I had an interesting chat with a parent of one of my students this past Friday afternoon; she has a little girl in my class and the conversation had turned to the different ways that children seem to follow each other. I am sure that many, if not all of you, have seen your child adapt their likes/dislikes to fit in with their classmates and their friends. Sometimes this can be endearing, sometimes it can be a challenge, and other times it can be alarming. I can tell you that one of the things I take to heart the most as an early childhood teacher is helping my little ones develop strong social skills. In this post, I want to touch on some of the more common behaviours I see crop up when preschoolers are navigating the social scene, the goals that are most beneficial for them to be working on, and ways we can help them through the highs and the lows of friendship.
The Nuts and Bolts of A Preschooler’s Friendship
Watching a child figuring out who they are is absolutely awesome. I have taught hundreds of children and I still get amazed when I see their little personalities really emerging in the classroom. Sometimes, however, I can see the social tactics that are emerging as well, and I don’t like those as much. Thankfully, I am in the perfect place to set them on the right track.
Children like to categorise things in their world around them; when things are labelled and put in compartments it helps them make sense of things. As they are figuring out ‘what works for me’ and ‘what doesn’t work for me’, these labels become more complex. As teachers and parents/families, we see these labels come into play with who they pick and chose as friends, their clothing choices, the colours/movies/things they like, etc. For instance:
- I only like Rapunzel now. She has long hair, like me. That’s why I can only like her.
- I used to play with John, but he didn’t wear red today. Zack and I wear red, it’s our favourite. So we don’t play with John anymore.
- Pink isn’t for boys. Only girls can like pink.
- Grey is an ugly colour, princesses don’t wear grey!
- We don’t want to play with her, because we’re playing ponies, and there’s only 3 ponies. She’s too many ponies.
- Mary is my friend and her mommy says the red part of the apple is yucky. I don’t want to eat the red part of the apple.
These are all actual quotes from students I’ve had throughout the years! A key to a happier preschooler, which will lead to a happier adult, is the ability to both enter play well and handle the disappointment when their attempts aren’t always successful. We want to help our kids be able to communicate with the friends they’re trying to play with, to be able to enter a game that’s already established successfully, and be able to cooperate with others when they aren’t able to get what they want.
Way to Help Friendship Skills Grow
We can’t dump too much abstract wisdom on our children; telling them that colours don’t really matter or that everybody can be friends are too far-fetched concepts for them to truly grasp. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use more concrete things to get their social skills growing!
- I have found over and over again that the best thing I can do for the kids in my classroom is be aware of the things I model to them. How can I tell them the importance of talking nicely to their friends if I don’t talk nicely to them, even when I am really frustrated that the same child has been caught hitting for the umpteenth time that day? Children are naturally curious and they will eavesdrop when I am talking to a child about the wrong choices he/she made in my classroom. No matter how angry I may be, I have to show them I can be angry and still be respectful.
- Help children become aware of others’ feelings– this is especially important for your toddlers. They are so egocentric at this stage in their life, they are physically incapable of understanding the world outside of their own lens. If they get into a disagreement with their friends, talk them through what’s going on: ‘Jessica, John is unhappy because you took the crayon he was using.’ Make sure this applies to positive feelings as well: ‘Look at how happy Sally is playing with you in the sandbox!’
- Let’s Cooperate! With my older preschoolers, I’ll often see a scenario like: Tom and James are building in the sandbox. Everything is going well until Tom decides he can’t wait for James to be done with the digger. He grabs it from him. James screams ‘Heeeeeeeey!’ and grabs back at him. Everything disintegrates and both of them run to me yelling about how one took the other’s digger. I like to take them back to the sandbox, ask them each to tell me their own version of what happened, and then paraphrase back to them what I am hearing to be the problem. Then I ask them: ‘How can we fix this?’ This is a great problem solving question and it helps them understand that they need to solve their social issues together; I am not going to fight their battles for them (although I will be watching, even if they don’t realise that!) Some children need prompting with solutions at first, but the goal is to help them understand how they can work together and overcome an issue on their own, allowing their play to flow freely.
- Helping them get into the (already established) game– One of the things I hate hearing is that little voice say to me ‘Miss Jaide, I don’t have a friend’ or ‘Miss Jaide, nobody wants to play with me’. Many times, the child that is telling me will have a habit of lingering on the sidelines of games he/she wants to get involved in, but doesn’t really know how. Forcing this child onto the already playing children with statements like ‘Girls, you need to let Susan play with you’ will only breed resentment for Susan and resentment for me. The better way for me to handle it is for me to say something like: ‘Hey girls, I see you have built an awesome house here in the block area. Susan is looking for somewhere to play, and it seems that you could use another person to help you build. Can you please show her how she can help you work on your house?’
I don’t expect all my children in my classroom to be friends and that’s fine. But they can act friendly and always treat each other with respect. When I hear hurtful things coming from one to another such as ‘You’re not my friend anymore!’ or the grand-daddy of insults ‘You can’t come to my birthday party!’ I will cut off things like that at the source. Saying things to hurt someone’s feelings is never acceptable, and for a preschool age child, it is usually because they are unable to correctly assess why they are upset, or they have reached a limit with their communication and pulled the ultimatum. I like to get conversation going with my kids, asking them why they said those things, why they’re angry, telling them it’s okay to be angry and offering them the right words to say so. I also like to tell children that sometimes, it’s okay to not play with a particular friend, especially if that friend are having a rough day and making you feel badly! I explain this with things like: ‘I know it upset you that Sarah said you can’t be her friend. But I don’t think it’s a good idea that you are trying to be Sarah’s friend right now anyway, because she is making you feel bad. Let’s go find a friend you can have fun with, and Sarah can be friends with you when she is ready to treat you nicely.’
I know this ended up being a bit on the longish side, but it was an important topic! I still haven’t said enough, but it sure is a good jump-off point. Looking forward to hearing any thoughts you have on how your children socialise.