Why don't they like me?
A new theory claims being an unpopular child is a learning difficulty, just like dyslexia, and the good news is that is can be treated, writes Tanith Carey
At the age of nine, Clodagh is the type of child who the other girls in her class describe as "a bit weird".
There's something about her body language -- and the way she "hovers" at the edge of their games, but doesn't join in -- which makes them uncomfortable.
From time to time, Clodagh also pipes up with "funny" things at unexpected times in lessons. Her teacher recently complained at parents' evening that she started volunteering where she was going on holiday in the middle of a maths class.
Behind her back, although never to her face, the other children complain that Clodagh is a "show-off" because she talks "at" them instead of listening to what they say. So, at break-time, Clodagh often finds she has no one to play with.
Every parent wants their child to be popular. And whatever they may say, deep down every child wants friends. But much more than just being a popularity contest, all the research -- including a recent study for the British Children's Society -- has found that having good relationships with peers is one of the essential elements for self-esteem, happiness and success in life.
Yet until now, it's always been assumed that making friends is something that young people should learn to do by themselves -- even if some are naturally better at it than others.
Now that idea is being turned on its head by a new approach that treats problems forming social relationships in the same way as a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia.
Just as those children can't make sense of the letters they see on a page, unpopular children also have problems understanding and interpreting social cues others use. Considering that 55pc of communication is facial expression and body language and 38pc is voice tone and volume, it can leave them at a serious disadvantage. Because while it takes an average youngster three seconds to work out those signals, children with social deficits take longer.
But in the same way as techniques have been developed to help with those with academic learning difficulties, there are now skills that can aid children with poor social interaction, according to American child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner, who first devised the Social Thinking programme to teach "bright but socially clueless students" at high schools in California.
Her methods aim to help children become aware of how to act "acceptably" to others. Her ideas are rapidly gaining currency in Europe and are already being taught to teachers and parents in the UK.
So what would Clodagh and other socially challenged children have to gain if it was introduced here? Crucially, Social Thinking is not just used not just to help children on the autistic spectrum, but also less popular youngsters, who have not been diagnosed with any problem but who, without guidance, may never learn the rules of friendship.
Garcia Winner explains: "Concepts like how to share, how to co-operate and when to say the expected thing are complicated and sophisticated ideas. Some children may need more help understanding these concepts than others. Their brains may not be making all the connections. They know why they like other children, but they may not realise what they are expected to do for other children to like them back in return. Yet even if they don't get it by intuition, we can teach children how to be 'social detectives' -- to think about how others see them and to use their eyes, ears and brains to learn what is expected from them."
With Social Thinking techniques, youngsters are taught that in the same way that they can be smart at maths, computers, music or English, they can also have "social smarts", which can be improved through practice. Part of the approach is to teach children that if they act in ways that make others feel awkward, such as speaking at the wrong times, or becoming obsessive about certain subjects, others will avoid them.
Dublin-based child psychotherapist and parenting expert Dr John Sharry believes that being schooled in socialising can be a positive thing for children.
Dr Sharry says: "Although this is nothing revolutionary in terms of children's mental health, it is definitely a good idea to introduce social skills to children through support programmes like this.
"Children who are in the autistic or learning difficulty sphere get tailored educational help. So those who have social difficulties can similarly benefit from special help," he says.
"For instance, coaching on how to approach other children, such as standing tall and facing crowds, would help a child overcome their problems and interact with their peers."
He goes on: "But if approaching social-skill learning as we would dyslexia, I think it is important that no stigma should be attached to it. Labels make life more complicated and children who are stuck with the shy or weird tag should be made aware that they are not outsiders.
"Likewise, parents and teachers must realise that children are not simply being "bold" or difficult but are in need of extra help. It's great to provide as much social and emotional support to children as possible to help them better understand themselves, but there will always be growing pains for kids, sensitive or not," he advises.
>Additional reporting by Lorna Keating
For more information log onto www.socialthinking.com.