Every classroom has its extroverts and its loners. But what if you have a student who seems chronically lonely: brooding in corners, speaking only when spoken to, perhaps openly complaining that “nobody likes me”?
Know the Difference Between Loneliness and “Aloneness”
If you’re a natural socializer with a fondness for large groups, your first inclination may be to apply the label “lonely” to any child you see sitting alone. But not everyone who flies solo is lonely, and urging a born “soloist” to play more with the group may do harm rather than good. You don’t want to plant the idea, “Something must be wrong with me. I have to choose between being my felt self and being someone others will like.”
A natural introvert has no problem becoming fully absorbed in solitary activities. A truly lonely child is visibly bored, distracted, and/or unhappy, typically looking on longingly as others interact, but making no move to join in.
Help Children Learn to Like Themselves
Some lonely types differ from the “wallflower” image: the “lonely crowd” includes bullies, class clowns, people pleasers, and even some apparent natural leaders. What they all have in common is an inward suspicion that no one understands them—or would find their real selves worth liking. Their outward behavior is motivated by desire to “earn” acceptance, or else to avoid/push away others as a means of cutting off rejection before it happens.
Every child needs to appreciate her own real self before she can build truly meaningful connections with others. You can help by making room for every learning style, providing activities for every interest, and encouraging everyone to participate in ways that suit their natural personalities and strengths. Take time to observe and respond to all your students as individuals.
Be There When You’re Needed
Often, the first step toward freedom from loneliness comes when just one other person seems fully “with” the lonely soul. Many successful adults credit a teacher with being “the first person who ever believed in me.”
Kids vary in what sorts of attention they respond to, but there are a few habits every teacher should cultivate to ensure no student feels left out:
- Pay full and obvious attention whenever any student is talking to you or the group for any reason.
- When someone obviously wants to say something but is reluctant, invite him directly to contribute. Deliver the invitation in a friendly, low-key manner so he won’t feel you’re putting him on the spot.
- Never treat a contribution lightly unless you’re positive it was intended that way. Not being taken seriously can only reinforce lonely feelings.
- When someone is obviously hurt by someone else’s words or behavior, don’t just leave the injured party to speak up (or not) for himself—and don’t just land full force on the offender, either. Make a habit of speaking up for empathy and fairness, while still giving every reasonable benefit of the doubt.
Finally, recognize that as the teacher, you hold primary responsibility for modeling understanding and acceptance. Are you building an open, everyone’s-welcome-to-contribute atmosphere?
Blessings to parents and children of all ages!