Loneliness is a big problem for kids. According to psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University, we are experiencing a loneliness crisis across the country. Many young people feel lonely on a daily basis. Good news – there are things you can do to help kids and teens battle loneliness.
Childhood and adolescence are times when it is especially important for kids to connect with others. This time in their lives lays the foundation for future relationships. Adolescents are in the beginning stages of starting to leave the nest and their friends become extremely important as they forge their sense of identity. Without that connection, kids feel lonely, isolated, and their self-worth plummets. In fact, kids who regularly feel lonely or are isolated are more likely to be bullied or to feel depressed.
So, loneliness among kids is a problem, but why is this something schools should be concerned about? Kids can’t learn if they are preoccupied with acceptance and fitting in. School is the primary venue through which kids make friendships. Where else do they spend as much time and interact with their peers?
One of the biggest misconceptions about loneliness is that kids that are lonely are always those that are socially isolated. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes kids that are lonely actually have friends to play with. It is possible to feel lonely and not be alone. Kids that feel lonely despite having friends need to learn to make the right kinds of friends and learn to make connections with them.
Social isolation is a risk factor for loneliness. While it is true that not all lonely kids are isolated, the reverse, that socially isolated kids are lonely, often holds true. Kids that don’t have any friends will, of course, feel lonely.
Regardless of where their loneliness stems from, we can help kids that are lonely to feel more connected to their peers. Try these approaches:
Observation: Observe the student in as many settings as possible (lunch, recess, in the hallway, during whole class and small groups) and see how they interact with others. Try to pinpoint how they interact with others and if they do so in problematic ways. By observing “you may learn that the student’s difficulties are related to bossiness, mean girl behavior, shyness, home life issues or hygiene. Or, he may be isolated simply because he is different.” – Very Well Family.
Bullying: If bullying is an issue, work with the student to resolve the situation. Both bullies and their victims can feel lonely, which feeds the dynamic between bullies and victims. Teach bullies healthy ways of coping with negative feelings rather than going after others. Empower victims to stand up for themselves and to make friends that can support them and reduce their chances of being a target for bullies. Try the proven-effective BeCool method to teach students how to be assertive, use self-talk strategies, and develop empathy.
Kids, especially those with special needs, don’t just absorb social skills, they must learn them. We must teach kids social skills. There are two main groups of skills that kids need.
First, they need the skills that help them make and keep good friends. They need to know how to approach their peers, how to interact with them in healthy ways, treating them with kindness and standing up for their own needs.
Second, they need internal skills to process what happens in their friendships in a healthy way. When kids experience a social situation or comment they filter it. We must teach them to filter these in healthy ways. For example, if a friend doesn’t text them back for several hours, they might filter that to mean that the friend hates them or doesn’t want to talk to them, or they can filter it to mean that possibly the friend is busy, their phone is dead, etc.
Integrate social skills teaching into as many disciplines as possible. Social skills can be taught and reinforced in all subjects through group and partner work. History and English teachers can use their subject matter, stories and true historical events, to teach social skills as well.
Have students practice. Teach social skills, role play, act it out. Teaching social skills includes more than just telling kids what they should do and how to be a good friend. Give them specific situations and discuss what to do. Have them role-play what they should do in certain situations. Give kids a script for how to respond when confronted with difficult social situations.
Give kids opportunities to practice being social; some with teacher support. Give kids as many opportunities as you can to practice their skills. Free play, group work, and partner work can help students practice their skills. For isolated students, start a ‘lunch bunch’ with other students where they can make new friends with the teacher nearby to provide support when needed.
Loneliness has become an epidemic in our schools and needs to be addressed. By teaching our students social skills, helping them to internalize situations in healthy ways, and giving them opportunities to develop friendships we can make school a better place for students.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.