The trouble with talk begins young. A few years ago, a private middle school asked me to consult with its faculty: Students were not developing friendships the way they used to. At a retreat, the dean described how a seventh grader had tried to exclude a classmate from a school social event. It’s an age-old problem, except that this time when the student was asked about her behavior, the dean reported that the girl didn’t have much to say: “She was almost robotic in her response. She said, ‘I don’t have feelings about this.’ She couldn’t read the signals that the other student was hurt.”
The dean went on: “Twelve-year-olds play on the playground like 8-year-olds. The way they exclude one another is the way 8-year-olds would play. They don’t seem able to put themselves in the place of other children.”
I think every classroom and school has a duty to this generation in particular, who spend so much time isolated on their phones and online to make it a weekly, if not daily, norm to say hello to somebody new and look to work on something together. The challenge to my high school’s staff was to just choose one lesson per two-week timetable so that across subject areas every student might have 15% of lessons where the class is mixed-up and speaking to others is normalised. In a short space of time, this regular practice during learning can change expectations and remove the fear and anxiety towards meeting, greeting, and working with anyone you’re with at any time.