Friendships are a critical part of a child’s learning process. Through friends children learn about themselves and others, and model new skills and social behaviours. The very act of making friends is one of the major developmental tasks of early childhood, helping children to feel good about themselves, adapt more easily to new environments and build self-confidence.
A child who is comfortable with her friendships is likely to learn better. “Seeing and playing with friends” is one of the most common reasons children give for why they enjoy school. And there is plenty of research to show that children who are “connected” through friendships perform better academically and are less likely to drop out of school.
But the reverse is also true. Anyone who has ever worked with children knows that friendship problems are the ultimate learning roadblock. When a child is struggling with a friendship issue it will tie up 100% of his emotional energy. Good luck teaching him mathematics, engaging him in learning games or achieving therapy goals.
Understanding and fostering friendship is a critical skill for teachers and therapists who want to work effectively with young children. So let’s take a look at the dynamics at play and some of the ways you can enable friendships and hone friendship skills.
Dynamics of friendship
Friendships are different for every child. First, there are significant gender differences at play. Boys’ tend to have “looser” friendships, forming bigger groups that are easier to get into. Relationships are more likely to revolve around games and activities than talk or personal sharing. When conflict arises it tends to be dealt with openly.
Girls, on the other hand, tend to form smaller friendship groups that are harder to break in to. There is much more sharing of personal information, and relationships are more likely to depend on personal characteristics than ability with a ball or hockey stick. Conflict tends to be highly polarising and can bubble under the surface.
Of course, there are individual differences as well. You will have noticed how some children seem to move in and out of groups effortlessly while others find making friends awkward and unnatural. This may be, at least in part, because they have not yet learned the social and emotional skills they need to comfortably make friends. This is where professionals can help!
Set the right tone
In a classroom environment it’s important to be aware that how you treat each individual child will affect the way that child is perceived and treated by her classmates. Any negative inference, no matter how subtle, can affect how the rest of the class assesses a child. So make an effort to find something positive about every child. Comments such as “John and Julie are working really well together”, or “Marion does lots of thinking” will help to establish each child’s “value” to potential friends.
Create a ‘joining in’ environment
One of the skills you can help children to learn is the art of “joining in”. It’s not easy – as any adult who has ever stood in the corner at a cocktail party well knows.
Consider introducing a theme such as “growing my group” at recess, where friendship groups are encouraged to invite others into their games. This can create an opportunity for groups to be a little more flexible, which is particularly useful for girl’s groups.
Another possible theme is “teaching a new game a day”, which allows children to volunteer to teach a game to a small group. This will foster leadership skills, while also encouraging children to play in more diverse groups.
Asking to be included can be a very high hurdle for children; so one useful exercise is to brainstorm “joining in” language. Let’s face it, “Can I play?” is rather bland, and can be followed by a lot of downward gazes, nervous twiddling and possibly, “No!” Try to come up with other words that might make the joining in request more attractive, words like “That looks fun, any room for someone else?” or “If I show you a great game can you teach me that one?”
Actively teach the SPICE of friendship skills
Let’s face it; making friends is not a skill we are born with. It can (and must) be learned. Children rarely understand what “friendliness” actually means; often confusing it with kindness, thereby neglecting the fact that “friendly” people must actively seek out relationships.
In the BEST Programs 4 Kids Highway Heroes program we use the acronym SPICE to teach the individual behaviours that come together to demonstrate friendliness. Try working with your class to practice these five friendship SPICE actions:
- Smile and say “Hello”
- Praise – show appreciation
- Invite – ask someone to join you
- Chat – talk about subjects that interest others
Take note of children who fail to form friendships
Keep your eyes open for children in your classroom or practice who are failing to form friendships. This doesn’t mean you need to leap to action whenever a child chooses her own company over others. Children with autism or some other developmental conditions simply don’t have the same interest in making friends, particularly in the early years. Some children may choose to “take a break” at lunchtime or spend quiet time in the library. This isn’t always negative. However if the behaviour becomes a rigid pattern it can create difficulties as the child gets older.
When you observe signs of loneliness or isolation have a conversation with the child about what lunch or recess is like for them. Be curious about his experiences, and don’t presume that he is miserable. Ask if there is any help he would like to connect better with others in the class.
If you sense a problem, talk to the child’s parents. Get their perspective on the child’s frame of mind and whether they seem discontented or lonely at home. If parents are prepared to help, then let them know about the Parents’ Guide; Friends, fitting in & all that stuff. These little Guides provide practical tools and exercises to help parents teach the skill of making and keeping friends.