At any age friends play an integral part in people’s lives. For young people the forging of friendships is important for their social and mental development. However the process of making and keeping friends is not always easy.

Children who feel they do not have friends may become withdrawn, exhibit antisocial behaviour and even become aggressive. They may also find it harder to self regulate and foster positive emotions.

What parents and care givers can do to help:
Getting together. When children are younger it is important to give them opportunities to interact with their peers. This could be through an informal get together with friends or family. These early social interactions help them to develop important social skills needed for making friends.

Model positive social skills. Teach one positive social skill at a time. It may be something as simple as speaking in a clear voice or smiling when someone talks to your child.

Coaching. This involves prompting, reminding and gently encouraging children to use the positive social skills they have learned. Support their learning by giving positive feedback and praise.

Problem solving. Help children solve friendship problems. Talking problems through with a supportive adult helps children to think about what happens with their friends, how they feel about it and what to do next. Thinking things through like this helps to build more mature communication skills. Help then to navigate social interactions by talking to them about your own childhood experiences.

Encourage activities. Children who have a wide range of interests are more likely to have something in common with others and so find it easier to make friends and get along.

Children who have friends show more cooperative behaviour and feel more connected at school. Conversely, children who lack friends are more likely to be bullied and to show behavioural and mental health problems. Educators can play a key role in teaching and promoting positive friendship skills.

How teachers can help:
Be a role model. Lead by example. Be sure to have a caring, empathic and respectful attitude to all students. Connecting with students in a personal way provides an important model for friendly behaviour.

Create learning opportunities. Introduce classroom routines to teach friendly behaviour. For example, you might model giving compliments and then set up situations where students can practise giving and receiving them.

Integrate friendship skills. Provide children with varied opportunities to practise what they are learning and reinforce core social skills. Literacy, drama and social studies lessons all lend themselves well to this. For example, you can select story books and writing topics that endorse key social messages (e.g. what makes a good friend).

Group work. This is an effective way of providing children with opportunities to practise the skills of cooperation, including giving and receiving help, collaboration, sharing ideas, and listening to one another’s point of view.

Don’t ignore the playground. The playground is a less structured environment than the classroom so it can be more demanding for children where children need to practice self regulation. It also lends itself to bullying and other antisocial behaviour. A whole school approach is needed to establish clear behaviour guidelines for the playground. Classroom teachers may also need to plan ways to support particular children with strategies to manage friendship issues outside the classroom.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source: Australian Government. Department of Health and Ageing.