Looking out for the signs of social withdrawal could help academic achievement
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

It’s tough being a kid.

Trying to learn about the world, yourself, and make friends is hard work.

And then you add in that you might not be doing so well at school and it may make you want to retreat.

Social isolation as a precursor to academic downturn and vice versa

New research by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Oslo New University College published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology has explored the link between social withdrawal and academic results among boys.

The study looked at levels of academic achievement and social withdrawal among 845 children at age six, then again at eight, 10, 12 and finally at 14-years-old.

Its main finding was that in boys, increased academic achievement at ages 8 and 12 forecasted decreased social withdrawal two years later. Conversely, increased social withdrawal at age 10 predicted reduced academic achievement at the age of 12.

Interestingly, no such effects were seen in girls.

The attainment gap between girls and boys is well known. Boys – on average – achieve lower grades than their female counerparts.

The research found that increased academic achievement leads to less social withdrawal as students who perform well in school are likely to be perceived as successful by their peers.

In turn, this makes them more attractive as learning partners, and enhances their social status.

This could create a cycle of positive events beginning with increased academic achievement, which boosts students’ self-esteem, social status and motivation to interact with other children.

Reduced shyness and improved self-regulation and learning skills - which affect both social and academic capability - could follow.

Conversely, reduced success in the classroom or increased isolation could lead to the opposite - a negative cycle of events.

For those boys who struggle academically, the researchers note, there can be a cascade-like impact for some boys.

Lower academic performance instigates more social withdrawal, which then leads to lower academic performance.

Socially withdrawn boys tend to perform poorly in oral exams for example.

Child shyness also had a negative impact on teacher-rated assessments.

What do the findings mean?

One of the dangers for isolated young boys is that they seek out other forms of social status, through risk-taking behaviours or gravitating towards toxic communities and content.

Those who struggle academically and feel they don’t fit in could find themselves drawn to controversial social media personalities and communities such as Andrew Tate and the Incel movement

The researchers note that previous research has shown that boys are more vulnerable to social withdrawal than girls, meaning they are more susceptible to content which ostensibly welcomes them but has ulterior motives and messages.

Can continual assessment break the cycle?

Teachers play a key role in knowing their students and seeing who might be struggling academically or socially.

Indeed, among one of the researchers’ recommendations was to focus on teacher-student communication and to have strong mentoring in place for those found to be struggling socially or academically.

Those are definitely worthwhile interventions, but I’d like to highlight something else - the vital role high quality assessment can play here.

Stronger formative diagnostic testing, particularly if it is done early and frequently in a low-stakes manner, can be hugely useful in helping to identify students who are falling behind and show the areas in which they struggle.

Teachers can then use the insights from the formative assessment to identify areas for intervention for those who might be at risk.

If lower attainment among boys can predict social withdrawal, we owe it to them to identify them quickly and effectively so schools can intervene promptly.

Regular low stakes test can identify a pupil, struggling with something in school.

It could pick up what is causing the problem, quickly flagging it to the teacher and gives them a clear idea of exactly where students are progressing or struggling.

Targeted interventions can then be directed at any problematic areas.

This can help the student explore the issues raised, realise more fully their potential, improve their studies and thereby build up skills, knowledge confidence and self-belief.

This hopefully means that they are less susceptible to unhealthy content.

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