27-35. Zhao, J. (2007). Jisuzhi xiaoxuesheng tongban guanxi de diaocha yanjiu [Boarding system pupil peer relation investigation and study] (Master dissertation, Shenyang Normal University, Shenyang, China). Retrieved from Wanfang Data Digital Library for K-12 Education. (G625.5)

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