Loneliness in Young Children (page 2)
Loneliness is a significant problem that can predispose young children to immediate and long-term negative consequences. However, only recently have research and intervention in educational settings focused on young children who are lonely. It is becoming increasingly clear that many young children understand the concept of loneliness and report feeling lonely. For example, kindergarten and first-grade children responded appropriately to a series of questions regarding what loneliness is ("being sad and alone"), where it comes from ("nobody to play with"), and what one might do to overcome feelings of loneliness ("find a friend") (Cassidy & Asher, 1992). In a more recent study (Ladd, Kochenderfer, & Coleman, 1996), kindergarten children's loneliness in school was reliably measured with a series of questions such as, "Are you lonely in school?"; "Is school a lonely place for you?"; and "Are you sad and alone in school?" These studies suggest that young children's concepts of loneliness have meaning to them and are similar to those shared by older children and adults. This Digest presents an overview of loneliness with suggestions for practitioners on how they can apply the research in early childhood settings.†
Consequences of Loneliness
Children who feel lonely often experience poor peer relationships and therefore express more loneliness than peers with friends. They often feel excluded--a feeling that can be damaging to their self-esteem. In addition, they may experience feelings of sadness, malaise, boredom, and alienation. Furthermore, early childhood experiences that contribute to loneliness may predict loneliness during adulthood. Consequently, lonely children may miss out on many opportunities to interact with their peers and to learn important lifelong skills. Given the importance placed on the benefits of peer interactions and friendships to children's development, this potential lack of interaction raises many concerns for teachers who work with young children. Peer relations matter to children, and lonely children place as much importance on them as do other children (Ramsey, 1991).†
Contributing Factors of Loneliness
Several factors contribute to feelings of loneliness in young children. Some that occur outside of the school setting are conflict within the home; moving to a new school or neighborhood; losing a friend; losing an object, possession, or pet; experiencing the divorce of parents; or experiencing the death of a pet or significant person. Equally important are factors that occur within the child's school setting, such as being rejected by peers; lacking social skills and knowledge of how to make friends; or possessing personal characteristics (e.g., shyness, anxiety, and low self-esteem) that contribute to difficulties in making friends. Kindergarten children who are victimized by peers (e.g., picked on, or physically or verbally attacked or taunted) report higher levels of loneliness, distress, and negative attitudes toward school than nonvictimized children (Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996).†
Observing and Assessing Young Children
Participating in careful observation of children is a necessary first step to gain insights into children's loneliness. While observing children, teachers can focus on the following, which may suggest signs of loneliness: Does the child appear timid, anxious, unsure of himself or herself, or sad? Does the child show a lack of interest in the surroundings? Does the child seem to be rejected by playmates? Does the child avoid other children by choice? Does the child appear to lack social skills that might prevent him or her from initiating or maintaining interactions? Does the child have the necessary social skills but is reluctant to use them? Is the child victimized by peers? Does the child's apparent loneliness seem to be a consistent pattern over time, or is it a more recent phenomenon? In addition, because loneliness cannot always be observed in children (e.g., there are children who appear to have friends but report feeling lonely), teachers can spend time talking individually with children. They might ask children, "What does sad and lonely mean?"; "Are you sad and lonely?"; or "What would make you happier?" (Cassidy & Asher, 1992; Ladd, Kochenderfer, & Coleman, 1996).†
When observing and assessing children, it is important to be sensitive to and aware of their developmental abilities and personal inclinations. For example, it has been suggested that young children who play alone may be at increased risk for later problems, both socially and cognitively. Many preschool and kindergarten children, however, engage in nonsocial activities that are highly predictive of competence. Therefore, over time, teachers need to observe children's interactions with their peers, talk to children about their feelings, and document their behaviors and responses to determine whether they are lonely or are happily and productively self-engaged.†
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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