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September 22, 2014 / 27 Elul, 5774
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The Other Side of the Story — Reflections on the Social Experience in School


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Sara is pulling straight A’s in all of her classes.  She scores high grades on most of her exams and tests.  You would think that she and her parents would be thrilled with her progress.  But Sara is struggling in school despite her academic excellence.  Socially, she is a wreck.  While all the other girls easily group together during recess she has few friends, little social contact, and she is generally reclusive and shy around classmates and teachers.

Aaron is a completely different story.  He’s not much of a student at all.  He barely gets by in his schoolwork and his Rebbeim are disappointed in his grades.  Aaron’s social status is also suffering, but in a completely different way than Sara’s.  He is aggressive with his peers and disruptive in class.  He calls out at all the wrong times and he speaks in a very loud voice.  Aaron’s classmates are uncomfortable around him, and generally avoid him during recess.  Like Sara, he doesn’t have many friends.

Sara and Aaron are two very different children who are dealing with completely different issues.  Yet, they both need help developing their social skills.  Parents of children who are socially inept are frustrated and often feel guilty.  Perhaps if they would have spent more time with the child, if they would have set up play-dates more often, if they would have organized social activities early on, none of this would have happened.  But the truth is that it’s nobody’s fault and nobody should be feeling guilty.  Children are basically born with social skills, or they’re not.  It’s part of their nature.  The same way that Sara was born “gifted” in academics, she was born “inept” in social skills.  She may even have a twin sister who is a social butterfly or a brother who’s the most popular kid in class.  But Sara herself needs help in this area.

What can we do to help children like Sara and Aaron?  First the problem needs to be identified.  This is not easy, because parents are reluctant to admit that a social problem exists and there’s plenty of denial in this area.  Yet those who are honest with themselves and their children will recognize the warning signals.  Here are some of the things parents of children like Sara should look out for:

1.  Weak greeting skills — If a child has trouble responding to a simple “Sholom Aleichem” or “How are you?” this can signify weak social skills.

2.  Social discomfort — Is the child noticeably uncomfortable with peers?  Is he or she nervous or inhibited at parties and social gatherings?

3.  Weak requesting skills — Is the child afraid to ask for something he needs?  Does she avoid asking a question in class or asking the clerk in a store for change?

Children like Aaron may present other socially inept patterns such as:

1. Problematic conflict resolution — Does the child have trouble settling minor social disputes?  Do these disputes often result in aggression?  Will this child pick a fight over something trivial like where to sit on the school bus?

2. Poorly regulated humor — Is the child using the wrong kind of humor in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Will he make an offensive joke in front of a person of authority?  Does he try to be a clown during serious moments in class?

3. Poor social memory — Does the child have trouble learning from past social experiences?  Is he repeating negative behaviors even though they have offended people in the past?

Parents of children who are dealing with these issues need not despair.  There is plenty of help available for these youngsters and with the proper intervention and training they can change dramatically.  The first step is to bring the child to a professional who specializes in social skills training in order to be evaluated.  Discuss the issues candidly and be very specific.  Give examples of how the child acts and reacts in class.  It would be helpful to get some feedback from teachers and administrators in school as well.

It is very important to realize that not every child who is unpopular has social skills issues.  Not every child should or could conform to the rigid social expectations of their peers.  In some cases, children are just different and are expressing their individuality.  They should be admired for this and it should be recognized that individuality is one thing and social incompetence is something else entirely.  It’s best to discuss these issues with a professional counselor so that a proper evaluation can be made.

Once it’s determined that there is a problem what can a social worker do?  Role-playing is an important factor in learning to develop proper social skills.  Amazing as it may seem, many of these children are clueless that they are dong something wrong.  A professional can gently but firmly guide the child in the proper direction and offer advice on how to deal with real-life situations.

Parents can do some of these things as well.  For example, Sara’s mother can say, “Next time Mrs. Horowitz calls me, it would be nice for you to say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ before you hand me the phone.”  Or alternatively, she could say, “I was really impressed with the way you said mazel tov so nicely to the kallah at the vort we went to last night.”

Aaron’s parents can encourage him as well.  His father can tell him, “I’ll bet that the Rebbe would be very happy if you spoke to him quietly after class about the fight you had with Yankie instead of speaking loudly during the shiur.” He could also say, “It’s a good thing you didn’t make any jokes when the Rebbe was telling a story today.  Now he knows that you are mature enough to be in the sixth grade.”

What if the social ineptitude is so great that the child is being ridiculed and harassed by his or her peers?  Unfortunately, this does happen and at times like this the school administration should get involved.   It may be necessary for a teacher or administrator to lecture the class on proper midos and to discuss the cruelty of rejection and of bullying others.  It should be made clear that such behavior is unacceptable and that disciplinary action may be taken to punish children who are involved in these activities.

A caring and wise teacher can make all the difference in the world.  There are countless opportunities to guide and encourage children like these and the positive benefits can last for years.  If Sara’s morah would praise her in public, if she would say what a fine job she did on a school project, it would bring her one step closer to acquiring the self confidence that she so desperately needs.  Similarly, if Aaron’s rebbe would allow him to mentor a younger student, it would give him the sense of responsibility that could make a big difference in his behavior.  In short, it will tell these kids that we believe in them, that we have high expectations of them, and that we are confident that they will perform well. 

Parents and teachers should NOT force a child into uncomfortable situations.  Do not make Sara read her book report in front of the whole class if it will literally make her squirm.  Do not ask Aaron to organize a class trip if it will lead to embarrassing and potentially disastrous situations.  Do not force these kids to become social butterflies before they are ready for it.  Even with the proper help, it just won’t happen overnight.

Instead, allow these children some well deserved down time.  Let them read, play quietly, or entertain themselves.  Social situations can be highly stressful for them and deep down they crave a little down time and quiet solitude, which can do wonders to relieve the stress.  Allow them to sit on the porch with a good book or to become involved in a healthy hobby that makes them feel good about themselves.  Remember — it can be a cruel world out there.  Give these children the right to enjoy some safety in solitude for a while.  It will help prepare them to encounter the next day at school.

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools.   In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness.  She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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