A Researcher Looks at All the Lonely Children

By Debra Viadero — November 24, 2009 1 min read
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Everyone knows that people are sometimes at their loneliest in the midst of a crowd. So it stands to reason that crowded classrooms must have their share of lonely students, too.

Georg Stoeckli, a Swiss researcher, attempts to explore that dynamic in a study involving 704 preadolescent boys and girls. He found that between 8 percent and 11 percent of the children in his sample professed feelings of loneliness at school—too many to be ignored, in his opinion. And, for many of those children, feelings of loneliness were linked to feelings of low self-esteem. What he couldn’t determine from his data, though, was whether the lack of self-esteem was a cause or a result of children’s loneliness.

The researcher also found that low self-esteem sets off a chain of reactions in the classroom that can make matters worse for these children. A child with little confidence tends to avoid participating orally in class, and that lack of participation, in turn, leads the child’s peers to perceive him or her as shy or anxious.

To Stoeckli, that dynamic suggests that a good starting point for easing children’s loneliness might be by improving classroom participation. He writes:

Improving classroom participation opens up an alternative that does not aim to change loneliness, self-esteem, or social anxiety, per se. On the contrary, the improvement of classroom participation can even be tackled without making classroom loneliness or other problems of emotional adjustment the subject of discussion.

The researcher doesn’t say exactly how teachers ought to go about doing that. But his thoughts, nonetheless, are worth considering. You can find the full text of “The Role of Individual and Social Factors in Classroom Loneliness” in the current issue of The Journal of Educational Research. (Sorry, I don’t have a link for this one.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.