I think I am like many of you. I know understanding and addressing the needs of kids who don’t have friends – social isolates – is important. The challenge is where to start. If you feel a little stumped, take heart that there are many who feel the same way.
Friendships, belonging and acceptance grow in importance as kids move through adolescence. Their identity becomes defined by the group of friends they have. Spending time with friends provides opportunities for social interaction, information sharing, demonstration of values and reinforcement of behaviors important to the peer group. Sometimes we fear peer groups have a negative influence on adolescent behaviors; however, research and experience generally shows that, with the exception of getting high-risk kids together, the influence of peer groups is almost always positive.
Social isolates interact much less with their peers giving them fewer opportunities for peer social interaction. They are cut off from firsthand information about norms, which usually comes from their peers. Instead, their guesses about what is normal may be based on fantasy. Isolates may behave in risky ways thinking that this will gain them acceptance. Kids without friends are at risk for experimenting with alcohol, tobacco, and drugs because they perceive this as a way of gaining acceptance. Unfortunately for them, acting inappropriately usually has the opposite effect.
Honest feedback about what is and is not acceptable may help them see that participating in risky behaviors is not a way to gain acceptance. Small group activities provide an opportunity for integration. Avoid allowing students to partner or work with those they wish to as it will almost guarantee the isolate will not be selected by anyone. You do not want to reinforce a negative message they have likely received many times over from their peers. Instead, assign students to small groups. Give careful consideration to which small group an isolate is assigned to ensure positive feedback and integration occurs.
Encouraging positive standards of behavior in the classroom is important for all students, but especially kids without friends. Ensure you have a positive learning environment. Encourage inclusiveness and allow only positive comments, feedback and body language from the students towards each other. Isolates need the assurance of being in a safe and accepting classroom.
One-on-one meetings also allows you to give an isolate a little more attention than they normally receive and can have a profound influence on their lives. Isolates, as all kids do, need at least one positive adult in their life to coach, mentor and guide them. Perhaps you are that adult in their life! During a one-on-one session with an isolate, ask them to name at least one trusted adult in their life they can talk to. If they can not name an adult, seek a staff person within your organization who is willing to “adopt” the student and begin developing a genuine and positive relationship with them.
Isolates usually emerge in the early years of elementary school. Identifying and connecting them with positive peers and adults as soon as possible is key to ensuring they have a brighter future.