My child has no friends at school!

Dear Teacher,

My child comes home from school everyday in a bad mood.  He tells me he has no one to play with during recess, and is lonely.  He has always been on the shy side, but has friends on his soccer team and gets along well with the children in our neighborhood. I’m not sure why he has this problem at school.  I’ve thought about asking for a conference, but am not sure if that is the right way to approach this.  What do you suggest?

Dear Parent,

We all have different hats we wear depending on the environment and the specific situations we are placed in.  Think about your own experiences.  You may have had one job where you really “clicked” with your colleagues, and another job where you didn’t quite feel like you fit in.  We all view situations from our own unique perspective. The fact that your son does well in other environments, is actually a very good sign. If he were having difficulty with relationships across all environments that would be indicative of a more pervasive and deeper issue.

There are several ways (in no particular order) to gain greater insight in order to determine the best course of action. Many elementary schools allow parents to have lunch with their children.  (1) Schedule a day to have lunch at school with him.  Observe how he interacts with others and also how his peers interact with him. At most elementary schools, classes eat together, and this will give you an opportunity to observe the relationship dynamic between all students in his class.  Is he enjoying this time with his peers?  Does he initiate conversations and do they?  Avoid the urge to step in and “fix” a problem if you see something that could be done better by your son, or his peers.  You want to get the “big picture.”  Letting things unfold will help you see what happens when conflict arises and how it’s resolved.  (2) Talk with his teacher. This does not need to be a formal conference, at least, not at this point.  Express your concerns directly through an email or phone call, and ask for help.  Perhaps his teacher could assign a “lunch buddy” or put him next to someone with a shared interest in soccer.  It’s important that this be reciprocal.  On the occasions I have assigned a lunch buddy to help build a student’s confidence I have always done it in a discrete manner and made sure that both students wanted to be together.  Forcing two people together regardless of the altruistic intentions will not work.  It has to be mutual. Relationships can be “nudged” in a positive direction, but not forced. It would also provide further insight if you could (3) observe your son without his knowledge on the playground.  Recess is a less structured time and students have more freedom in terms of what they are going to do, who they are going to play with and how they are going to go about it. It’s necessary to be discrete. If your son knows you’re there he might stay by your side and be less inclined to interact with his peers. The whole point is to figure out what you can do to empower your child, and the more insight you have, the better.  Last, but not least, (4) listen to what your child is telling you. I strongly recommend reiterating what he has said.  When I use this strategy, students (especially those who are reluctant to talk) usually expand on what they have initially told me. Once you have pinpointed the specific environmental triggers, you will be able to resolve the issue and provide your son with tools he can use to make friends at school.

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