Wherever I am, there's always Pooh,
There's always Pooh and Me.
Whatever I do, he wants to do,
"Where are you going today?" says Pooh...
"Well, that's very odd 'cos I was too.
"Let's go together," says Pooh, says he.
"Let's go together," says Pooh.
Us Two from Now We Are Six
A.A. Milne (1882-1956)
Children's friendships contribute in a very real way to how they feel about school and about themselves, and their experiences in general. Research has shown that children who are happy in their friendships at school are more likely to succeed with the academic, social, emotional, and physical demands of school life.
Stable friendships become an important source of emotional support as children cope with the changes and challenges of their school life. (see also Making Friends article)
Children's preschool experiences are very important in learning the basic skills of making friends. Preschool teachers have amazing expertise in fostering these skills in young children. The care and patience that preschool teachers take to model what it means to be a 'good friend' provides small children with the very best opportunities to develop socially and emotionally.
Educators agree that one of the best indicators of 'school readiness' is if the child has well developed social and emotional skills. When necessary, many parents today are choosing to provide their children with an extra year of preschool to ensure that they have developed the social skills of making friends and playing cooperatively with others.
The well-planned preschool to school transition programs that are in place in our communities, help school beginners to establish new friendships, and to consolidate prior friendships before the first day of school wherever possible. Preparatory class teachers are always eager to make sure that their new beginners have at least one or two close friends from their preschool in their class, and that they have had several opportunities to meet with the other children before the school year begins.
By retaining their links with friends they have made at preschool, school beginners are able to surround themselves with a supportive network to help them through those tricky times in the first few weeks like learning routines; remembering to line up outside the red door; finding the toilet block during recess time; buying a frozen orange snack from the school canteen; remembering to call their language teacher Signorina! Friends are great sources of information.
Having a familiar friend at school fosters children's feelings of safety and security. Children who have stable friendships have the opportunity to play together and to explore some of the emotions that may have arisen during the classroom situation. This complex fantasy play can readily be seen in school playgrounds where small groups of children are often 'playing school' – complete with quite brilliant impersonations of their teachers, and of the teaching task.
Most primary schools today have established wonderful Buddy Programs to make sure that children have a 'special friend' from an older class when they begin school. As a primary school principal, one of my most treasured memories is of a Year 6 boy who darted across the quadrangle—during a school assembly—to brush away a buzzing wasp that was hovering over the head of his tiny preparatory class 'buddy'. A truly supportive friend!
When asked to describe their dreams for their children's future, parents invariably reply, 'I want them to be happy.' The two-way relationship between happiness and having friends is well understood by adults and children alike. Happy children tend to make friends easily at school, and conversely, children who have good friends tend to feel happy and comfortable at school. Moreover, children who have been able to get along well with other children at school are more likely to become happy and well adjusted adults in later life.
Reading stories and poems about friends to young children is a lovely way to introduce them to the essentials of developing meaningful friendships: commitment between friends; sharing; common interests; care; understanding; loyalty; courage; trust; service; patience; kindness; generosity; joy; forgiveness.
Books provide excellent opportunities to discuss what it means to be a good friend. Children can share their own ideas and experiences after listening to these stories. While school-aged children, and even adolescents, won't use words like 'empathy' or 'intimacy' to describe their friends, they will intuitively understand the value of these qualities.
At one school I visited regularly, the principal had the following poem framed, on permanent display in the school foyer. A vivid reminder to all adults who enter the school of the importance of treating children with love and respect:
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight
If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty
If children live with tolerance, they learn to be patient
If children live with encouragement, they learn to have confidence
If children live with praise, they learn to appreciate
If children live with fairness, they learn justice
If children live with security, they learn to have faith
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves
If children live with acceptance and friendship, they learn to find love in the world.
The skills of friendship are first learnt in the close family circle at home. Parents can model the techniques of good friendship in their everyday interactions with each other, their own friends, and with their children:
But above all, have fun together. Smile a lot, laugh a lot. Recognise, nurture, and develop each child's sense of humour and fun. These characteristics make them unique individuals, and great to be with.
Many children seem to have mastered the art of making friends from a very early age. For these little people, friendships seem to develop easily and naturally. Researchers have studied children at play, and have provided us with an insight into the techniques they use so successfully.
