Research shows that a student’s perception of loneliness is linked to delinquency and anti-social behaviours in school. Lonely children often feel the way they do because of a lack of social skills which results in behavioural problems. We speak to Lecturer Dr Carol Tan for her perspectives on loneliness among students and how teachers can better support them.
“It is perfectly normal for people to sometimes want to be alone,” says Dr Carol Tan. “There is nothing wrong with this sort of loneliness because time in solitude is often spent thinking and reflecting on ourselves.”
However, depending on their attitude and perception of loneliness, students can respond differently to solitude. Peer rejection or difficulty with social interaction can lead to negative attitudes towards loneliness, including boredom and unhappiness that can manifest as anti-social behaviour.
This should raise concerns, and it is crucial that teachers are able to detect these problems so that they can be addressed as early as possible, says Carol.
The Relationship between Loneliness and Delinquency
Carol’s research into at-risk children with behavioural problems shows a relationship between loneliness and delinquency. Non-loner delinquents were found to be less involved in anti-social behaviours such as school misdemeanours, physical aggression and property abuse as compared to loner delinquents.
“It is interesting to note that loner delinquents are more prone to anti-social behaviour than non-loner delinquents,” says Carol.
Their behavioural problems often stem from social skill deficits and interpersonal relationship problems, as is the case with many individuals with special needs.
Studies have found that students with special needs, particularly those with learning and behavioural difficulties, are more isolated. In addition to personal difficulties connecting with others, they may exhibit behaviour that others find “challenging” or “difficult”.
“Other children may not understand why a child with autism acts a certain way – for instance, why the child has a certain rigidity and is only interested in one topic and nothing else,” says Carol. This can cause the child to be ostracized by his or her peers.
Like other children with behavioural problems, learning social skills is one of the key areas children with special needs need support in.
Profiling Students for Targeted Intervention
To further identify the specific needs of these students, student profiling is necessary. The best kind of interventions are targeted ones that require this, says Carol.
In profiling, special assessments are tailored for teachers to accurately identify each student’s needs and provide targeted support. For instance, extreme loners may prefer to be dealt with on a one-to-one basis, while a group intervention might work better for adolescents who tend to prize friendships.
However, there is currently a limited number of teachers who can support these students, especially those with special needs.
Many teachers may want to be inclusive, but struggle with managing the disruptive behaviour of children with special needs and the peer issues they face, says Carol.
“Learning a student’s needs is a demanding task in itself, but if you have a student with behavioural issues darting around in your class, then it makes teaching all the more challenging.”
“We need to explicitly teach our students behavioural expectations and social skills within our mainstream school setting.”
– Carol Tan, Early Childhood & Special Needs Education Academic Group, NIE
Teaching Social Skills
According to Carol, the teaching of social skills in schools has so far been limited since there is no subject that specifically covers it. Schools have allied educators (AEDs) who work with students with social skills deficits and who are experiencing loneliness, but this is not enough.
“We need to explicitly teach our students behavioural expectations and social skills within our mainstream school setting,” she says.
To equip more teachers with the skills to support these students, MOE’s Training in Special Needs (TSN) policy initiative was introduced in 2005, with an emphasis on teaching social needs. It presently trains 10–20% of teachers in all primary and secondary schools to support students with mild special educational needs.
After undergoing training, TSNs will be deployed as part of a case management team to support children with special needs and who exhibit loneliness and behavioural problems in the classroom.
Building Strong Teacher-Student Relationships
Developing strong teacher-student relationships is another important aspect of supporting lonely and at-risk students. As targeted interventions require an in-depth understanding of each student, teachers can make a difference when there is a good relationship between teacher and student.
Teachers sometimes feedback that they do not have enough time to build such close relationships, but Carol believes the effort made to know these students can pave the way for better learning and interaction in the classroom.
“Although teachers are always concerned about whether they will be able to finish the curriculum, I think the extra effort to support students will make their teaching much easier in the future,” she says.
The key is to show genuine interest and care in getting to know students better – and in doing so, affecting change in them. The process may take time and extra determination, but if effective in helping students overcome social difficulties and loneliness, is a significant step in the right direction towards their successful inclusion.