– By Kathleen Tuite, Early Childhood Ireland
As we are nearing the end of the preschool year there is often a focus on children transitioning to primary school., This is very important, but what I want to focus on here is friendships. Friendships are formed in preschool and may continue as children move together to the same primary school. But what happens if a child moves to a primary school and none of his/her friends are moving to that school? How can we help children to form and sustain new friendships?
There is a lot of research outlining the benefits of making friends. Early peer relationships play a unique and important role in the social and emotional development of children (Bukowski et al., 1996; Dunn, 2004; Hartup, 1996) and to their cognitive and language development (Hartup, 1996). Early friendships contribute uniquely to the social development of young children (Dunn, 2004; Hartup, 1996) and having friends is beneficial (Buysse et al., 2003). Simply put, friendship matters to young children.
Friends promote mental health and overall wellbeing for children of all ages. Just by having friends, children learn to relate with others, as they teach each other skills of being a good friend and acquire social skills at the same time. Friendships benefit children by creating a sense of belonging and security and reducing stress. Children with friends are likely to be more confident and academically sound. Children who constantly learn positive friendship skills are found to be happy and confident. Additionally, the benefits of friendship for children are similar to the benefits of having friends as adults. Most children want to have friends, but how can we help children to make new friends in new situations?
While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for making friends, parents/caregivers, educators and teachers can model friendship skills. Children take their behaviour cues from watching the adults in their lives. If you have friends who you’ve known since you were a child, point this out to the child/ren, say how you got to know them, talk about why you are still friends, have similar interests, likes/dislikes. Talk about the new friends you have made later in life, maybe through work, or some similar interest/hobby. Maybe you also have had to move to a new school and left your friends behind., Talk about this, keeping it in a positive frame, how you formed new friendships, kept old ones too! Talk about how you might have been apprehensive about moving to a new school. However, you quickly made new friends, you watched for a while and found that some children liked the same things you did, you joined their play.
For parents, another way is to encourage friendships that you see are important for children. If they have made great friends in the preschool they are leaving, keep the children connected. Play dates outside of preschool, arrange to meet perhaps with the parents in a local park, go swimming together or go for walks in nearby areas together. Keep watching what brings joy to the friendships, is there a lot of laughter, getting along really well, sharing toys, empathising with one another. You can then encourage your child to use these skills in getting to know and form friendships with other children.
Understanding friendships is important for encouraging and sustaining new friendships. Parents can contribute actively to preparing their child to interact successfully with his/her peers, supporting their child to communicate, to play, resolve conflicts and cooperate. But most importantly being a good role model themselves.
When a child moves to a new school and has to go through the process of making new friends, the role that teachers play is critical in supporting the development of friendships too. Keeping a watchful eye on the child, providing opportunities for children to form connections, placing children together who have shared interests., Perhaps you could implement a buddy system, or engage in activities that involve cooperation and sharing. Teachers can help frame school as a place of fun, excitement, learning and making friends. This will support children’s developing friendships. If there are any negative or problems arising with friends, teachers can use this to discuss how to resolve or deal with challenging moments with the child and brainstorm together ways to tackle difficult situations. Again, providing opportunities to support understanding and sustaining friendships.
As adults, being present and available when children are playing with other children allows you to see how children interact with other children, providing opportunities to have ongoing conversations about friendships and what matters to children.
Bukowski WM, Newcomb AF, and Hartup WW (1996) Friendship and its significance in childhood and adolescence: Introduction and comment. In: Bukowski WM, Newcomb AF, Hartup WW (eds) The Company They Keep: Friendship in Childhood and Adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1–15
Buysse V, Goldman D, and Skinner ML (2003) Friendship formation in inclusive early childhood classrooms: What is the teacher’s role? Early Childhood Research Quarterly 18: 485–501.
Dunn J (2004) Children’s Friendships: The Beginnings of Intimacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Eckerman CO, Davis CC, and Didow SM (1989) Toddlers’ emerging ways of achieving social coordinations with a peer. Child Development 60: 440–453.
Hartup WW (1996) Cooperation, close relationships, and cognitive development. In: Bukowski WM, Newcomb AF, Hartup WW (eds) The Company They Keep: Friendship in Childhood and Adolescence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 213–237