Q: Adam prefers to be alone. The first grader sits by himself during playtime and lunch. I've encouraged him to be more social, but he seems to prefer to draw or read alone. What should I do?
A: I share your inclination to try to change this boy's behavior. Socializing is natural for human beings and an important predictor of later academic success. Dropping out of school in the teen years is more likely for children who have not succeeded socially in the early grades.
I suggest starting with this boy's history in school and at home. If he attended kindergarten in your program, have a chat with the kindergarten teacher. Among the things you will want to ask: Has he always been asocial? Are there notes from parent-teacher conferences about this issue? Do the parents themselves appear to be shy? Do they express concern about their son's lack of friends? Is his behavior the same in the neighborhood and in the family? Has this child been a loner from his earliest years?
You may feel that it is not appropriate for you to ask such questions, only to listen to whatever the parents want to tell you. However, the school psychologist and/or school social worker can pursue a detailed history.
The school, including the special services team, is bound to respect the family's lifestyle, unless the parents express a wish for help in changing it for the sake of their son. They should then have the option of working with the special services team or with a private child/family psychologist. In the meantime, keep the door open to the child's social opportunities in your classroom. Even if he doesn't accept invitations to play or work with others, it is important that he continue to feel wanted in the classroom community.
Q: "We hate boys!" Several of my female fifth graders are picking on the boys. They ignore the boys in our class, leave them out, sometimes even mock them. I know girls and boys start to react to one another in new ways at this age, but it's been weeks and they're relentless.
A: Your girls are starting young, but it is the case that a new self-consciousness appears between the sexes as puberty arrives. I have more often heard about boys shutting girls out, but maybe that occurs later, when boys have also reached puberty. In any case, what are they saying with this dismissive, even rude behavior? I think they are feeling it's no longer safe to take members of the opposite sex matter-of-factly: "We must distance ourselves from them to get some space. Being close can make us ‘all atwitter,' and interfere with our work." Your girls may need adult assurance that their classrooms are reliably chaperoned. There is no danger in being friends with the opposite sex. We don't all have to like one another but we do have to treat others with respect. And implied, coming from you is, "I am here and vigilant, seeing to it that the rules of conduct reign." Of course, you will need to frown upon rude behavior, and find a way of reassuring the girls that despite their hormonal jitters, they are safe with you there. You will monitor classroom behavior and protect everyone in your group. That's a broad enough pledge to include protecting children from their own unacceptable impulses.