Back-to-school is an exciting time! There are new books to be read, stories to be written, and math facts to learn. However for some children, concerns surrounding making friends can cause the new school year to be frightening and worrisome, rather than fun and interesting.
As parents, we can't make friendships for our children, but we can provide them with tools, confidence, and ideas. Here are some ideas to help your children as they seek to make new friendships in the coming year.
1. You Don't Need a Crowd
Most children (and adults) don't need an entourage to have their social needs met. One to three good buddies is enough for most children.
We often remind our more introverted child that it's okay to hang back and observe -- giving himself the space he needs. If an introverted or more shy child feels as if he needs to always join in or be a part of every social interaction, his anxiety will likely increase. While we ask that our children are kind and polite to all, we don't pressure or push for them to be friends with everyone.
2. Role Play
Many children (especially younger children) don't know how to ask someone to play. Walk your child through how to approach a child and invite him to play. Model simple introductions. Role play approaching an existing group of children or a single child. It may be necessary to teach your child how to deal with a "no."
We model interactions like, "Hi. I'm Henry. Do you want to play tag with us?" and "Hi. Is it okay if I play soccer with you guys?"
3. Common Interests
Encourage your child to seek out other children and classmates with common interests. Teach him/her to look for cues that indicate interests (i.e., backpacks and folders, what the student may share during writing, the center he chooses at free play, etc.) Children may feel more confident approaching a child with similar interests.
Encourage your children to look for another Minecraft backpack or see which children also choose to play with LEGOs at playtime. Teach them to head for the basketball court at recess or see who has a superhero lunchbox. With a common interest, you almost always have a way to break the ice or join a social interaction.
4. Encourage Positive Behavior
The old adage still rings true: "The only way to have a friend is to be one." It's critical to teach our children how to appropriately interact with other people. Some important skills to teach include:
- Turn-taking and how to share (with toys, choosing an activity/what to play, and letting another child "take charge" of an activity)
- How to respect personal space (including hands and feet to yourself)
- Using kind and honest words
If your child is struggling with one of these skills, look for teachable moments at home to work with him/her. Role play how to improve in that area. Praise him when you notice him working on the skill. Point out others using the skill.
5. Get to Know the Parents
Often, things like birthday and play-date invitations have more to do with parents than with children. Many parents will not allow their children to interact with another child outside of school if they are not familiar with the family. Towards this end, make an attempt to meet a few of the parents in your child's class (especially those of the children he/she regularly speaks about.)
Seek out these parents at school functions and make a simple introduction, i.e., "Hi. I'm Hannah's mom. She really enjoys playing with your daughter in class. I'd love to get them together for a play date sometime."
I have also had moms send a note home with my child that included their email address or cell phone number, inviting me to contact them to get our kids together to play. A friendly gesture from you may lead to a stronger friendship for your child.
Remember that learning to be a good friend and interact positively with others is a process. Many adults are still working to develop and hone these skills. Encourage your child as often as you can, and help facilitate when possible. Take one step at a time and recognize that friendship and social interactions will look differently for every unique child. A social butterfly may need/want to flit from group to group, while another child may be the most comfortable with silent parallel play.
Here's to a year of helping our wonderfully different children establish and maintain the friendships that work for them.