It’s a new school year–hooray! A new school year often goes hand-in-hand with brand-new backpacks filled with fresh school supplies, new teachers, and learning new things. But it can also mean making new friends. This is especially true for children who are going to school for the first time, are new to a school district, or who may be assigned to a classroom where they don’t know many other students.
The task of meeting new people and making friends can be exciting and easy for some children, while others find just the thought of it worrisome and intimidating. Childhood development experts contend that the most basic social-emotional skill children must develop is making friends, especially when they begin attending school.
“Friendships are not just a luxury; they are a necessity for healthy psychological development,” explains Heather Staszak, a school social worker. “For kids of all ages, friendships offer the acceptance, approval, and sense of belonging they so often crave. And even just one good friend can make a huge difference in a child’s life.”
Friendships are crucial to a child’s development because:
- they help children acquire life skills that can boost their wisdom, confidence, and self-esteem;
- they teach children the meaning of true friendship by learning that a good friend will have their best interests at heart and will support and look out for them;
- they show children how to navigate through conflict and adversity, and teach children how to compromise and share;
- they encourage children to communicate their concerns, dreams, and fears with each other, which can help them feel less alone and isolated;
- they help foster imaginative, collaborative, and creative activities and ideas;
- they provide an opportunity for children to develop leadership skills, and
- they improve the development of decision-making and problem-solving skills.
At an early age, parents are often the catalyst for helping their children interact with other children. They may organize play-dates, visit parks and playgrounds, and/or enroll their children in daycare or preschool, for instance. While social interaction at a young age is generally controlled, it can assist in setting the stage for how children learn to communicate with peers and develop friendships.
Despite early socialization efforts, however, making friends still doesn’t come naturally for all children. For those who are more outgoing and affable, joining a group of classmates who are playing a game at recess can be effortless, explains Kate Gurley, an educator who has more than 30 years experience in elementary education. For children who are shy or socially reserved, however, making friends is a struggle and the playground or classroom can be a very lonely place, she adds.
What you can do to encourage friendships
While parents can’t make friends for their children, here are a few steps they can take to support and encourage the growth of friendships.
- Consider talking to your child’s teacher at the beginning of the school year and let him or her know your child will need some encouragement, and possibly even assistance, to make friends. Often times teachers will help by seating students who have similar interests next to each other or assign a group project to students she thinks will organically form a friendship.
- Consider getting involved in school clubs or after-school activities where your child will be able to interact with classmates and peers. Often times organized school activities where students are assigned to groups make it easier for children to socialize.
- Consider joining community-based groups or clubs, such as athletic or robotics teams, for example, or community theater groups so your child can make friends outside of the school setting, too.
- Consider getting involved in organizations, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or local churches where children may participate in leisure or team-building activities and events.
- Try to attend school and district events, such as plays, movie nights, family game nights, festivals, etc. where your children will be in a familiar setting and possibly more comfortable talking to classmates.
- Encourage your child to invite a classmate over after school to play or arrange to have your child meet a peer at a park or playground. One-on-one time helps children connect more deeply because they are able to converse freely and play together in a social environment.
The Benefits of Buddy Benches
“As an educator, I believe that social growth is just as important as academic growth,” says Gurley. “It’s my job to teach the whole child, and if that means setting the stage to help children learn how to cultivate friendships and develop socially, then I’ll do it.”
Gurley is not alone in her beliefs and efforts. In fact, while school leaders and teachers have always had a hand in honing students’ social skills that students need in order to appropriately communicate with peers and develop friendships, it was an 8-year-old boy who started a nationwide trend that encourages friendships.
A few years ago, a young boy from Pennsylvania, Christian Buck, thought he and his family were moving to Germany. He was nervous he’d have a hard time making friends so he began researching schools in Germany. On one school’s website he discovered that it has a special bench on the playground where students sit if they need someone to play with. It was called a Buddy Bench and it’s job was to eliminate loneliness and foster friendships. When students at the school notice a classmate or peer sitting on the bench, they know to go over and invite him or her to play.
Although the young boy and his family did not move to Germany, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Buddy Bench and how kids at his own school could benefit from it. With the help of the school community, he was able to get a Buddy Bench installed at his elementary school. And, that’s how the Buddy Bench became popular in the United States.
There are more than 2000 Buddy Benches in school yards throughout America, and the number keeps growing. One local elementary school recently added a Buddy Bench to their new playground. The school’s principal explains that the bench is a wonderfully easy way for kids to let their peers know they want to be included, but need a little encouragement to do so.
“The bench also helps children learn to be compassionate, good role models, and courteous of others feelings,” he adds.
If your local elementary school has a Buddy Bench and your child needs some encouragement to make friends, suggest that he have a seat–you never know, he might just find his future life-long friend sitting there too!
If your child’s school doesn’t have a Buddy Bench, consider reaching out to the principal or the PTA to talk about the benefits of having one at your child’s school.
Tara Mitchell is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She lives in Malta, NY with her husband and two children. She’s an avid collector of vintage, fine and fashion jewelry and enjoys throwing themed parties.