Stacy was frustrated that Josh, her 10-year-old, was always being rejected by his peers at school. Josh’s behaviors around his peers could easily earn him rejection; but still, it hurt Stacy because she knew that it hurt Josh. During dance instruction, he spit on a girl because she didn’t want to dance with him. At recess, he started calling kids names because they would not play with him. So most of the time, Josh played alone.

Stacy understood that Josh needed the companionship of peers, but she did not know where to start in teaching him how to get people to like him. She made an appointment with the school psychologist, who agreed to observe Josh in social situations in order to formulate a plan on how to address his situation at school.

The school psychologist watched Josh for half an hour in his classroom and also on the playground. She made a list of problem social behaviors that she observed. As Stacy and the school psychologist talked about the observation, they made a list of the skills that Josh could learn that could improve his relationships with peers.
Social Skills Josh Needed to Learn

* Interrupting appropriately—Josh had a habit of intruding on peer conversation and doing distracting behaviors that demanded their full attention. For instance, he interrupted Tom and Frank while they were playing marbles by kicking their marbles out of place.
*Accepting “no” for an answer. Josh did not ask for what he wanted—instead, he demanded. When peers resisted his demands, he would retaliate.
*Respecting personal space. When Josh tried to interact, he placed his body about a foot from the other person. This would likely make the other person feel anxious. The accepted personal space in Josh’s culture was from two to four feet.
* Looking people in the eye. The school psychologist noticed that Josh had the habit of averting people’s gaze. This signaled others that he lacked confidence and identified him a target for bullies. It also prevented Josh from making a warm connection with others.
* Calming self when frustrated. Josh was quick to anger, and when frustrated would remain upset for the rest of the day. He needed to learn how to regain his composure, stop sulking, and go on with daily activities within minutes, rather than hours.

Stacy and the school psychologist decided to start with the two that would be easiest to teach, as that would provide Josh with some success experiences that would motivate him to learn more. Those skills were “looking people in the eye” and “respecting people’s personal space”. These skills could be taught with ease.

* Josh sometimes interacted with others at an appropriate distance. He would occasionally look people he knew in the eye, rather than avert their gaze. When Stacy saw Josh “doing it right”, she would praise him.
* Josh could rehearse the skills of looking people in the eye and respecting personal space in practice sessions with his mother and grandmother.
* When mother observed Josh getting to close when speaking with others, she would use the prompt, “arms-length” to remind him where to position himself. When he averted his gaze, she would prompt with the code, “baby blues” because Josh had such beautiful blue eyes.

Stacy started “training” Josh that very afternoon. Josh enjoyed the attention from mother, and the reinforcement from knowing that he did sometimes interact appropriately. The next day, there were at least no incidents on the playground where Josh was rude to others.

Stacy took the list of social skills Josh needed and carefully detailed what the appropriate behavior would look like. She detailed how to teach those skills in a way that Josh would find engaging. When peers refused to let him play, he learned to smile, look them in the eye, and say, “Well, I really would like to play with you sometime. Maybe later.” He would then walk off and do an activity on his own that interested him.
A Second Chance

Josh moved up in social status within a couple of months. He no longer experienced rejection at school. However, he continued to be ignored by his peers. Peer networks in fifth grade are pretty solid, and it would likely take a long time for peers to let him be an insider. Stacy went to the school district and arranged for him to go to a different school.

One afternoon, a month later, Josh came home from school and asked his mother if he could ride bikes with John, a boy he met at his new school.

Stacy could have waited for Josh to “grow out of it”—but what if that would have taken until he was in his mid 30’s or even 50’s? Or what if Josh decided when he went to middle school that he would be accepted by joining a gang? By paying attention to Josh’s social needs while in elementary school, and finding a well-thought- out and effective solution, Stacy was able to put her son on a trajectory of peer acceptance that would enable Josh to thrive, rather than languish in his teens and adult years.


Author's Bio: 

Katrina Holgate Miller, PhD writes about the strengths and skills people use to face their mental health issues with empowerment (moxie) rather than victimization.

She has turned her 30+ years of clinical experience with thousands of clients into stories and tips about how her clients were able to recover from mental illness and addiction and return to the roles they enjoyed during times of wellness. She is author of the website Her email is