How to Help Your Child Overcome Social Isolation

As parents, we all want our children to have friends and fit in, but that can be challenging for some children, especially when they have difficulties with social skills.

Social skills allow us to have positive interactions with others, understand the feelings and behaviour of ourselves and those around us, and change our behaviour depending on where we are and who we are with. When a child’s social skills are delayed, it can be difficult for them to interact meaningfully with peers and make friends, leading to them becoming socially isolated either through being excluded by others or by isolating themselves due to being repeatedly unsuccessful in their attempts to join in.

The most concerning impact of social isolation is the negative effect it can have on a child’s wellbeing including reduced self-confidence and self-worth, loneliness, and the development of more serious mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.

Thankfully, there are things we can do to help children develop the skills they need to be successful in their social interactions and find a sense of belonging at school or kinder.

 Identify Gaps in Your Child’s Social Development

The term ‘Social skills’ represents a wide range of abilities from recognising feelings in others through to navigating relationships, and everything inbetween. To be able to support your child to build their social skills, you first need to know where the gaps are. Ask yourself – What aspects of social interaction does my child find difficult? Do they have trouble reading the emotions of their peers, or engaging in the back and forth of conversation? Do they struggle to understand jokes or find it hard to join in? Knowing where the gaps are will help you to know where to focus intervention to help your child continue to develop their skills.

Teach and Practice Skills Needed for Social Interaction and Friendships

Once you know what areas your child needs support in, you can focus on teaching them the skills they need to be more successful in social interactions. For many children, explicit teaching of social concepts or rules will be necessary. Teaching can be done in many ways including reading story books, watching videos, role-playing and discussion of real situations. Once they understand a concept, provide opportunities to practice skills with parents and siblings to help them increase confidence in their abilities. Then encourage them to practice their skills with their peers, and assist them to reflect on their successes and their challenges.

Facilitate Playdates

Arranging play-dates with children from school can support children to feel included not just by helping them connect outside of school times, but also by increasing the likelihood they will have someone to play with in the school playground. To facilitate a successful play-date, you may need to teach the rules associated with having a friend to play, such as letting a guest choose what to play, or not deserting a guest to go and play something else on their own. It can also be useful to plan out the activities that are available and schedule in a snack or two to reduce the demands on the child to think of ideas and also reduce anxiety about what will happen and whether it will be successful. Regular play-dates help children make stronger connections with individual peers that can assist them in at school, as well as providing them with opportunities to practice their skills in a safe and familiar environment.

Help Your Child Use Their Strengths to Make Connections

While it is important to know what areas your child needs help with, it is also important to know what your child does well. Do they have a great sense of humour? Can they talk about dinosaurs for hours? Are they good at sport or computers? Do they have an amazing memory? Your child’s strengths can be used as a way for them to connect with others, particularly those with similar skills or interests. Joining a sporting club, cubs or scouts, a dance class or a gaming club may provide an opportunity for your child to practice their skills with like-minded peers who already have a common interest, making connecting a little easier.

Get Kinder or School Involved

Given the amount of time that children spend at kinder or school, it makes sense to get them involved in supporting your child’s social development. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, lunchtime clubs around a specific activity such as Lego or gardening can be a great way of supporting children that struggle with the unstructured time out in the playground. It gives children an opportunity to interact with peers around a common activity, with an adult there for support if needed. Other initiatives schools or kinders can employ include buddy systems, peer mentoring and small group classroom activities or games. The best way to get school or kinder involved is to talk to your child’s teachers about your concerns regarding your child’s social development, and work with them to create opportunities for positive social interaction.

With support and guidance, all children can develop the skills they need to develop positive peer relationships and have social success in the classroom and playground, allowing them to find the meaningful connections and sense of belonging that every child deserves.

Celebrating A Positive Future for Autism

In September this year, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference  in Sydney, Australia. The conference was an opportunity for people with Autism, their families, and professionals working with the Autistic community to come together and share their experiences, knowledge and research to better understand Autism. The theme of the conference was ‘Growing with Autism,’ an acknowledgement of the shift from viewing Autism as a disorder of childhood to a lifelong condition that requires understanding, acceptance and support from infancy to old age.

