Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Picture a bunch of 12-year-old boys at recess playing basketball. Daniel, a boy who has trouble making friends, attempts to join the game. His overtures are ignored or rejected. After some pestering and sulking, Daniel suddenly intrudes on the game, seizing the ball and dribbling it away. Classmates from both teams protest loudly and rush after Daniel to retrieve the ball.

One of his classmates grabs the ball from Daniel while another shoves Daniel roughly to the side, yelling “Get lost, nerd!” Daniel grabs a clod of dirt from the ground and hurls it into the boy’s face.


In moments, the basketball game disintegrates into an exciting new free-for-all: teaching Daniel a lesson. Daniel soon has seven or eight boys chasing him and it takes two teachers to break up the fist fight when they finally catch him.

Daniel has managed to become the focus of the attention he craves from his classmates, but his intrusion on the game and his devil-may-care bravado have only isolated him further. With bruises, tears and the pain of being further ostracized the only “fruits of war,” Daniel’s social problems have clearly worsened.

The next time the boys choose teams for basketball, they make a point of not including Daniel. Even worse, one boy singles him out for ridicule, announcing loudly, “Daniel can’t play. He’s a big fat nerd!” The others laugh and turn away.

Thus, the cycle of exclusion punctuated by the child’s attempts to work his way into the group which triggers further rejection, continues. Is there hope for children like Daniel who are perpetually “on the outs” with their peers? How does this bleak situation begin in the first place? Why are some children unable to find a friend in the class, unable to integrate and blend in with the group?


Social Awareness By Osmosis

The lack of peer acceptance is one of the most painful problems young children can experience in school, advises Dr. Betty Osman, a noted expert and author on educational topics. “Computers and calculators can help children with writing, reading skills and math, but there is no similar technology to help them handle a lonely recess at school, or afternoons and weekends at home when they cannot get together with a friend.”

Some children seem born to make life easy for parents – and for themselves as well. They appear to develop social awareness early in life, by example and “osmosis.” As they grow, they display good “people skills” – a sense of humor, a positive attitude toward life and empathy for others – qualities guaranteed to win friends.

In many children, however, this internal process does not operate well.

Research has indicated that children with learning disabilities often fail to pick up social skills and experience more difficulty making and keeping friends than young people without these problems. Yet, quite often children who academically are well within the mainstream, suffer from these disadvantages as well.

What is the nature of these social disabilities and what, if anything, can parents do to help their children and adolescents “fit in?”


Social Disabilities Occur on Three Levels:

Education experts identify three different areas of learning and behavior where these deficits are most manifest.

  • The first is a cognitive deficit, lack of knowledge of how to conduct oneself in a given social situation – how to observe the unwritten rules of social decorum. Intervention on this level consists of teaching the requisite skill in much the same way as a new math concept or social studies lesson might be presented.
  • The second might be referred to as a “performance deficit” and shows up in children or adolescents who understand appropriate behavior and what is expected, but their own needs interfere with their intellectual comprehension. Some children who understand the concept of fair play and know they should show good sportsmanship, simply can’t bear to lose, so they break the rules to make sure that they win. These children have the skills but are unable to apply them.
  • Still others with social difficulties know how to act and can suppress their needs appropriately, but they lack the ability to evaluate their own or others’ behavior. They don’t understand the effect of their actions and, cannot anticipate social consequences.

Children with these issues generally perceive themselves as the victims of others’ mistreatment. They take little responsibility for their actions, blaming others or simply “bad luck” for events in their lives.

To help young people with social problems, it is important to understand on what level they are having trouble. Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, have deep social implications. Children who don’t “read” body language, facial expressions and vocal inflections well are likely to miss important signals in life that are apparent to others.


Social Acceptance Is Crucial

Many educational experts and psychologists have come to view the social domain as important as academic instruction. They say that parents cannot afford to ignore their children’s social difficulties. The consequences are too great for the child and the family.

