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by Rick on October 23, 2018

Young people are among the loneliest of all Americans. Schools that teach kids how to deal with feelings of isolation could help put a dent in the epidemic, writes Ashley Fetters in “To Prevent Loneliness, Start in the Classroom” (Atlantic, Oct 17.)

In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first ‘minister of loneliness.’ … Starting in primary school, students will have mandatory lessons in “relationships education,” and such lessons will also be incorporated into sex ed classes in high school….The Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of the foremost scholars on loneliness in the United States, warns the U.S. has a significant, largely unaddressed loneliness problem of its own—and that schools desperately need to follow the U.K.’s lead and incorporate preventative measures into their lessons.

Brilliant! Now, the experts will write lessons and teach socially isolated students about how to be intimate. Is it not obvious that this will be just one more isolating learning experience? Lessons on relationships won’t fix relationships when loneliness is built into the culture of so many classrooms. Sitting alone at their desks with minimal interaction with classmates, students are told what to learn and how. Isolation from peers is built into the game of school where you win by being “more likely to succeed” than your classmates. Rather than working well with others, the top value is being better than others: “excellence” on a very narrow range of metrics. No wonder we have a loneliness problem. The culture of most schools minimizes relationship and maximizes loneliness.

And research supports what many of us have experienced; i.e. that a relationship with one person (often a teacher) who takes a personal interest in us is all it takes to turn failure into success. Banishing loneliness is a critical path to success, and it’s all about relationships.

The antidote for loneliness is not lessons on relationships, but

Collaboration is conflict going well

actual collaboration. To “put a dent” in the epidemic of loneliness, we need to revision school as a relationship laboratory—a place where young people go to strengthen their relationship muscle day by day, moment by moment, as they get down to the business of, actually, working with others.

As our five-year-olds go off to kindergarten on the first day of school, they will tell you they are looking forward to making friends. And their instincts are correct. They are right in hoping that school will provide them with practice in resolving conflicts and making friends. Respect for others, social self-confidence, making conflict creative,… what better place to learn these skills than a social environment rich in social interaction and adult leadership.


School should be where you can get together with others and learn to see different points of view, to change perspective, to turn strangers into friends, to give constructive criticism, to take any criticism and make it constructive… this is the highest and best use of school, and obviously, the antidote for loneliness. You’d think school would a great place to learn how not to be lonely.

It is easy to spot a school that is doing the job of combatting loneliness. Wander around. Peek into classrooms. Who is doing most of the talking? Count the incidence of students speaking up, disagreeing, asking questions, accepting criticism and learning from mistakes. You should see a lot of collaboration and engagement in meaningful work. And you can tell if the students feel they have a voice, that their teachers believe in them, that they matter.

What do our young people need to be prepared for the world? What does it mean to be educated? In Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky presents “The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” Looking at the table of contents, one finds one can’t argue. If we were hiring—for whatever occupation—we would want someone who could (1) focus and control themselves, (2) take other perspectives, (3) make connections, (4) communicate, (5) think critically, (6) take on challenges, and (7) love learning. Whatever your occupation, you want these skill sets. But they are not learned through “lessons;” they are learned in action—social interaction.

The way to reverse the loneliness epidemic is to understand school as a relationship lab where students, teachers, parents and policy makers—all of us—care as much about mastery of these skills as we do about academic achievement. When we do, when we devise metrics for them, and when we hold everyone accountable for how we relate, then we will be making a serious commitment to combatting loneliness. Then, also, schools will break free from the factory model of the 19thcentury and become educational.



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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

jon madian October 24, 2018 at 10:16 am

Good points Rick… it seems its difficult for the political, policy, administrative, and some teacher types who have helped to create the current a-social learning culture to imagine a different model for addressing the problem. Clearly fixing the problem with more lessons, albeit on loneliness, may only add to it. Wish these top-down folks read your blog :))

Lisa Sanden October 24, 2018 at 10:46 am

Hi Rick–I agree with you. I think it is also important to address the fundamental loneliness of teachers. Many don’t have the kind of support they need at school, and so are left with a range of feelings that they don’t know how to process, and don’t have anyone to process with in a way that leads to greater understanding, authenticity, and nourishment. This leaves many taking those feelings home, dumping them on colleagues as complaints that lead nowhere, or stuffing them, which leads to greater burnout. Good therapists have supervision in which they have an opportunity to process their own feelings and reaction from the day or week. Teachers would benefit from this as well, meaning that the children would reap the rewards.

Rick October 24, 2018 at 3:50 pm

Good point, Lisa. And where can teachers go to talk through their frustrations.

Rick October 24, 2018 at 3:53 pm

When a teacher sees the genius in a student, and communicates, that she believes in him, it helps with two people’s loneliness, not just one, right?

Elizabeth October 24, 2018 at 9:49 pm

When we notice something special in another person and tell them so, and they glow, we immediately feel as if we have made a difference today. And we have. I agree, Dad, noticing another helps two people’s loneliness. Perfect reminder of the day. Thank you!

Susan Porter October 28, 2018 at 12:06 pm

Loneliness Lesson Plans

Objective: Laughing and having fun are better than loneliness. Students will no longer be lonely.

Introduction (10 minutes): Introduce yourself and tell a funny anecdote about how you were once lonely to put students at ease. This will also serve as an example for the first activity.

First activity (15 minutes): Have students write their own funny anecdotes about how they are/were lonely. Discourage gloomy stories stressing how others don’t like that kind of talk as it makes them feel uncomfortable. This should be a silent activity. When students are done, have them turn in their stories. This is a graded activity. Check for originality. Grade on a 10-point scale. Optional: You may post the grades publicly so students can see that the popular kids get better grades because their stories are not as serious.

Second activity (10 minutes): As students finish the writing, have them walk around the room silently and add to posters that tell about all the fun times they had with a group of friends. This reinforces the idea that students need to inflate their own sense of belonging and discourages talk of loneliness. Students should not talk so their ideas are their own.

Closing (5 minutes): Summarize to students that laughing and having fun is better than loneliness so if they feel lonely, they need to go have fun and not complain about it. Students will realize the wisdom in this and will never be lonely again.

Note: This lesson fulfills the requirement for this course. Now teachers can ignore the situation and get back to focusing on teaching the material in the time-honored way of isolating students in learning and following a syllabus. Although learning through collaboration, shared inquiry, and group problem solving is more effective, creating more resilient, thoughtful, compassionate students who advocate for themselves and others and become self motivated learners, let’s face it, it’s hard and time consuming to teach to each child’s needs.

Rick October 28, 2018 at 5:04 pm

Susan, is sarcasm allowed? or does that make people feel more isolated?

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