Helping all children become happy learners
Having friends is an essential part of a healthy and happy social life. Some people are better at making and maintaining friendships than others but for all, it involves a lot of important social skills. For children the acquistion of these social skills occurs with increasing maturity and opportunities to socialise with peers in a variety of settings. Most parents support their children to develop these skills by organising play dates, helping them to develop a wide range of interests and giving them general advice about getting on with others. However, most children struggle with friendships at some point and fall outs with friends can be extremely difficult to manage. For schools, the friendship difficulties experienced by their students is perhaps the single biggest cause of playground disputes and considerable staff time is deployed in trying to manage this. These friendship difficulties in school then, in turn, often lead to parental unhappiness and complaints to teachers.
What is a friend?
A friend is a person that you share a mutual social bond with. You generally like them and they like you. There is usually an unspoken reciprocal 'contract' between friends to help and support one another. They therefore become someone you trust and can share personal information with. Through shared experiences the bond is made stronger as a history is established where each can recall and retell past events.
How are friends made?
Friends are generally made through sharing a similar life experience. This can be through working or studying together or as a result of sharing a similar interest, hobby or sport. The most important factors in the development of friendship are proximity and time. We meet friends by being in the same place at the same time and having a context that encourages social interaction. For example, if I share a lift (elevator) with another person I might politely say 'hi' but then have nothing else to do with them. If the lift breaks down and we are stuck in there for several hours the chances are that we will get talking and because we are having this shared experience there is greater chance of a friendship starting. Of course, lots of other factors play a part in how likely a friendship will develop such as age, gender and all the other socio-economic characteristics that stratify our society. Another significant factor in the formation of friendships is timing. During our lives we are more likely to establish new friendships at the start of a new social context for us. E.g. starting school, college and university; starting or changing job; joining a new club or association; moving to a new home; having a baby and then our own children starting school etc.
In schools, the development of new friendships is easiest for children at the normal transition points when everyone is new. For children who do not form friendships easily: targetting support at these times can make a big difference to how successful they will be in making friends. Equally, those children who transfer schools at times other than transition points will need extra support as they are entering classes where friendship groups are already established.
What are friendship skills?
A range of social skills and personal attributes support the development and maintenance of friendship. These include:
expressive and receptive language
attention and listening
social context e.g. school, club
shared understanding and knowledge
shared goals and aspirations
gracious loser and winner
understands that friends are not exclusive
welcoming body language
What can schools do to help?
Most primary schools and some secondary schools cover friendship within their wider curriculum such as assemblies and personal, social and health education lessons. However, most schools would benefit from developing effective interventions to implicitly teach the social skills of friendship. At secondary level, assumptions should not be made that students have already acquired these skills and the status of personal and social education needs to be raised. In all phases, the provision of support for parents should also be a priority. Signposting parents of vulnerable students to parenting classes, online forums and parent groups can all help their children develop greater social confidence and acquire the skills and resilience to make and sustain friendships.
What can parents do to help?
Encourage your child to develop a wide range of interests.
Provide opportunities to mix with children of the same age. Ideally within a year of their age.
Help your child to develop friendship skills described above.
Boost their self-esteem through praise and recognition of their achievements no matter how small.
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