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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Robert Doesn’t Fit In

By Peter DeWitt — November 03, 2011 6 min read
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Most days, Robert walks into his elementary school with his head down. It’s not that he doesn’t like his teacher or school, it’s just that is how he likes to walk. Students quickly walk past him on the sidewalk and the hallway because he walks so slow. They smile, laugh and talk with one another as they pass him one by one. They’re not laughing at him but they’re not inviting him into the conversations either.

Robert has a hard time getting his schoolwork in the right place, so his teacher has to remind him where to put his homework and point him in the right direction so he can do his morning work. Every so often he drifts off and occasionally he makes awkward noises. This makes him stick out a bit in third grade because most students are mature enough not to do that, especially when the teacher is talking. Robert, however, cannot help himself.

Over the past few years there have been numerous conversations with Robert’s parents. Robert hasn’t been invited to anyone’s house to play, and he certainly isn’t on the guest list for birthday parties either. The school has a policy that students cannot hand out birthday invitations during school unless all students in the class are invited, so most parents look at the parent directory and mail the invitations. Although the boy parties don’t usually include girls, they don’t include boys like Robert either.

The Great Wide Open
Robert’s lack of friends worries his parents and teachers, so they involved him in a friend’s group with the school psychologist. The school psych tries his best to pull Robert out for the group when his peers are not around but this is not always easy to do. As much as his peers don’t invite him to sit with them during lunch, they know when Robert isn’t there either.

Through his group, Robert learned how to get along with others and fit in socially. The school psych gives Robert some suggestions for finding friends and what to do when he plays with them. Robert is always eager to try the suggestions as much as he knows that he will not always be given the opportunity. Unfortunately, the kids who do not speak to Robert do not have to go to a special group and they are not learning strategies to get along with others.

Recess is the worst part of Robert’s day and it is the best part of his day as well. It is the worst part because when he goes out to the large field, he is all alone. As much as Robert has teachers to help him negotiate his day, they are not there while he is outside. Sure there is a recess aide, but her job is to make sure students don’t hurt each other while they play.

Robert loves recess as much as he hates it because it is the one place where he can float off into his own mind and not get into trouble for daydreaming. As he walks like a shadow from one end of the playground to the other, he imagines he is a pirate, a superhero and sometimes his principal. All of whom seem to have more power than him. When he comes back to reality he hears the ringing of the bell which means that recess is over and it is time to go back to class.

Students Don’t Understand
Peers found Robert’s behavior odd and they were never sure how to understand him. A few times some students tried to befriend him but Robert would make noises so they would quickly turn away and go back to their comfort zones. They just didn’t understand his behavior, although they thought he seemed nice.

Other students were not as kind. Robert was often the punch line of jokes and some of his peers called him names. Even worse, they told other students not to hang out with him which only ostracized him more. The parents didn’t really want their children hanging out with him either because they were more concerned about making sure their children hung out with the popular kids.

Besides being disciplined these students were counseled. Many students who always fit in have no idea what it is like not to fit in. They have no idea what it is like to not be invited to a friend’s house, and many times their parents are thankful that their child is not considered the “odd” child. Unfortunately, the students who pick on the perceived weaker link need to understand that they are a big part of the problem.

In the End
Ultimately, Robert did find peers to hang out with who were more like him. They enjoyed the same activities and had him over to their house. Although he still has issues with peers, he has more friends at the end of third grade than he did when he entered. Not all students are as lucky as Robert to find like-minded peers.

The reality is that there are many students like Robert who enter our buildings. Our job is to find ways to get them to fit in and highlight their differences instead of making those differences seem like a weakness they should hide. When we take into account the idea of the whole child, part of that initiative is to get students to understand that being different is a gift to cherish and not something to be ashamed of, which is not an easy task.

These students like Robert are the ones who face the highest risk of being bullied. They are an easy target for students and the adults around do not always know how to help because they see the “different” behavior these students may display and do not know how to deal with it either, which is why professional development is important. Adults need to learn how to embrace unique children as much as other children need to learn how to embrace unique children.

Do schools really do enough for these students? Are we helping those students negotiate their way through their day to find success? Are we helping other students who always fit into to social norms understand those students who do not? Regardless of the answer we can always do a better job. When one student feels as though they are not safe or are not valued by educators we are not doing our jobs. We need to find unique ways to help all students feel as though they are an important part of our school culture, which is a lofty goal but one that is certainly worth our time and effort.

Things To Do

  • As a school system, participate in events like No Name Calling Week (GLSEN)
  • Character education programs are only as good as the adults who support them. A canned program is great but creating a respectful school culture is better.
  • Staff needs support in dealing with children who do not fit in. Many times they say, “Go play with someone else.” They can’t because they do not know how.
  • If your child is not fitting in discuss the issue with school staff including the principal.
  • As a parent, ask if your child can be recommended to the Child Study Team (CST). The CST involves different stakeholders from the building who will brainstorm ways to help the child fit in with peers. The actual meeting does not involve the child. The teacher meets with the child separately.
  • Make sure that the school building fosters a culture of respect for all children, even the ones who are not “popular.” This can be done through assemblies, daily conversations with teachers and incorporating high quality children’s books that focus on social interactions and differences.
  • Children watch the adults around them. If the adults are respectful, children will learn to be respectful.
  • Social stories are a way teachers can work one on one with a child who is having an issue. The social story can be found on-line or can be teacher created and they focus on the specific issues that the child is having in school.
  • Be proactive, not reactive. If you start to see an issue, don’t wait until the issue gets out of control.
  • Please offer other suggestions for readers in the comment section.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.