Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Odd Boy In

In response to my post about Bobby, a parent asked for advice on her son, who is headed for a social life like Bobby's, only middle-school style. Her question reminded me of this story, so here's my answer.

I once had an 8th grade student named Lon who had an emotional/behavioral disability. As if that wasn't enough of a social stigma, he was one of the shortest kids I've met and sort of funny looking (reminded me a little of a turtle, actually.) Anyway, Lon was very, very bright. He loved to read and read and read and write (self-chosen topics, of course.) Lon was on meds to stabilize his moods, meds to help him sleep, and meds to help him wake up (they also helped him gain weight.) In short, he had a lot of issues. If friends were issues, Lon would have been the most popular guy in school. Unfortunately, he had no friends. Every lunch period, he sat alone.

Flash-forward to the middle of the school year. A colleague mentioned that Lon had said something very humorous in her classroom that day, during lunch. Disappointed to think of Lon sitting in a teacher's classroom, instead of in the lunchroom with his peers, I questioned her about it. She said, "Oh, no. It's not like that; he and his little "clique" meet in here every day."

Clique?? She told me that for some time, Lon and his friends had been wandering down to her small room off of the cafeteria hallway. That Lon had a friend was new to me, so the next time I saw him, I asked him about it. Here's what he told me [paraphrased],

"I used to go to lunch all the time and sit by myself, because no one wanted to sit with me. Then one day, I noticed a girl across the room who was also sitting by herself. She's one of those "Goth" kids, kinda, so people are afraid of her. I decided to write her a poem, so I wrote it that night and just put it on her table the next day, and ever since then, we've been hanging out."

I asked Lon what the poem was about, and he said, "Just about being different and people not accepting who you are." He told me that he and this friend asked Mrs. P if they could eat lunch in her room one day, and before long, there were 4 or 5 kids in there, eating together every day.

What Lon had done was pure genius; he looked around for someone else whom others had not befriended, and he reached out. She reached back.

Not everyone is a poet, and all kids do not get along, but maybe some kids who have "no friends" are only looking at the "popular" kids or those closest to them and need to expand their efforts at friendship. Here are a few more tips:

*Ask your child's teacher to videotape his/her behavior in a typical classroom situation, without his knowledge, if you feel comfortable with that. Ask about using such video to educate your child about his/her own behavior--Would he want to be that child's friend? Why or why not? Obviously, this could be intimidating to a child, but handled properly can be an excellent teaching tool.

*Ask the school about providing a smaller setting for a group of kids to eat lunch together. Invite a few leaders, but also reserve a few spots for special needs kids. This might help them make connections in a less-threatening environment. Our school counselors have also started offering special activities during recess (board game days, large-group games, dodge-ball, etc.)

*Read some of Michelle Garcia-Winner's materials on teaching "Social Thinking." One of the concepts I've learned from her include this, "People have thoughts about us all the time. Sometimes, they are normal thoughts that make them want to hang out with us. Sometimes, they have weird thoughts about us and don't want to hang out with us. We can control some of those thoughts through our actions." I use this philosophy currently with a female student with whom we are working on personal dress and hygiene. "Like it or not, when you don't wash your hair, it makes people have weird thoughts about you. Do you want people to have weird thoughts about you? No? Then what do you need to do?"

*Another way to help your child find friends is helping him find an after-school club to join, or signing him/her up for karate or something like that. Sometimes, too, when teachers put special-needs kids in roles with power (leading a group, for example), it draws others to them. I've also sent kids outside for recess with a new/different ball to share on the playground, first talking with them about "Expected and Unexpected" behaviors (Michelle again) when you want to gain friends.

I hope these ideas offer something promising for someone you know...

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