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Building a place to play for socially-isolated children

Dr. Christine Arlett is helping bring socially-isolated children together.

By Kelly Foss

Children who are isolated from their peers miss opportunities to learn and practice skills involved in making and keeping friends. Their attempts to interact with peers may become increasingly awkward and inappropriate, and subsequent rejection leads to further avoidance. So how do you reverse this cycle?

That was the question for Dr. Christine Arlett, an associate professor with the Department of Psychology. So she, Cathy Sinclair, MSW, and other therapists at the Janeway Family Centre and Child Development Program, created KidClub, a place to bring socially isolated children aged nine to 13 together to learn social skills, build self-esteem, form friendships and experience a sense of belonging.

The first group of children picked the name KidClub. Since then, over 100 children have participated in the program, which over the past 13 years has been housed in a number of places in the community and is now housed in the Psychology Department clinic.

“Most other programs targeting social skills are structured and time-limited,” said Dr. Arlett. “The children don’t tend to be successful in applying the skills they learn. For most of the children in Kidclub, they already know what they should be doing. It’s actually doing it in the right way at the right time that’s the problem. Another difference is that other programs tend to focus on initiating interactions, rather than on managing longer-term friendships.”

Kidclub meets once a week, year-round. Children come together and play in an informal environment, supported by therapists and university student volunteers. They learn how to resolve conflicts and manage the give-and-take of stable friendships. Graduate and undergraduate psychology students acquire skills and experience in working with this diverse group of children in an informal setting.

“We have clear evidence of consumer satisfaction with the program,” said Dr. Arlett. “A lot has to do with children feeling safe so they can try out different ways of interacting, feeling good about themselves, and being able to say ‘I have a friend and there’s a place I go where I feel welcome’.”

When the children were asked what KidClub meant to them, their answers focused on fun (“makes me feel happy”), meeting friends (“being around people you can relate to”), getting away from stress (“place where you can relax and get away from stuff”), being nurtured (“people take care of you”), and learning new games.

Dr. Arlett recently presented a workshop on social isolation across the lifespan for the Association of Psychologists Newfoundland and Labrador, drawing attention to the fact that social isolation has serious immediate and long-term consequences for people of all ages.

Janet Bartlett, an honour’s student working with Dr. Arlett, recently found that 28 per cent of Memorial students reported acting as caregivers for an ill family member when they were between the age of 10 and 23 years. Understanding the impact this has, and how to provide effective supports for young caregivers is an important future research direction.