Dear Dr. Shore,
I have a child in my third-grade class who does not seem to have any friends. I've tried encouraging him to join other students on the playground and during lunch without much success. What can I do to help him?
Few things are more painful to children than to be friendless. For those on the social fringe, school is often a daily reminder of their isolation from their peers -- being chosen last for a team, having difficulty finding a partner for an activity, having few classmates to invite to their birthday party, not having anyone to sit with during lunch.
With a child like this, an important first step is to try to figure out why he has no friends. Try to observe him in a variety of settings, such as lunch, recess, and gym. Or talk to staff who supervise those settings. Also, speak with last year's teacher, as well as with the childs parents. An observant and trustworthy student also might be a good source of information. Those observations will help you determine if this childs social difficulties are related to shyness, aggressive behavior, appearance, or even hygiene issues.
The information you get also will guide you in knowing how to approach him. If he is socially immature, you might want to coach him in social skills. You might need to start with such basic strategies as making eye contact, joining in activities, or asking others to play. Consider suggesting some "door openers" (for example, "Would you like to play a game with me?"). Try role-playing with him some common social situations (for example, asking if he can join in a game on the playground). Also, give him some ideas for things to talk about with classmates.
You also might want to put on your social director's hat and orchestrate his involvement with peers. Find activities in which he can interact with his classmates successfully, and guide him toward students who are likely to be accepting. You might, for example, ask a couple of kind students to ask him to play during recess or join them at their lunch table. If you have students pair up in class, assign him to a student who is likely to get along with him. Through those activities, this child might gain valuable social skills and his classmates might come to see him in a different, more appealing, light.