Is there a lonely child in your classroom?

November 21, 2018

By Guest Blogger Melbourne Psychologist Jeannine Mills

It’s normal to feel lonely every now and then but feeling lonely a lot of the time can be worrying. Loneliness is a ‘disconnection from others and refers to a negative perception of one’s relationships’[1]Peplau & Perlman 1982, referenced in M. H. Lim, (August 2018) Is Loneliness Australia’s next public health epidemic? InPsych, The Bulletin of … Continue reading regardless of the social networks that surround us.  It might seem surprising, but children can feel lonely in a room full of other children. Sadly, one or two may even feel invisible. Often feelings of loneliness speak about the quality and perception of friendships, rather than to the number of friends one might have.

The ability to make meaningful emotional connections can be affected by a variety of factors, some more pervasive than others. Social skills, personality traits, attachment style, what’s going on at home, changes like moving school, and medical conditions, can all adversely affect our relationships with others and sense of feeling connected.

Noticing changes in a child’s interactions

While young children may not initially have the words to express their loneliness, they are likely to express it in other ways. A teacher or parent might simply notice a change in the child. They may notice the child is withdrawing or even lashing out. Classroom or home room teachers are in the unique position to know a child’s usual friendship group and demeanour. They may observe shifts in behaviour, social dynamics, mood, maturity and interests. Yard duty teachers also have a great vantage point to notice students who are isolated. General Practitioner, Dr. Grant Blashgki speaks about the special role teachers can play. See,

Ask questions such as: ‘Are you okay, how are you going, I’ve noticed…?’

If teachers notice a change in a child, they can check in with them to see if they are okay. Thoughtful questions, out of ear shot of others, aimed at opening up a dialogue and gently finding out what might be wrong can be a good place to start. It’s important to remember you don’t have to rush in to fix the situation by organising lots of social situations. While loneliness might be a signal that tells us we need to reach out and connect to others the child might lack the confidence to make friends. Feeling lonely can make children more sensitive to the risks of social rejection. Listening to the child is very important. The following video link with Karen Fletcher and Dr Grant Blashki offers further ideas for asking questions and listening.

Open up a dialogue

Teachers can also help children build empathy and understanding for one another and themselves. Classroom discussions about friendship and social connection can help children to build the skills required to foster healthy relationships (taking turns, sharing, listening etc). These discussions can also give students the opportunity to talk about difficult feelings that arise when those connections don’t feel strong. It’s crucial we normalise these challenges and the difficult emotions that can accompany them.  If we give children the space to tell (and hear) each other’s stories in a supportive environment, it can reduce feelings of shame and isolation. Children can also brainstorm ideas about what to do if they, or someone else, is feeling lonely.

Some primary and junior secondary schools have introduced clever initiatives to help children make friends. A friendship tree with a seat under it, can be identified as a place a child can go when they have no-one to play with. This not only helps to normalise feeling alone, but allows others to be part of the solution, as children and teachers can easily identify those who are looking for someone to connect with.

What a psychologist might find out

If a child continues to struggle to connect with others despite the teacher’s best efforts, teachers and parents can seek professional help. With parental consent, school psychologists or psychologists in private practice can determine what factors might be getting in the way of social connectedness. Perhaps the child is struggling with:

  • Negative thoughts about social situations
  • How they are perceived by other children and what they have to offer
  • Their attachment style may keep people at arm’s length
  • Constantly feeling worried about rejection and being unable to take the social risks required to build friendships.

Making friends requires a willingness to be vulnerable. For some this creates uncertainty and fear. A psychologist can help a child navigate this.

Further classroom practical strategies

Psych4Schools members can access and download from the resource package on friendship. There is a variety of tools to assist students who have difficulties making and keeping friends. If you are not a member it is easy to join today by clicking here for options Join Now

Jeannine Mills is a privately practicing psychologist in Melbourne’s bay side suburbs. Jeannine has 3 children in senior and primary school years and has a special interest in Restorative Practices which focuses on building strong meaningful relationships through creating a safe space to resolve issues.

She can be contacted by email on


  1. Peplau & Perlman 1982, referenced in M. H. Lim, (August 2018) Is Loneliness Australia’s next public health epidemic?InPsych, The Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, 40 (4), 7-11. Melbourne, Australian Psychological Society