All children need a connection with their peers. For those on the social fringe, school brings frequent reminders of their rejected status -- difficulty finding a partner for a collaborative activity, being chosen last for a team activity, finding few classmates to play with at recess, sitting alone at lunch.
Beyond the effect such isolation has on a child's self-esteem, it also can have a marked impact on his school adjustment. Not only is the isolated child denied the opportunity to learns the skills necessary to develop and maintain friendships, his schoolwork can also be affected as his attention drifts to social concerns. It isn't surprising that children who feel isolated from their peers tend to have increasing social and academic problems as they get older.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Figure out why the child is isolated. Find time to observe the student in different settings, such as lunch, recess, and gym. Talk with the child's parents and previous year's teachers. You even might speak discretely with an observant and trustworthy student. The information you get could help you determine if the student's difficulties are related to shyness, bossiness, aggressiveness, appearance, or hygiene issues.
Coach the student in social skills. Try to raise the student's social intelligence by talking with him privately; offering specific guidance about social situations he is likely to encounter. With young children, you might start with such basic skills as making eye contact, joining in activities, or asking others to play. Suggest such simple icebreakers as "Would you like to play a game with me?" If he is comfortable, encourage the student to role play some common social situations. Give him ideas for topics to talk about with classmates. And, of course, make sure to lavish praise on him (privately if you think he will be embarrassed by public recognition) when you see him demonstrating good social skills.
Arrange social interactions with classmates. That might call for you to put on your social director's hat and orchestrate the student's peer involvement. Find activities in which he can interact with other students successfully, and situations that involve him with peers who are likely to be accepting. For example, you might ask a couple of sensitive and mature students to invite him to play during recess or join them at their lunch table. Or you might split the class into four or five groups for an academic activity, perhaps having them meet outside of class to complete a project. That could help the student foster relationships with classmates. When students pair up in class, assign him to a student who is likely to relate well with him. You might even play matchmaker by identifying a classmate with similar interests and an accepting manner who could become a buddy to the isolated student.
Help classmates recognize the child's strengths and talents. Talk with the student or his parents to learn about his interests, hobbies, and talents. Find a way to bring those to the attention of the class in a natural way. If he excels on the computer, invite him become the class troubleshooter. If he is a good math student, ask him to demonstrate a challenging math problem. If he is an ESL student, have him talk to the class in his first language. In that way, other students might come to see him in a new light.
Organize a lunch club. If you have students who are isolated from their peers, consider grouping those students together during lunch and recess. Tell them the only requirement for being a member of the lunch club is that they be kind to one another. You might suggest an organizing activity for the group (playing board games or doing art projects, for example).
Encourage the student's parents to foster peer relationships. You might suggest to the parents other students they could invite over. Give them ideas for how to structure such a visit to enhance its success, including inviting only one child at a time and providing an appealing activity for the first visit. Also, suggest to the parents that they involve their child in community activities at which he is likely to do well.