It's lunchtime. And as any teacher who has supervised a lunch period even once knows, this is the perfect opportunity to observe the social activities of students. While on the lookout for food-throwing, roughhousing and other mischief in a room packed with children, we can also watch how the various groups interact.
After a morning of structure and regimented learning, we expect pupils to congregate together to let off steam. But although many seem keen to maintain noise levels to rival a busy airport runway, a few always stand out for their silence.
Let's take Jenny, for instance. She is the small, slight 12-year-old who reads quietly in the corner every day. She appears indifferent to the crowds and noise and rarely turns away from her book. In class she is similarly reserved, answering questions when asked but rarely volunteering. Jenny participates during group activities but would rather work alone if given the chance. She has not been diagnosed with autism or another communication disorder, her grades and behaviour are generally good and she shows no outward signs of anger or depression. It is unclear whether Jenny is a quiet child who is content to spend time on her own or whether she is someone who lacks the confidence to converse with others.
About 10 minutes into lunch break, 13-year-old Dingxiang, who prefers to be called Danny, heads into the library. His family arrived from China last summer and his limited English means he is reluctant to converse with peers. He rarely stays in the canteen for long. But on days when the library is unavailable, Danny will sit at a table with two or three equally quiet students and get started on his homework. He may develop more confidence over time as he settles in and his English improves, but he may also benefit from additional guidance.
Meanwhile, 10-year-old Brian ambles around the playground. He wanders back and forth, sometimes watching others play and sometimes lost in his thoughts. Occasionally he stops to speak to another student or attempt to join a small group, but he always continues on his way a few minutes later. Brian clearly wants to socialise and rarely experiences outright rejection. However, he does not seem to know how to connect with others.
What is your responsibility when you observe solitary students such as these? Should you intervene and, if so, how? Well, your response should depend on the student and the situation.
In Jenny's case, you could ask her about the book she is reading. If she is receptive, a dialogue can ensue based on that mutual interest. Once some level of rapport is established, you can ask Jenny about her feelings towards her classes and school in general. Her responses will provide insight into whether she is solitary by choice. If it seems that she is avoiding other children because of animosity or feelings of exclusion, you can then discuss possible solutions with her.
For a student such as Danny, feelings of isolation can weigh heavy. A peer or teacher who reaches out and offers friendship can make all the difference to a child who is struggling with a new culture and language. Simply enquiring about where he is from and how he likes his new school will encourage him to interact with others.
Brian is perhaps the most complicated case. He wants to connect but doesn't know how. If you decide to intervene, you must first figure out why he is unable to interact successfully. Has he alienated the other students with past behaviours? Does he have specific social or communication difficulties? Does he have the skill to join a conversation that is already in progress?
Try subtly eavesdropping on what Brian says when he approaches another child, and listen to the response he receives. If he says something inappropriate, speak to him in private and explain why the remark was ill-advised. Alternatively, try to organise an activity with other pupils and encourage Brian to participate.
As educators, we know that learning social and emotional coping skills is just as important as learning to read and write. When we spot a student who may need additional help in these areas, we wonder if we should intervene or allow them to find their own solution. It is natural to want to assist, but we also want children to learn how to solve their problems and develop their own initiative.
But whatever you decide to do, simply greeting the student, asking a casual question, using humour or briefly making small talk can be sufficient to show them that somebody has noticed them - and that somebody cares.
Seth Robey teaches in Chicago, US
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