Give your children many, many opportunities to play and to develop their social skills. Play is important for children of all ages, and should be continued throughout their childhood and adolescence. Children learn new skills and information from playing with or alongside children. The better they are at learning social and thinking skills from their friends, the more successful they will be later in life. Children who are comfortable and confident with their friends, are developing essential skills for choosing their friends wisely.
You can do many things to help children get along with and learn from friends. Play with your children just for fun. Let them take the lead and direct the play as much as possible.
Friends don't always have to be the same age as your child. Ask your child to choose a schoolmate to invite to your home to play. Begin by inviting one child to play for a short time and extend the time and number of playmates gradually. Provide some creative materials or open-ended activities for the children to use together. Let the children develop their friendship naturally. Supervise the children from a distance, but only intervene if social 'counselling' or a change of activity is necessary. Some activities may include:
As children reach preschool and primary school age, they love to include a special friend in regular family activities in company with an adult – kicking a football at the park; making gingerbread men; going shopping; picnicking at the beach; travelling to the city by train; seeing a new movie together; going to the library; walking the dog. These activities should be simple, inexpensive, not too structured, and lots of fun. The main thing is that they provide a context for the friendships to develop.
When talking with your children, you are learning what they value in their friendships. If problems arise, you can provide them with the support they may need in finding a solution. By using a compassionate, problem-solving approach, parents can model positive strategies for their children to use. Children can picture different ways to solve problems and can understand another child's point of view, when encouraged to do so.
Encourage positive, appropriate solutions. Negotiation and a willingness to join in with others' ideas are always more acceptable than telling tales, aggression, or vocal bullying.
The following real-life scenario from a junior school playground gives an example of how an adult (in this case a teacher) can help children build and maintain their friendships through positive problem-solving
Teacher: Come and tell me what happened.
Ben: James said he's not my friend anymore.
Teacher: What did you do to make James say that?
Ben: He wanted a turn on the swing, and I wouldn't get off.
Teacher: Then what happened?
Ben: James said I was a 'pig-face', and, 'I don't want to be your friend anymore.'
Teacher: I'm sorry that James used those words, and I will talk to him later about that. How did you feel when James said those words?
Ben: I felt very angry, and mad … but I didn't hit him.
Teacher: I think you felt angry and mad because your feelings were hurt, is that how you felt?
Teacher: And I'm very proud of you that you didn't hit James. What do you think you could have done to make sure James didn't get cross with you?
Ben: Let James have a turn on the swing when he asked.
Teacher: Had you had a nice long turn on the swing?
Teacher: Then, that would have been a sharing and kind thing for you to do. James is your friend. How do you think James felt when his friend wouldn't let him have a turn?
Teacher: Do you think you might have hurt James's feelings by not letting him have a turn?
Teacher: I think that is why he said those words to you, don't you?
Teacher: What are you going to do next time someone asks if they can have a turn on the swing?
Ben: Let them.
Teacher: I am going to talk to James, then after that would you like to be his friend again?
This ever patient and highly skilled teacher then counselled James on his feelings, and his choice of words to express his feelings. She helped James understand that he had hurt Ben's feelings by calling him names, and by withdrawing his friendship. The teacher established that James still wanted to be Ben's friend, then she brought the two children together:
Teacher: Ben, what would you like to say to James?
Ben: Sorry I didn't give you a turn on the swing.
Teacher: James, what would you like to say to Ben?
James: Sorry I called you 'a pig-face'.
Teacher: And, what else?
James: Sorry I said I didn't want to be your friend anymore.
The two boys ran off together to play happily on the climbing frame
Research indicates that children's friendships are templates for the subsequent relationships they will form throughout school, and their lives. While new friendships are never exact copies of old ones, elements of old friendships will certainly be seen in new relationships. Positive friendships forecast good adjustments to a range of new experiences, including school and the challenges of formal learning. Friendships also contribute to children's positive self-attitudes, and to their self-esteem. The key adults in children's lives—parents, family members, teachers and carers—have an important role in modelling, nurturing, and teaching the skills necessary for making and keeping friends.
Article written by Helen Newton, M Ed. Helen is a former primary school principal.