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30 Jan, Monday
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Montreal Families

Recess anxiety

For some introverted or socially awkward kids, recess isn’t a time of great joy – it is a time when they are forced to be around many children and find a way to fit in.

When asked about their favourite part of school, many children will shout out: recess. Freed from the demands of fractions and French verbs, kids often scramble to be the first out the door and into the schoolyard for a play session with their friends.

But recess can also be source of anxiety, tension and tears for students who don’t mingle easily with their peers or who are the target of teasing or even bullying. And it’s not always easy for adults supervising the schoolyard to distinguish between a child happily daydreaming alone in a corner and the one who is lonely but doesn’t have the skills to approach a group and interact with others.

“Recess is less structured, it’s generally less supervised and children with poor social skills can become socially isolated,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, professor in McGill University’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology.

Almost all children will, at some point in a school year, feel left out on the schoolyard or get into a verbal tussle over some minor issue, like who scored a winning goal in the soccer game. Conflicts are normal and most children handle them well (even if feelings are hurt or a few tears shed). In fact, these episodes of social drama are part of what psychologists call “necessary social pain,” in which kids come to learn the intricacies of social interaction and develop empathy.

Parents may not know what to do or say when their child complains about being left out at recess. Dr. Derevensky suggests that the adults need to take an overall look at how a child is doing. “Some children do not need a lot of friends,” he explains. Being shy, a little awkward or introverted are not necessarily problems to be solved, but rather personality traits that will work themselves through over time. In that case, parents may just need to offer a non-judgmental ear, listening without rushing to call the principal or guidance counsellor first thing in the morning to “fix” the problem.

However, Dr. Derevensky advises parents to pay closer attention if anxiety levels become more marked and disruptive, or when kids show an inability to socialize.

“If teachers bring up the issue, parents should investigate,” he explains. “You might need to get more involved when children say they have no friends, when they are consistently not invited to parties or to other people’s homes for play dates and when other children don’t want to come to their homes.”

Schools have strong support systems in place to help with these problems, explains Dr. Derevensky, so concerned parents should always begin by talking with teachers. “Many of these poor social skills are also evident in the classroom,” he notes, but teachers may be able to help out by, for example, setting up a “buddy” for the child to work with on a project. “Ask the school support staff, such as a guidance counsellor or school psychologist for help,” Dr. Derevensky adds.

Children who struggle socially can benefit from being involved in extracurricular activities, he says. Kids who have trouble fitting in at school may transform socially when in another context, such as art class or camp, where no one knows and labels them. That way, they are free to recreate themselves and start afresh.

Time spent playing and arguing in the schoolyard teaches children valuable life skills about getting along with others. With a bit of adult intervention, even socially awkward kids can find their place and recess can become what it is supposed to be: a time of free play and fun.

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