The new school year is just around the corner, which means many children will be making new friends, seeing old pals, and navigating the world of peer relationships. These early friendships are important for a number of reasons — they provide social stability, help children learn to get along with others, and support their early learning.
Try out these tips (from Social and Emotional Development: Connecting Science and Practice in Early Childhood Settings) as you encourage friendships and promote children’s long-term social and emotional development.
1. Challenge children
In one classroom, a sly teacher handed out three glue sticks to four children. She had more glue sticks in the box but didn’t let the children see them. She waited a moment for the children to realize the situation and then asked them what they could do. Sure enough, the children came up with a way to share. This teacher created a problem so the children could learn by solving it. Problems can be opportunities.
2. Establish routines that help children get to know each other
When children arrive in the morning, a simple welcome song that lists all the children’s names can help each one feel part of the group. You might sing “Let’s Welcome Friends” (to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”):
We’re happy Ben is here,
We’re happy Ben is here,
Let’s clap and smile and welcome him,
We’re happy Ben is here.
3. Encourage children to use the dramatic play area
You’ve seen children count on their fingers when they are still unable to count inside their heads. They do the same thing with perspective-taking. When they can’t take the perspective of others “inside their head,” they may use the dramatic play area to act out the role of others. The dramatic play corner is a learning center for social relations.
4. Let children experience mixed-age groups
In family child care settings and some center-based programs, children have the opportunity over time to be the youngest child, middle child, and oldest child. Younger children can learn from older ones, and older children grow from the responsibility of modeling and teaching. It is not necessary for children to be the same age to teach each other valuable lessons in taking turns, perspective-taking, and prosocial behavior.
5. Talk about perspectives
Connecting language with children’s actions and experiences is one of the keys to language development as well as to the development of skills such as perspective-taking. One of the easiest places to practice this skill is while reading to children (see tip #6!). You can also do this during ongoing social interactions in their classrooms: “Sara, this is Janie, and she is new here. She doesn’t know anybody yet. How do you think she feels? What would make her feel better?” and “Sam, you grabbed the paint that Eric was waiting to use. How does Eric feel now?”
6. Read to children
Choose stories that show children treating each other with respect and kindness. Read these stories individually and in small groups. When reading stories:
- Talk about the emotions shown by the characters.
- Ask the children how they think a character might be feeling.
- Ask the children what someone in the story could do to make a character feel better.
7. Encourage inclusive friendships
Help children with disabilities develop friendships by being actively involved. You can do this by:
- Commenting on friends’ play.
- Providing special materials or activities to encourage children to play together.
- Speaking or interpreting for a child so a friend could understand.
- Inviting two children to play together.
8. Use puppets and dolls to teach prosocial skills
Dolls, puppets, stuffed animals, and play figures are wonderful tools for demonstrating social skills with young children. You can use these props to enact a scenario that represents a frequent, troublesome behavior in the classroom or an issue that one or more children are experiencing in their lives. Puppets and dolls help the children see the situation from a new perspective. And because everyone is calm, they allow for problem-solving discussions.
Find more tips like these and information on related topics in Social and Emotional Development: Connecting Science and Practice in Early Childhood Settings by Dave Riley, Robert. R. San Juan, Joan Klinkner, and Ann Ramminger.
Tell us: What are your favorite techniques to promote peer relationships?