Making New Friends
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.
Whether your child is starting the year in a brand new school or returning to a school community, there is an opportunity to make connections with new friends. Friendships at school add to a child’s comfort and enjoyment. Research studies confirm that friendships can contribute to a student’s academic performance. Studies have concluded that for both elementary and middle school students, those that have significant friendships at school have a higher motivation for working toward social and academic goals.[i] And in the preschool years, helping children learn to play with one another is part of the core curriculum. On those dark, early mornings when it is tough to get going, children of all ages can be motivated and inspired by thinking about the friends they will see each day.
In August, two teachers and I presented to a group of early childhood educators ways to create a caring community in the classroom particularly during those first weeks of school. In the schools that prioritize social and emotional learning, teachers are busy finding entertaining ways for children to learn each other’s names and make connections that will grow throughout the year. If you are an educator, check out The First Six Weeks of School to learn about ways to do this. But more typically, teachers are focused on learning the students names themselves on day one and then quickly moving on to reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. I asked my son, a very social child who easily engages other children in play, after his first week of kindergarten whether he knew any names of children in his class. He did not. Do not count on teachers having the time to make connections between children. Often, they are going to have to do that on their own.
Though you have little control over what happens during the school day, there are ways that you can support your child in opening the door to friendships. Here are some ideas to try out.
For Preschool and Elementary School Age Children
Model. Find chances in the grocery store or at the bank during regular weekly activities in which your child accompanies you to model introductions to people. You may go to the same store each week but do you know the names of the employees that assist you? Introduce yourself and your child.
“Hi. I come in here weekly and you’ve helped me many times. What is your name? It’s nice to meet you. This is my daughter, Amanda. She is a big help on shopping trips.”
You may take the opportunity on the car ride home to reflect on the introduction. You might ask, “What did you notice that I said to the woman at the store? Are there some kids at school you might be able to introduce yourself to in a similar way?”
Practice at home. For younger children, get out three or four of your daughter’s stuffed friends and have them join you for snack after school. Start by making your own introduction of one to another. Then, have your daughter do the rest of the introductions. “Sealy meet Wayne, the bunny. You both like playing legos with Amanda.” Share one commonality. My son loves this game and looks for opportunities to introduce puppets, trains, cars and other friends that have not yet met.
For older children like middle schoolers, you can involve them in introductions by play acting with them and engaging them in fun. Talk about how it can feel awkward to introduce yourself. Maybe share a story of a time you felt awkward or silly but made an introduction anyway and were glad you did. Show them how you did it. “I just walked up and said ‘I see you are reading that great book. I read it last summer and loved it. I’m Amanda.’”
Ask about lunchtime and recess. There are very few free moments during the school day when children choose what they can do and with whom they can do it but lunch and recess are those times. It can be so difficult to find someone to sit with at lunch when looking out at a sea of unfamiliar faces. Talk about this and what your child might do. Model simple language that he can use. “Can I sit with you?” is all it takes – that and a lot of courage – to sit down with a new group of students and have lunch. Talking about it with you and helping your child see that everyone has those feelings of awkwardness at one point or another may give him the courage needed to take that first step.
Provide reinforcing comments and withhold judgment. As your child tells you about attempts to make new friends, reinforce what she is doing. “I notice you introduced yourself today. That kind of bravery is going to pay off, just wait and see.” It may take a number of tries to make a connection that lasts beyond the lunch period. Also, it’s tempting to ask about and judge the kids with whom she is connecting. You may know the parents or have seen the potential friends through school interactions. We know that peers can be a significant influence on our child and we want it to be a positive one. However because it can feel so challenging to make connections and kids are still trying to figure out in which group they belong, allow them some space to take healthy risks and try out new friendships.
Students begin with the advantage of a core common interest – school. If your child initiates a conversation, that may be all that is needed to forge a friendship. Have those discussions, model, practice and reinforce their courageous efforts as they make attempts. These small supports you provide can go a long way toward helping your child find confidence and support at school.
For further information on peer relationships and its impact on school engagement:
Ryan, A., Wentzel, K., Baker, S., Brown, B., Davidson, H. & LaFontana, K. Peer Relationships. Updated on Dec 23, 2009. http://www.education.com/reference/article/peer-relationships/
[i] DuBois, D. L., Felner, R. D., Brand, S., Adan, A. M., & Evans, E. G. (1992). A prospective study of life stress, social support, and adaptation in early adolescence. Child Development, 63,542-557.
Harter, S. (1996). Teacher and classmate influences on scholastic motivation, self-esteem, and level of voice in adolescents. In J. Juvonen & K. R. Wentzel (Eds.), Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment (pp. 11-42). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wentzel, K. R. (1994). Relations of social goal pursuit to social acceptance, classroom behavior, and perceived social support. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 173-182.