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School draws out lonely kids by fostering friendships

One Illinois school is trying an innovative program to help kids who have been isolated from their peers.
One Illinois school is trying an innovative program to help kids who have been isolated from their peers.  

By Kathy Slobogin
CNN Education Correspondent

(CNN) -- He sits alone in the school cafeteria. At recess he skirts the edges of the playground or sits on the bench, not joining in. He doesn't play sports and so he doesn't mix that well with the other boys in his class. His mother worries he doesn't have any friends.

At most schools, this child might grow up isolated, even depressed. But at Graham Elementary School in Naperville, Illinois, teachers moved him around to different groups for class projects until he clicked with another boy.

"They became fast friends," says his mother, who preferred not to reveal her name. "All of a sudden he had a best friend and they would hang out with each other, call each other, help each other with homework."

Sue Clendening, the principal of Graham Elementary, spends as much time tracking kids' friendships as she does their grades. For years she had watched children get their feelings hurt during recess and come back to class too upset to learn. Two years ago, she decided to do something about it.

"We have an obligation to stop that," says Clendening. "We have an obligation to teach kids academic subjects, yes, that's our main focus, but if a child is so upset they can't learn, and if you love kids, you want to stop things that hurt kids."

Clendening decided to survey the students, asking them questions about who did and didn't have friends. She found that 30 percent of the children in fourth grade said they were often alone on the playground because no one wanted to play with them. There were children who used the survey as a personal plea for help, writing their own names in for the question, '"Who most needs a friend?"

Clendening put the survey results on spread sheets and shared the data with her teachers. She flagged lonely kids and got teachers to put them in groups of children where they might make friends.

"Basically you put these children in situations where they can be successful," says fourth-grade teacher Sharon Cody. "You call on them when they know the answer."

The school started after-school clubs for book worms or chess players so that children could find soul mates they might not have found on their own. Each grade has a weekly lunch bunch where shy children and more social children get together to talk things over with a social worker.

"I would like to say that social skills can be taught the same way math can be taught," says Clendening. She says a growing body of research points to social skills being as important as academic skills in predicting future success.

Clendening got a lot of her ideas from a book by psychologist Carla Garrity called "Bully-Proofing your School." Garrity says children are the best source of information for who's in trouble in a school.

"The kids know, we have found, as much as six weeks before teachers know what's really going on in a classroom," says Garrity. "Who's getting picked on, who's getting left out."

Garrity says the techniques in her book came from hours of interviewing schoolchildren and observing them on playgrounds. Researchers working with Garrity looked at a suburban school where her bully-proofing techniques were put in place and found that over four years, bullying behavior -- like verbal and physical abuse and children being excluded -- was cut by half.

Teachers and administrators help students find other kids with similar interests.
Teachers and administrators help students find other kids with similar interests.  

Garrity says children who don't learn to make friends can become depressed and withdrawn but are often invisible to teachers. Sometimes such children commit suicide, or act out violently against other children. All it takes to turn such children around, she says, is one good friend.

"Having just one friend in life is one of the best protective factors there is," says Garrity.

If you talk to the children at Graham Elementary, they have a great deal of expertise on what it means to be popular.

Rachel, a fourth grader with big eyes and a few teeth missing, says popular kids observe a hierarchy. "They have a lot of friends and they kind of don't talk to the other people who are, like, lower than them."

"When you're popular, people think you're rich and you get good fashion and go to the good haircut places," says Bryan, another fourth grader.

Kelly sums it up. "They're just, like, perfect."

The children at Graham Elementary seem to embrace the focus on friendships. Principal Clendening says some of the more popular children now go out of their way to speak to children they identified as needing friends. None of the children interviewed needed an expert to tell him or her how important friendships are.

"If you have good friends then you'll have good influences and then you'll get smarter and get good grades," says Zach, a pudgy-cheeked 9-year-old.

Kelly added, "Having friends makes you really believe in yourself and makes you all joyful and happy."


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