Here are some of the things you’ll hear or see from boys who become anxious when they think they might have to get involved in some game, or get stuck being the only one sitting it out.
- They may complain of bellyaches, headaches, or general “I don’t feel well” on gym days.
- They might hang along the sidelines of physical activities or look uncomfortable in unstructured social situations such as waiting for an assembly, being outside during a fire drill, eating lunch, or walking from classroom to the school library.
- A lot of boys who are anxious about being teased for their disinterest in sports try to stay close to adults during play times or other free, unstructured times.
- You’ll also find that a lot of these boys go to the bathroom frequently before gym class or recess.
Say something to them so they’re not alone in their anxiety and/or embarrassment. Let them know that you see their discomfort, even if you don’t know what to do about it. It will help them to feel less invisible, and less detached.
- Tell them what you see or hear that is making you think they are uncomfortable about something: “I notice that you often don’t feel well on the days you have gym. It seems like there’s something about going to gym that you don’t like, or that makes you feel uncomfortable…” You’re not looking for the child to literally respond to you. You want only for him to realize that someone is paying attention to him in his distress, and sees him. This is huge for a kid who believes no one recognizes that his experience is different from that of the other boys.
- If you’re already aware that the boy avoids sports or worries about getting teased for not joining in, you can take it a step further: “I know you’re not into sports the way a lot of the other boys in your class are, and I think that’s fine. But it can’t be easy around here to be a kid who doesn’t like to play sports, because it seems like that’s all anybody does!” This is a very empathic remark that may very well be the first spoken one to accurately reflect that child’s inner experience. It’s enough (for now) that someone has recognized how hard it is to be a boy who doesn’t like to play sports. And for it to “be fine”—well, depending upon how much of that he has or hasn’t heard from other respected adults in his life, hearing that can be pretty big deal.
Here are some ideas for getting the schools onboard. There is a lot that they can do if they are open to change and there are people willing to drive that change forward.
- Parents can encourage their child’s school to provide game activities for kids who don’t like high-exertion activities but who also don’t want to get stuck with only the swings as an alternative. Games like knock hockey, air hockey, and foosball offer great alternatives and safe havens for boys who are looking for non-contact, interactive activities or who simply need to be doing something. An industrious parent-teacher association can find secondhand tables through its own parent network, Craigslist, or yard sales.
- In place of traditional gym activities that favor the naturally athletic boys, schools could adopt short-session modules in which parent or teacher volunteers run programs on introductory fencing, raft making, or boomerang throwing—novel activities that draw on a variety of skill sets.
- Schools can also be encouraged to identify boys a grade or two older who could be responsible for making sure everyone has something to do during recess and other unstructured times (lunch, waiting to be dismissed to the buses). These boys would be the same kinds of kids who are invited to be hallway guards, guides for new students, and the like. With kids so very anxious these days about being left by themselves and thus identified as “losers,” knowing that there’s a safe, older student available just to stand next to if necessary provides some measure of relief.
- Push your son’s school to install a “Buddy Bench” on the playground. These are benches designated for students who feel lonely or excluded during recess. The idea is that other kids will take notice, and invite them to talk or play. In addition to taking the sting out of having nowhere to go or no one to hang with during recess, the inclusion of buddy benches creates a school culture of caring and inclusion, and challenges students to support their fellow classmates.
__ Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D.