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How to Solve Social Problems at School

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Updated on Apr 17, 2014

When it comes to social interactions, it’s smooth sailing for many kids through kindergarten, first, and second grade. But upper elementary school might come with some new challenges, for both children and parents.

Elisa Nebolsine, a cognitive therapist based in Mclean, Virginia, says social problems at school are very normal, especially in the upper elementary grades. “Social dynamics are really picking up in third grade,” Nebolsine says. “Prior to that, kids are pretty accepting of differences, but then as they get closer to third grade the dynamics of relationships get more complex.”

The key to overcoming social problems at school, Nebolsine says, is to provide lots of opportunities for children to practice being in different kinds of social situations. These can include sports teams, theater groups, play groups, volunteer experiences—any extra-curricular activity that involves socialization.

And according to Julie Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the Ross Center in Washington DC, summer is a perfect time for children to hone their social skills. “Parents can use the summer to give kids practice opportunities,” Lewis says. “They can meet new children, maybe participate in camp-structured situations where they’re given opportunities to practice reading social cues and find other kids to play with.”

Lewis explains that social problems in elementary school often have to do with how kids interpret situations. Some children may feel badly about an interaction while other children may not. They may feel distressed or discouraged by social situations that wouldn’t distress or discourage others. “These kids have a particularly hard time with unstructured situations,” Lewis says. “Summer is a good opportunity for parents to get their kids involved in structured environments where there is an adult present to facilitate social interactions.”

The idea is to help children gain social skills and self-confidence before school begins. And parents can help by gently guiding their children to be proactive and positive. Rather than stewing over the troubles from last year, look forward to the new school year—the new class and the new friends that will be made.

Bonnie Zucker, a D.C.-based psychologist at the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety, and Depression, says parents should take a casual approach in talking to their kids about social concerns. “This shouldn’t be a situation where a parent sits the child down and says, ‘I think we need to talk about the problems you had socializing with other kids last year,’” Zucker says. “Instead, this should be casual sort of off-hand. You might say, ‘Hey, I was thinking maybe we could do some role-plays and practice a few things this summer so you can have a little more fun at school this year.’”

Zucker says role-playing is a good way for parents to help children overcome their worries about social situations. “Kids need practice, and sometimes they just need the language, what to say in certain situations.”

And when school begins, Lewis suggests that parents shouldn’t shy away from talking to the new teacher about their child’s social troubles in the previous year. “I wouldn’t hesitate to let the teacher know that the child has struggled,” Lewis says. “You can ask them to kind of look out for the child and model ways to join a group.”

The school counselor can also be a good resource. Many counselors organize lunch bunches for small groups of children who need a little help socializing. Lewis suggests that parents visit with the school counselor to discuss their concerns and perhaps to ask the counselor to observe the child.

Here are a few pointers for helping your child with social skills before the back to school bell rings:

Smiling

Nebolsine suggests that parents encourage their children to practice small, manageable skills each day. For instance, one day they might work on their friendly face, or on making eye contact. Or, they might just practice saying, “Hi.” Nebolsine says small steps can allow children to have success and to get positive reinforcement from peers. It’s likely that a peer will return a smile or a “Hi.”

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