What made the conference this year so special, was the number of Autistic teens and adults that had made themselves available to talk about their experiences about life on the spectrum, the diagnostic process, and their hopes for the future. Hearing first-hand accounts of the challenges individuals with Autism have faced, what they have achieved and what they want the neurotypical world to know about them was enlightening, educational and encouraging for me both as a Psychologist and as a parent.

And what was the most important message I took away from the conference? While there were many valuable lessons that I will use both in my professional and personal life, the message that had the most impact was one given by Dr Stephen Shore, a professor, author, Autism advocate and Autistic adult who spoke about helping individuals with Autism use their strengths to achieve a fulfilling and productive life. One of the ways we can do this, he said, is to focus less on doing things to Autism and focus more on working with Autism.

The example Dr Shore gave was one of supporting a child in the classroom. It may be an effective strategy to use the child’s special interest as a reward for completing other work, allowing them to play with some toy airplanes after doing a piece of writing or a maths sheet. This is doing something to the child’s Autism. While this strategy is a perfectly acceptable way of encouraging a child to complete an activity, working with their Autism may be more effective. This could be done by incorporating the child’s love of planes into the task itself, encouraging the child to write about their favourite plane or counting or measuring parts of a plane for their maths activity.

I think this is such an important distinction, not only for how we think about supporting Autistic children and adults at school and work, but also for understanding and accepting Autism itself. While there are many skills that are important for Autistic individuals to develop to allow them to function and flourish in a neurotypical world, it is also important to support individuals to embrace their Autism rather than try and make them less Autistic so they fit in.

Dr Shore’s message is a simple one, but one that can make a positive change to the way we think about Autism, and in turn can make a difference to members of the Autism community and their hopes for the future.

Helping your child make a smooth start to the new school year

There seems to be a lot of information available for parents about the big transitions that children face at the start of the school year, such as starting Primary or Secondary school. But for many children already at school, starting the new school year in a new grade with a new teacher is an equally big event, and one that we can help to prepare them for.

With the end of the school year fast approaching, it is a good time to think about how to help your child get ready for the changes that come with moving up a grade in school.

Get familiar with the rooms and teachers.

While it is unlikely that the school will know exactly who your child will have as a teacher and what room they will be in before the very end of the school year, most schools have classrooms dedicated to specific year levels and regular teachers that teach those grades. Ask your child’s current teacher to provide opportunities for your child to visit higher grades in informal ways, such as running errands or participating in joint class activities, so they have a chance to get to know the classrooms and teachers and will hopefully feel more familiar with the staff and surroundings when it’s time to move up a grade.

Talk to your child about changes that are going to occur in their new grade and reassure them that there will be a lot of similarities to their current year level.

Talk about what to expect.

Many teachers start to talk to their classes about expectations for the year ahead to try and motivate children to work harder or behave better. However, this can result in increased anxiety and unrealistic expectations of the workload. Statements like “you will be in Grade 6 next year, so you need to start setting an example for the younger students,’ or ‘the work is going to be harder in Grade 3 so you need to pay attention,” can make going up a year level feel like a huge jump in responsibility and work that many children don’t feel ready for. Talk to your child about changes that are going to occur in their new grade and reassure them that there will be a lot of similarities to their current year level. For example, teachers are not going to give students really hard work at the beginning of a new grade, they will start where their students finished the year before and slowly build on their skills and knowledge. This will help your child have a more realistic and less scary picture of what the year ahead will look like.

Help your child learn to embrace change.

It is usual for children to be uncertain about the changes that moving up a grade will bring. Concerns about whether they will have friends in their class, or if their teacher will be nice, are common, and may lead to anxiety and a reluctance to attend school or challenging behavior at home. To help reduce their uncertainty, encourage your child to think about the good things that moving up a grade will bring, and support them to reflect on situations where they have experienced change in a positive way (e.g. new clothes, birthdays, holidays, etc.). It is also important to let your child know that it is normal to be a bit nervous or uncertain about change, but you will be there to help them work things out and they will be alright.

Preparing your child for their transition to a new grade will help to make the move a more positive one not just for your child, but for your family as a whole.