A preschool classroom isn’t a community unless every child has at least one friend.
We have found that children need three types of skills to make and keep friends. They must be able to establish contact with another child; they must be able to maintain a positive relationship; and they must be able to negotiate when a conflict arises.
And, this is where we teachers come in.
By coaching and teaching, we can help children practice the skills they need to make friends.
To make contact with another, a child has to use the same behaviors that are required in any community, and that are accepted by other children. These include smiling, asking a question, offering an idea, making positive comments, inviting someone to join them, or offering to share something.
To maintain a friendship, children must know how to cooperate, share, show empathy, express affection, offer ideas, help, take turns, and express enthusiasm. Children who have these skills are key members of their community, and are viewed as reliable and fun to be with.
The behaviors that cause trouble and isolation from the community at this stage include aggression, unwillingness to cooperate, showing off, trying too hard, or acting in ways that annoy others.
By observing and then coaching with specific teaching, we can help children to see how their behavior causes them difficulty and to learn some positive alternatives. Every child wants to be accepted, so we usually have a willing participant wanting to learn!
Like all communities, classrooms can be the site of disagreements. Since disagreements inevitably arise in any friendship, children must know how to resolve differences.
Children who resort to either physically or verbally violent outbursts, or who withdraw from the conflict entirely, fail to maintain and deepen their friendships.
Socially successful children express their ideas, explain how they feel, listen to another’s point of view, and work out solutions to problems. As each child masters these strategies, the entire community benefits.
There are some classroom strategies that support friendships. Again, this is where we come in. We set the tone and then help those who are in need.
Have discussions about making friends.
A good way to introduce the subject and start a discussion is to read a book on the topic. (Will I have a Friend? By Miriam Cohen)
Sometimes, it’s really difficult to enter a group. To help children, model for them—practice how to ask a question, make a positive comment, and offer help. As children master these skills, coach them on how to share, offer trades, take turns, and make conversation. If what they do produces good results, they’ll be more willing to try—and the better the classroom community will function as a whole.
Pair children to work on a task.
Partnering provides an opportunity for children to work with someone they normally wouldn’t choose—and to establish a friendship. So, find opportunities to have two children, who are not usually together, share a job or help set up for a cooking activity. Soon they may work together on their own! Success!
Interpret children’s actions.
Children who have difficulty making friends often don’t know what they are doing that alienates others. By describing their actions in words, we help them become more conscious of their behaviors and better able to change the troublesome ones. You may find you need to stay with the child and continue to model and help him practice—and that is reassuring to the child. (Trust is a wonderful bi-product of taking the time to build authentic relationships with children.)
Point out the benefits.
“Look at that smile on Christian’s face—he’s happy that you shared your markers with him.” A child who recognizes the positive consequences of a behavior is more likely to share again—because the sharing skill pleased another child and paves the way for him to become integrated more fully into the classroom community.
And finally, minimize rejections.
Rejection is a powerful and hurtful issue in preschool. One effective rule to establish is, “You can’t say you can’t play.” This tool has been used successfully again and again. It minimizes the instances of rejection, but it also helps children to be more assertive. They can all remember ‘the rule.’
Through our observations, we can usually find the reasons why a child is regularly excluded.
And yes, this is where we come in!