Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Conversations in my head always there but never to be said,
Can’t escape my childish dreams, my fantasies, the unreal realities,
Talking to myself again no one seems to be around,
I hide myself inside myself, never thinking I’ll be found…
–Jamie Sue Reinhart

 

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The above poem was written by someone who struggled with social interactions and felt the need to hide from those around her. There are many children who feel the same way in our schools today.

Did you ever notice the child in the recess yard walking around by himself? What about the girl who never has a partner on line? Or the boy who does not have any playdates after school? Is it shyness or something more than that?

In today’s high-paced and increasingly technologically-based society, we are seeing an increase in children with social skills deficits. Some children might simply be shy and experiencing some pain from being teased or left out is a normal part of social development. However, for some socially awkward children, ostracism may be a regular part of their daily lives.

 

Elementary Students

Katharine Beals, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, recently authored a book entitled “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World.” In her book, she argues that “bright, quirky, socially awkward children” are at a disadvantage in today’s schools because contemporary education emphasizes group learning and class participation. Some socially awkward children are in fact the stereotypical “nerd” – children who process things linearly, think abstractly and logically, attune themselves to verbal rather than nonverbal communication, and prefer to work independently.

Beals argues that these children, who might be called nebbish or nebs, need help from parents and schools to help them make their way in the world. So, what can parents do to help the socially awkward elementary school student?

Here are some suggestions for helping your school age child acclimate to the social environment:

Provide a variety of social activities. There are so many social opportunities that are available to children – shul groups, baseball leagues, art classes, playdates, park outings, and many more. Giving your child the opportunity to explore his social behavior in these different contexts will help him expand his social repertoire.

Consider a social skills coach. Social skills coaches can help children learn about nonverbal communication and teamwork. The goal of coaches is to provide children with a safe environment to practice their still emerging communication skills.

Initiate and practice pro-social behavior at home. Even if you are not a social skills coach, you have the ability to help your child understand proper social behavior. Talk about the ways that you greet people, how you can guess what they are feeling based on their facial expressions, and ways to initiate conversations. The more aware your child is of social behavior, the more likely he will be to practice it.

 

Middle School Girls

While children who are extremely socially awkward will often be ostracized by their peers in elementary school, middle school is when a child’s social development becomes more apparent. In order to demonstrate their maturity, many girls will interact with their peers in more adult-like ways. This means that middle school girls who fail to mature at the same pace as their peers will begin to feel left out and not accepted.

Of course, there are many different levels of maturity among middle school girls and therefore it is hard to determine what is problematic. To that end, I have compiled a list of warning signs of poor social development for middle school girls:

  • A lack of consistency in friendships
  • No friends
  • Unable to set limits with friendships and therefore cannot identify her own likes and dislikes
  • Unable to coordinate her own playdates; parents still required to set them up
  • Poor eye contact
  • Poor hygiene
  • Disinterest in extracurricular activities that had once been appealing
  • Severe unhappiness when returning home from school

There are multiple reasons why a middle school girl struggles socially. The simplest reason is that she needs to be taught social skills that come naturally to other girls her age. Alternatively, she might be suffering from a mild form of a nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD), which can cause difficulty reading social cues. Or, she might have Aspergers Syndrome which is often called a high-functioning autism that can result in an inability to read nonverbal communication. All three of these situations can cause children to have social anxiety which can lead to further awkward behavior.

Here are some suggestions of how to help middle school girls who are struggling socially:

Social skills group. There are social skills groups run by professionals who can help teenagers master appropriate behavior and interactions. While at first, these groups might be intimidating to children who are socially awkward, with time they provide a community of people who help each other learn and grow.

Reward proper personal hygiene. Hygiene is an easy “social skill” to help your child master because it is concrete rather than abstract. Create a chart with your child with all of different elements of personal hygiene (teeth-brushing, showering, nail clipping, deodorant, hair-combing). Then, set goals with your daughter that when achieved she gets rewarded for. While she might not be aware of her lack of grooming, her peers will certainly notice the change.

Help her find children with similar interests. If your daughter loves art or music, consider signing her up for an after school activity (preferably not offered by her school at first) in which she can meet other children who share her interests. These shared interests will create a common ground and help your daughter bond with her peers.

Do not “go back to school” yourself. As painful as it is to watch your child struggle socially, if you step in to smooth over socially awkward moments, your daughter will not learn how to do this herself. Therefore, unless the situation is painful or dangerous, keep out of the situation while it is happening. Feel free to talk about it with your daughter before and after, but getting involved at the moment will only stunt her social progress.

Socially awkward children do not have to turn into socially awkward adults, with intervention and patience, they can make friends and live fuller lives.

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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].