Isolated In Class: How Can We Make Sure There Are No Invisible Children?

07/08/2017 16:49 BST | Updated 07/08/2017 16:49 BST

Close to the middle of the classroom, sits a student who lacks self-confidence. He doesn't like to get things wrong and waits to be noticed, rather than risk volunteering something incorrect. Next door, there's a student who never bothers putting her hand up. Neither the quickest, nor the slowest with her work, there's no need for her to make any extra effort. She won't be called upon to contribute. These are 'invisible' children, whether cautious or coasting, they are hidden in plain sight, working under their teachers' radar, practically anonymous.

SEN(D), EAL and Pupil Premium students rightly show up as key targets we must do more to support to help ensure they meet their full potential. Is it then the case that invisible children are overlooked because they lack a label, because they're not highlighted as areas of concern in the data we pore over? Personalised learning plans are aimed at those whose need is recognised, but what about the students whose needs haven't yet been noticed?

Their inconspicuousness may stem from the fact that they are introverts. As Coplan and Rudasill claim in 'Quiet at School: An Educator's Guide to Shy Children', for an introvert, 'being in a crowd of people is overstimulating and draining'. Introverts 'will seek a retreat into solitude to recharge their batteries'. The rapid pace of the school day is tiring and tiredness can lead to stress. Labelling these children as just 'introverts' or 'extroverts' is unhelpful, but it is important we recognise their particular difficulties and plan appropriately so they can achieve success. It's not about encouraging them to match the level of sociability presented by the loudest, but it is about noticing them and giving them a calm chance to shine.

Some students may desire invisibility because they're shy or socially anxious, avoiding interactions with other classmates and teachers, even though they don't want to. Anxiety is a widely-experienced condition. A little anxiety can encourage focus and drive, but childhood anxiety disorders (specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder etc.) are extremely common and can be debilitating, having a potentially detrimental impact on 'educational achievement, family life and leisure activities'. Shy children are reported to have 'the most loneliness and least school liking'. A growing body of research has linked childhood shyness with 'internalising problems (e.g. loneliness, anxiety, depressive symptoms) and peer relationships difficulties'. Being a shy boy can be particularly hard as such behaviour contravenes 'gender norms related to male social assertion and dominance'.

One of the major problems here is that the chances of young people suffering from such potentially highly stressful conditions seeking help are slim. And if these children are invisible, is it only when their anxiety manifests itself physically that they are noticed? Is it when they're feeling least comfortable and most vulnerable, when they complain of aches, nausea or sweating, that they are finally noticed? We must be more aware. It should never be the case that we dismiss a child's shyness as 'one of those things'.

Their silence could also be an indicator that they are lonely. We all appreciate being alone sometimes, but a lack of personal relationships or the incongruity between the relationships someone has and the type of relationships they want leads to a kind of social isolation. As with anxiety, it's often difficult to talk about feeling lonely. It's vitally important we are better aware of this as 'at both primary and secondary school, children who were socially isolated experienced greater mental health difficulties', as well as physical difficulties, like sleep problems.

At school, this isolation may be evident when children are rejected by classmates or withdraw themselves from social activities, and when we catch these traits matters. Five year olds with low self-worth can experience 'chronic loneliness into and throughout adolescence', a 'messy and haphazard' time of change, uncertainty and more intense feelings of vulnerability, but studies have shown how 'well-integrated people live a more predictable and stable life', with stronger feelings of self-worth and belonging so recognising these issues as soon as possible is essential. If we fail to notice these students, we fail to ensure they have what they need to thrive.

An inconvenient truth is that some students are simply dissatisfied with their classroom experience. That's not to suggest that teachers should be bending over backwards to entertain them, but are we, as teachers and parents, encouraging this by allowing quiet children to remain invisible? Compliance doesn't necessarily mean a student is engaged in the task at hand. Collins suggests such children are 'truanting in their mind', learning quickly that if they follow the rules, they won't be reprimanded. Quiet behaviour in certain parts of the school day is expected and even rewarded, but when a level of noise is permitted, it can be the 'actively disruptive' students who dominate, providing cover for the 'quietly disaffected'.

Being quiet and well-behaved alone don't make an excellent student, not if that student isn't meeting their potential. Schools want to help every child succeed, but with increasing importance placed on results and rising numbers of unqualified teachers in the classroom, it's more important than ever for us to ensure these children aren't missed. We must intervene, get to know students as individuals and ensure they feel significant, safeguarding their opportunities. Small gestures can make a big difference. It is difficult. Some students do loom larger in the classroom, but we mustn't let it be the case that invisible children's voices are only heard when they answer the call of the register.