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My daughter, now 9 and in fourth grade, has struggled socially for years. It really hit me when she was in second grade, on a school outing, when I noticed all the other kids were walking in pairs and groups, but mine stuck stubbornly to me.
Then she started coming home complaining that nobody would play with her at recess. I began volunteering at her school, and later worked as a lunchtime monitor for the school to try to help.
It did. In fourth grade, while you couldn't call my daughter popular, she has friends and for the most part blends in with her classmates. There are still plenty of hiccups; I need to write more about them, but there are things that are tough to write, or even think about. And in any case, that's not what I'm doing in this post.
Now, most parents can't go so far as to take a job at their child's school – and I have to admit, working there and watching her be excluded day after day was its own kind of exquisite pain. But there were lots of other things we tried that worked, as well as things we've heard about that have worked for the many, many other parents whose kids struggle like mine.
Now that school is in full swing, and parents like me are hearing about their kids' social problems, I thought I would make a list that might help some of you when your child comes home and cries "Nobody will play with me at recess!"
1. Have them bring cooperative toys
If the school allows it, let your child bring equipment like a box of sidewalk chalk. If your child squats down and starts to color on the asphalt, leaving the open box of chalk beside him, other kids are sure to join in.
2. Encourage your child to join organized games
If your child's school has Playworks or adults who lead games, tell your child to join in. The more she plays in these games, the more practice she'll get in the kind of social give and take games require. Eventually, she'll be able to start her own games, or join those of others.
3. Wait in a line
If students typically play games like tetherball or four-square during recess, a line will generally form with those waiting to play. Lines are easier to join than games in progress; nobody will give a new player a second thought or look.
4. Embrace fads
Do the students at your child's school love Pokemon? Minecraft? Rubber band bracelets, Star Wars books, Lego kits? You don't have to go overboard, but encourage an interest in fads popular with your child's peers with some judicious purchases or library rentals. It's easier to talk to people with whom you have something in common – give your child something to have in common with his peers.
5. Let them bring a book
This isn't the best solution, because a child with her head in a book isn't getting practice relating to her peers, or much-needed exercise. But if recess is painful and she really loves to read, go ahead and give your blessing to some quiet time spent in the company of a book.
6. Schedule short, structured playdates
"Make playdates" is the advice any parent who admits they have a friendless child will get, first thing and then forever after. But if you have a child who doesn't play smoothly with others, for whatever reason, a playdate where another child comes over just to hang out can backfire. Instead, invite Anna over to bake cookies or Kyle to go swimming with you. Spend just an hour or two; drop the child off when the activity is over. As time goes on, you can build to less structured dates with the children your child connects with best.
7. Make plans over lunch
If your child has friends that she sits with during lunch, encourage her to talk about a game she wants to play that day, or to respond enthusiastically when another child mentions a game plan. Children often move in a social group from the lunch table to recess; if she's in at lunch, she has a much better chance of getting in on the game afterwards. On the other hand, is she having trouble finding friends to sit with at lunch?
8. Find activities that bring together kids of different ages
Awkward kids often play better with kids who are slightly younger or older. If your school has clubs or activities or aftercare that bring together, say, second to fourth graders, your child may have better social success there then on the recess yard. Playing regularly with the same group of children can also help struggling kids find their social footing.
9. Teach them how to join a game
This is an advanced maneuver that some kids won't be able to handle until they're more smooth, but it doesn't hurt to explain the technique to them, and even to practice with them at the park. To join a game (or a conversation), the socially smooth come hang on the outskirts of the group, observe what others are doing, and then blend in by doing what everyone else is doing. They imitate others just like a monkey would. And like monkeys, the crowd will accept a monkey who knows how to blend in.
It's tough, being the mom of a kid who struggles with what other kids do easily. But take heart, mom: Things can, and do, turn around. And there are definitely ways you can help.
Images courtesy Thinkstock
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.