We’d all like our kids to thrive in academics, the arts, sports and citizenship. Here’s another item to add to our wish list for their success: friendship. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), those early social bonds are highly important.
“Friends help define personality and independence. Friendships teach young people how to deal with their own complex feelings and those of others,” the AAP says on its Healthy Kids website. With friends, kids also learn to trust, explore who they are and begin to build a sense of security apart from their families, according to the AAP.
Interacting with other kids and making social connections come naturally to many children. But for others, forming those friendships can be a challenge.
It’s certainly been challenging for Everett mom Courtney Calkins, who describes her 5-year-old son as “funny and kind.” But, she says, “He tends to get worked up and bossy on the playground.” What’s more, he’s very tall for his age, and his body language and voice can come across as aggressive, Calkins says. The social fallout? Other kids sometimes feel intimidated or uncomfortable around him.
Jenica Valdivia, a first-grade teacher at Hilltop Elementary in Edmonds, had a student last year who didn’t want to go outside at recess, complaining that he had no friends. “He was a very nice boy, but really shy,” she explains.
Very young children often lack perspective on peer relationships, notes Dr. Michelle Terry, a physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. When a child says she “has no friends,” parents should probe for specifics. Does this mean all the other kids were invited to a classmate’s birthday party? Or that the child wasn’t included in a playground game? Kids aren’t sophisticated enough to fully understand and interpret that kind of social jousting — they only know they feel left out.
Kids who struggle
Why do some kids struggle socially while others seem to glide smoothly through that early social maze? Valdivia feels kids who lack experience with peer interaction are often the ones who run into roadblocks trying to connect with others. “Many students just don’t have the skills to socialize with peers their own age because they haven’t been given opportunities outside of school,” she says.
Children growing up in large families enjoy a social edge, says Terry. They learn how to engage with groups earlier — and more often — than only children or kids from small families. Surrounded by siblings or cousins, these kids understand how to “jump in” to the ball game. The only child? His primary playmate might be a parent who throws the ball right to him — every time.
Personality traits — at either end of the temperament spectrum — can also affect a child’s ability to make friends, Terry says. Extreme shyness can come across as standoffish. Overly assertive types can simply seem bossy.
But with practice, coaching and modeling, kids overcome social challenges and improve their friendship skills.
Families are key. When it comes to social development, Terry says, “Parents have to take the lead” by modeling relationship skills. Just as children learn language by hearing and imitating their parents, they also learn social techniques, such as conversation and sharing, by watching and listening to the way their parents interact.
Along with role modeling, parents should also make sure kids have playdates, says Terry. She suggests arranging an activity, such as baking cookies or playing “dress up,” that enables adults and kids to participate together. This gives the grown-ups a chance to demonstrate appropriate interaction, problem solving and cooperation skills with the kids and each another.
Community in classrooms
As the social centers of most kids’ lives, schools can facilitate this process, too. Valdivia considers her first-graders “school family.” Their job, she tells them, is to care about each other. “As a teacher, I feel that academic and social-emotional growth go hand in hand,” she says. Her school focuses on a different character virtue every month, and she uses these lessons to build community in her classroom.
If a child continues to struggle socially, Valdivia discusses possible solutions with the child and his or her parents. Seeking out-of-the-box ideas for the shy boy who was in her class last year, she arranged an indoor recess option with a smaller group of kids.
At Adams Elementary in Seattle, counselor J. Greenstein takes a proactive approach. “I go out at recess and look for kids who aren’t playing with anyone,” she says. When she asks a student why she isn’t playing with others, sometimes the reply is something as simple as “No one asked me.”
Greenstein uses “friendship groups”— combinations of three to five students she places together — to help teach social interaction. She selects students who need a boost in learning the skills to make friends on their own. She facilitates play among the group members and teaches them to express their feelings and communicate in a positive way.
But even with help, some kids still struggle. Occasionally, social and communication challenges can be indicators of autism spectrum disorders, Terry says. In some cases, classroom teachers or school counselors need to talk with parents and refer a child for assessment.
Calkins, the mom of the outgoing 5-year-old, says she continually reminds her son that “he needs to focus on his own behavior and not attempt to give direction to other children.” And while not diminishing her son’s social struggles, she takes them in stride, reminding herself (and others) of her favorite saying: “How boring a place the world would be if we were all the same.”