To help children develop better social skills, parents might consider practicing certain strategies and tips at home, or hiring someone trained in social skills coaching to teach some basic strategies, including:

  • How to initiate, maintain, and end a conversation.
  • The art of negotiation – how to compromise to get what you want in appropriate ways, without stepping on others’ feelings or rights.
  • How to be assertive without being aggressive.
  • How to apologize.
  • How to give and receive compliments.
  • Practice how to accept constructive criticism.
  • How to respond to teasing and bullying by peers.



Bullying, a distinct problem in many classrooms, deserves separate treatment in another article. But since it is often the socially inept child who is the victim of bullying, a few words about this widespread problem are in order here.

Bullying is the deliberate attempt to intimidate, hurt or frighten someone with words or actions. It can include teasing, name-calling, preventing others from going where they want to or doing what they want to, pushing or hitting, and other forms of physical or verbal abuse.

Children who bully others do it for a variety of reasons. It makes them feel more important and more popular. It makes them forget their own shortcomings and inadequacies. They do it to make themselves feel tough or in control. They do it to get a laugh.

Often bullies will choose children who seem easy to hurt. They may pick on children who look or are different in some way; struggle with schoolwork; are not good at sports; lack social confidence; are anxious or unable to hold their own because of being smaller, weaker or younger.


Look Out For Telltale Signs

Children who are being bullied may not always tell adults. They may be afraid or ashamed. They may worry that they will be blamed for causing it. Some signs of being bullied may include:

  • Not wanting to go to school and finding excuses to stay at home.
  • Wanting to go to school a different way to avoid the children who are bullying them.
  • Being very tense, tearful and unhappy after school.
  • Talking about hating school or not having any friends.
  • Unexplained bruises or scratches.
  • Refusing to tell a parent what happens at school.

The child may show other signs of unhappiness, such as problems with sleeping or lack of appetite, or generalized anxiety. If bullying is allowed to continue, it can have a very bad effect on the victimized child.


Parents Can Help

Parents of a child who is being bullied are often at a loss as to how to deal with the problem. Often the child’s teachers will say that they don’t allow teasing and bullying in their class and that it simply does not happen.

The fact that it is indeed happening – though not under their noses – does not seem to register. Most kids are smart enough to know not to pick on kids when the teacher or any adult is in close proximity, but for the perceptive teacher, signs of it are not hard to pick up.


Be Pro-Active

There are several things parents can do to help. These include:

  • Listen to your child and take her feelings and fears seriously.
  • Try not to take everything into your own hands, as this is likely to make your child feel less in control.
  • Probe carefully to determine if your child is doing something to provoke the bullying. A socially inept child may not be aware of how he is antagonizing or provoking others.
  • If the bullying is verbal teasing, you may be able to help your child learn to ignore it, and not to give satisfaction to the teaser by getting angry or tearful. Practice responses that discourage teasing. (for example, countering a teasing remark with a joke; by appearing to agree with teaser; by walking away with dignity).
  • If the bullying happens at school, make a list of incidents in which your child was bullied. Be firm and factual, not emotional. Be prepared to name the children who bully.
  • Talk to the teacher and the school principal about the school’s way of dealing with bullying and what steps they take to prevent it and protect children from it. Keep in contact until the problem is sorted out.
  • Don’t be intimidated. The school has an obligation to maintain a healthy, safe environment for each and every child.

Children who are the butt of ridicule, teasing or bullying, and children who incur social difficulties on any level require special understanding as well as teacher/parent intervention. Although each young person is unique, all have the same needs – acceptance, approval, a safe environment and a sense of belonging.

In today’s world, experts agree, teachers must educate the whole child, paying careful attention to the child’s social skills and social adjustment as much as to his academic progress. We must go beyond the three R’s to include the fourth one: relationships. This is the key to a child’s happiness, emotional growth and overall productivity.

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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, 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 [email protected].