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The Issue - The socially awkward need a helping hand

Teachers have to step in when students struggle to fit in at school, and involving their classmates can provide the breakthroughs

Teachers have to step in when students struggle to fit in at school, and involving their classmates can provide the breakthroughs

Drama, with my 11- and 12-year-olds. We are sitting in a circle talking about fairy tales. Suddenly a phone rings, and eventually it becomes apparent that it is coming from under the piano, which has a large cover draped over it like a tent.

Lucy offers an explanation: "Sir, I think Charlie's under the piano." Everybody laughs. The piano continues to ring. "Charlie, do you think you could come out from under there?" I ask.

Charlie comes out rather sheepishly, to more laughter. I sense that he is not enjoying this attention. I set an activity, then go and sit next to him. "I didn't know the rules, and no one would explain them to me, and then I got 'out', and everyone laughed at me," he says.

Last week, Charlie "died" in a game of "Bang" because he was late, missed the rules and got "shot" in the head. The same thing happened this week.

"Is that why you climbed under the piano?" I ask.

Charlie nods. "And it wasn't even my phone. It was Billy's phone. I don't even have a phone, but everyone laughs at me and I'm the one who looks stupid. I hate looking stupid."

"Charlie, I don't think anyone was laughing at you. It was just funny, you being under the piano and everything."

"But I'm not funny. I'm not fun at all. I'm boring."

Charlie is sobbing now and hugging his knees. "And I'm a big idiot. I'm just the biggest idiot in the whole world, and everyone knows it, and that's why they're laughing."

That's actually what he says. I thought children only said things like that in bad movies. "I hate this shitty school. I don't feel safe here," he adds, becoming increasingly teary and snotty.

I am speechless. All I know about Charlie is what's written on the special educational needs report (that he has "cognitive learning difficulties"), which is about as much use as an emergency exit sign with no arrows on it. I sigh and carry on sitting next to him. Then some girls wander over to complain about a boy who's "Tasering" them in the ribs. I forget about Charlie.

The following week, Charlie is again in hysterical tears. Three boys have trapped him in the props box. I get so angry that I bellow at them, saying I'm disgusted by their behaviour and threatening to exclude them for bullying. When I speak to them after school, two of them dissolve into tears and I realise how badly I have overreacted. Sitting on a box that has your friend inside is the kind of prank most normal boys have played. But Charlie is not a normal boy - and I don't know how to protect him.

Almost every year, I have taught a child with profound socialising issues. I used to feel hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with it: there is very little guidance or training on how to help SEN students with pastoral issues or socialising problems. All the support is tailored to the academic side of school.

Frustrated, I solicited the help of more experienced teachers and SEN staff. It turns out that there are things you can do to help, so here are the strategies that work for me.

- Be flexible and use your intuition. Some children simply cannot be treated the same as the others. If I sent out students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for low-level disruption, many would never see the end of a lesson. You need to know when a student is using their issues as a smokescreen and when they are genuinely struggling. Adapt accordingly.

- Remove the student from the classroom and have an open discussion with the other children. Outline the problems that the student faces and explain that they need the support of the class. Highlight that psychological issues are just as challenging as physical disabilities, even though you can't see them. Help the children to understand that this student cannot always be treated the same as the others and that this is not unfair. Entrust them with responsibility and compassion.

- Find ways of getting the student involved with the group. Give them roles of responsibility that they can handle, such as keeping score or timing activities.

- Select carefully who can work alongside them supportively.

- If the child has the support of a teaching assistant, direct the TA not to single out the student but to work more generally with any struggling students.

Several of these approaches worked well with Charlie. But the most effective was involving his classmates Jennifer and Chloe, who created projects for him such as tending an injured rabbit or running the green club. Woe betide any rascal who threatened Charlie on their watch. Slowly but surely, Charlie began to feel a little safer in his school. With a little encouragement, children will often astound you with just how caring they can be.

Nelson Thornberry is a UK secondary school teacher.

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