Research has shown that perspective-taking (a cognitive process of viewing a situation from the perspective of another person) is associated with lower social aggression, higher trust, and social cooperation. It is also related to being able to analyze social situations through slow deliberations (weighing pros and cons before action), which has been shown to reduce crime and violent behavior in various contexts.
This paper evaluates an educational program in Turkey that aimed to develop social skills and build social cohesion in schools by developing perspective-taking ability in children. The program was implemented in schools where the ethnic composition has changed rapidly due to the influx of refugee children, which is perceived by host communities to have had a detrimental effect on schools by increasing peer violence, and creating visible ethnic segregation in schools. The program was implemented as a cluster randomized controlled trial covering over 6,500 children (16 percent of whom were refugees), aged 8-12, from 80 elementary schools in southeastern Turkey. 40 schools were randomly selected to implement the program in the 2018-19 academic year, involving a full-year curricular module to be covered by teachers for at least 3 hours per week.
- The program was highly effective in lowering high-intensity peer violence and victimization in school grounds, as measured via diary logs completed by school administrators.
- The program reduced social exclusion and ethnic segregation in the classroom. Treated children (refugees and hosts) were less likely to be socially excluded and more likely to receive emotional and academic support from their classmates. These effects were particularly strong for refugee children: refugee children in treated schools were 12 and 10 percentage points more likely to receive emotional and academic support respectively from host classmates, compared to refugee children in untreated schools.
- The program increased trust, reciprocity, and cooperation among students, as well as their altruism toward one another. Treated children exhibit higher trust and reciprocity toward their peers, cooperate more, and show higher altruistic tendencies. Prosocial behavior improves towards both classmates and anonymous out-school peers.
Overall, the program appears to have been effective in building a cohesive classroom environment, and refugees were the primary beneficiaries of this environment. In addition to facilitating their social inclusion, treated refugee children achieved better test scores in Turkish language tests.
The analysis suggests that these results emerge because of improvements in children’s perspective-taking abilities (although other mechanisms may have also contributed to the results). The program also improves children’s ability to self-regulate impulsivity (ability to weigh the pros and cons of a prospective act), which may have also contributed to reductions in peer violence and victimization. The authors conclude that well-targeted educational strategies can go a long way in building social capital, even in socio-politically difficult circumstances. Additionally, developing perspective-taking ability in children is possible through educational tools and teacher training.