Dear Polly, There's a 4-year-old in my class, Bobby, who worries me because he never wants to play with the other children. He shuns them and hurts their feelings. Sometimes he says things like "You can't play with me, you're a girl," or "I don't want you here you don't have brown hair like me."He isn't a problem child, but I'm worried about his social development How worried should I be?

I'm glad that you're concerned and want to take a closer look at what's going on here. All too often we're concerned about the acting-out child, not the left-out child, who may actually present more cause for concern.

Creating and maintaining friendships are two of the most important things human beings ever do. The ability to do both begins in earliest childhood. Friendships offer us security, pleasure, and the opportunities to be our best selves. For children as young as 1 year of age, friendships offer learning experiences in basic social skills such as sharing, caring, compromising, cooperation, conversation, and-two of the most important-negotiating and conflict management.

If a child had no friends, he would have far fewer opportunities to develop social skills and to have a fun-filled childhood than most children. However, he would still have his family. And, of course, more of his deep emotional security, unforgettable social interaction, and meaningful communication occurs there than anywhere else.

Sight unseen, I'd say it's highly unlikely that this extreme situation describes Bobby. Have you ever seen him, even briefly, play with another child? If so, with whom? Have you ever seen Bobby approach another child to make a comment, offer or ask her something? Have you seen him accept the verbal and nonverbal invitation of another child to "sit i here," be partners, or play?

I would observe this child dose for a few weeks and take notes, recording all overtures toward and from him. You're very likely to see some little buds of socializing that you can nourish into blossoming by pairing Bobby with a child whom you sense he will enjoy for snack or story time or arranging for them to participate in one of Bobby's favorite activities together.

I would also have a conference with Bobby and confide in him that it hurts the other children's feelings when he rebuffs them. Smilingly tell him that you would love to see him hold so-and-so's hand when you're all going outside. Suggest that if he feels he needs privacy, it would be kind to tell the child who is trying to play or sit with him, "I'll play (or sit) with you later, but right now I need privacy."

Important as teachers and time spent in the classroom are, more important is a child's home life. I would meet over a cup of tea with his family and say: "I've noticed that Bobby doesn't often want to play with the other children in our center. I wanted to check with you, since you know him best. Does Bobby play with siblings, neighbors, or playmates during playdates that you set up?" If they tell you yes, ask with whom he plays, what kind of child it is, what they do together, and so on. If they indicate that Bobby does not play with others, ask the parents how their son spends his time.

You can tell the child's parents that you have different goals for different children, and that your goal for Bobby is to help him feel comfortable accepting the advances of at least one child in the class and to do a little outreach himself. Of course, if you find that Bobby has an OK social life away from school, you have nothing to worry about.

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