Tips for School & District Administrators

Working with the Socially Awkward Child

By Brian Gatens

I recently had the opportunity to attend a local college’s “Educator Interview Day” to meet aspiring educators and find candidates for open teacher positions. These events provide an excellent opportunity to see how well the teachers of tomorrow are prepared for today’s classrooms — after all, there is a large difference between the theoretical world of college and the day-to-day life of a classroom teacher.

Since children come in all sizes, shapes and needs, I’m always on the lookout for teacher candidates who already have a good idea of the classroom culture they hope to develop. More specifically, I want to know if they have thought about working with the child who struggles to fit in.

The socially awkward child needs much more than standard instructional practices, and the best teachers have a host of strategies for meeting those needs. Here are a few proven ways to work with socially awkward children:

Don’t single out

I do many, many classroom observations, and it does not take long to identify the child who doesn’t fit in. More often than not, this is due to a developmental lag in the child’s growth. The child simply hasn’t caught up to the other students.

Teachers need a two-track strategy: creating expectations and guidelines that apply to all children while finding specific ways help to the awkward child. This will include ensuring that student groupings are chosen by the teacher and not by the students; otherwise, the awkward child is sure to be frozen out. Another practice is to watch closely during the lunch/snack time and make certain everyone is taking the opportunity to sit with a wide variety of classmates.

Be explicit in expectations

You’ll often see the awkward child do things — interrupting while others speak, not sharing, etc. — that drives classmates away. And classmates might not be kind and considerate. When these two factors come together, I can pretty much guarantee that social isolation will soon follow.

The key here is to be explicit in what behaviors you expect from all your students, and be sure to include behaviors that pit students against each another. Teach them to the entire class, but keep a close eye on any students who need extra attention.

Choose collaborative activities

Quality classrooms, especially at the elementary level, thrive when students and teachers work together to complete class activities. It is important to choose activities that don’t exacerbate the behavior of the awkward child and cause social isolation.

Encourage the recognition of uniqueness

We increasingly live in a diverse world that is accepting of many, many differences among people. This is a positive trend in society, as many once-alienated people can find a place under a “big tent.” Having a classroom that is open and accepting of differences is a great way to encourage all your students to work well together. Creating a sign that says “Safespace” and putting it up in your classroom (and referring to it often) is a very strong and positive way to reinforce a spirit of inclusiveness.

Access school resources

You aren’t alone in your work with your students. Every school should have resources (guidance counselors, school psychologists, etc.) you can touch base with to address these issues. If you’re not sure how to proceed, do not go it alone. Rather, make it a point to use their wisdom and guidance.

Working with a needy child is challenging — you’ll need all the experience, resources and patience you can muster to ensure that every child in your classroom feels safe, secure and welcome at all times. Always keep in mind that your classroom might be the only place in a child’s world where he or she gets to feel that way. If not you, then who?

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