Finding Friends at School

Friends make difference. Having a friend means you are not alone, that someone sees you and someone cares about you. Friendships help students know that they matter. For human beings that sense of being cared for and seen is critical for our sense of well-being. What we now know is that without that sense, our stress levels go up. When our stress levels go up, our internal survival mechanism turns on and our ability to focus and to put new ideas into long term memory goes down dramatically: we can’t learn. So, building a classroom community in which every student can identify at least one other person who is a friend is important. Not just because it “feels good” but because it makes learning possible. As children learn how to make friends, often friendships last for hours or a few days, dissolve and then regrow. That is part of learning. You can provide multiple opportunities in your classroom where students learn how to build classroom friendships. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Start with the basics. Make sure you and all your students know all of each other’s names. There are lots of name games that can be played to make this fun and easy.
  • Build Social Skills. Help your students learn how to communicate. All students benefit from practice in how to invite someone to join in, ask thoughtful questions and solve a small problem. For some students explicit practice in the classroom will empower them to connect with their peers in less structured settings like the lunchroom or playground.
  • Read age appropriate books about friendships and invite thinking about what works and what doesn’t. You can also point out and help students notice examples of friendship in read alouds and classroom texts. Keep a list of things that characters do and say that demonstrate being a good friend.
  • Help your students learn how to be helpful not hurtful. The Positive Discipline curriculum has several lessons for supporting these skills.
  • Encouragement. Children do better when they feel better. That includes being able to build friendships. Offer “I notice” and “I appreciate” statements to students privately to help them be aware of their strengths.
  • Compliments. Build your students ability to give meaningful compliments by practicing them at class meetings.
  • Create a friendship chain. Cut strips of construction paper and invite students to write or draw examples of things they see others doing or things they do which demonstrate friendship. Connect the links together to make a friendship chain around your classroom.
  • Collect some data. Ask your students to list 3 of their class friends on a piece of paper that you collect and doesn’t get shared. You will be able to tell who needs more support in building friendships by seeing whose names are not listed. Check out this link for more details.
  • Build in “sideways support.” Sometimes children long for friendships too much that they come across as intrusive or “too close” for other students. Helping the struggling student feel meaningful in other ways can reduce their stress and help with their interpersonal connections. Extra classroom jobs are great for this. Building skills in structured connections help too. For example, in elementary school the student could become the classroom greeter in the morning or after lunch.
  • Ask for help. Some students need extra help in building friendship skills. Your school counselor can start some friendship groups. Including peers that know how to make friends along with students who are learning can make those groups more successful.