8 ways to nurture friendships in our schools

“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered.
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


There is something quite special and even magical about close friendships — no matter what age we are. Moments of joy and delight with people who we value not only make life more fun — they have hidden layers of benefit we often forget. Friendships build human connectedness and bondedness, and help create life-affirming experiences that can help build emotional, social and psychological competence.

We (as human beings) are biologically wired to be social beings — living in close proximity, cooperatively working to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all members of our community to ensure the survival of the species. Positive human relationships are also seen as the most significant protective factor in resilience studies, meaning that we are more physically and psychologically buoyant when we have family and friends who care for us and who we care for when adversity arrives in our lives often unexpectedly and unwelcome.

School transitions whether in early years or into high school are stressful for students. Having a friend by your side makes this challenge much easier especially for sensitive children who struggle with change and new situations. Once at school, friendships or the absence of friendships can help or hinder what happens in the classroom. Most schools have anti-bullying programs and I wonder if we should reframe that focus toward making and nurturing friendships in our schools because the wellbeing of students is deeply affected by the social dynamics of having friends.

“… some children are more likely than others to be selected as friends to participate in friendships of high quality as they explore similarity and personal attributes as determinants of the constructs of companionship, affection and intimacy.” — The Company They Keep: Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence edited by William M. Bukowski, Andrew F. Newcomb, Willard W. Hartup (1998).

Nothing tugs at a parent’s heart strings as much as the words: “No-one wants to play with me!” or “I have no friends!” These same words can also cause teachers much angst.

So let’s explore some ways to help children form good friendships in our schools that will not just be fun but which will be supportive and long-lasting just like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet’s mateship.

8 ways to help children form good friendships

  1. Beware of some of the definite differences between most girl and boy friendships. Boys often use less verbal communication to build their friendship bonds so they actually need to spend more face-to-face time playing together doing physical stuff. Creating ‘adventure type’ opportunities for young lads that stimulate lots of ‘dopamine’ — the brain chemical that makes boys feel alive, engaged and interested — helps build stronger connectors of affection. Think games with balls, sandpits, building things, climbing frames and of course sports activities.
  2. Boys’ are often more fragile around friendships than girls — meaning that when they are able to have a good mate accompany them to kindergarten, pre-school, Year 1 and even high school – they will be happier to attend. Without a close, loyal friend they can struggle more. If boys have no friends they often display aggressive behaviour towards other students and staff because they feel isolated and disconnected.
  3. Be careful when considering separating key friendships thinking, “my son or daughter seems popular with lots of other students” — underneath, many children may have a strong affection for only one or two best friends and can feel terribly wronged and wounded by the forced separation. Indeed such a move has seen students leave schools and cause enormous long-term challenges.
  4. Create a ‘Friendship Chair’ initiative, which is happening in some schools, where children can come and sit if they don’t have anyone to play with. When managed well by older students, this has been shown to be a powerful transformative initiative in the school playground.
  5. Girls can be like butterflies – flitting around being friends with lots of girls. This is helpful because girls can tend to be much more manipulative in their friendship dynamics – best friends today, worst enemies tomorrow and in a few days back to being besties! As adults you can help by not stepping into girl friendship dramas and sorting them out – just be quietly supportive and encouraging, reminding girls about empathy, and exploring how others may feel when we are mean and unkind.
  6. Teach children about what bullying really is — a concerted, repeated choice of behaviour that involves an inappropriate use of power, which impacts another child’s wellbeing. Some childhood nastiness, when a spontaneous moment of unpleasantness occurs, is not bullying.
  7. Having shared interests is ‘glue’ that bonds friendships — no matter what age. Endless hours of play helps children build a ‘play code’, which is an innate willingness to play with other children. This code includes learning how to take turns, how to share, and how to win and lose with a degree of grace. Encouraging play activities in recess and lunchtime helps to build the ‘play code’ learning. Nothing works better at building positive affection and companionship in childhood than real play — in all its forms — imaginative, competitive, unstructured, organised, free range and adventuresome.
  8. Friendship conflicts, much like sibling rivalry, are a normal part of life. It is part of our job as parents and educators to help our children resolve these conflicts by making them aware of how to manage different wants, needs and big ugly emotions. The key is to always remember that when we feel unloved and rejected our ‘primitive’ brain can hijack our ‘upstairs’ brain and we can get angry or frustrated very quickly. Children are children and still developing their emotional and social competence.

Given that we have a tsunami of iPads, computers, tablets and hand-held games and activities to occupy our children’s time, I have deep concerns that today’s children are going to have more problems forming and keeping real friendships than children of previous generations. An inability to do this is an enormous concern.

To help children under 10 who have poor social skills and struggle with friendship, I have created an audio track called “I Am a Good Friend” that helps them visualise what it looks and feels like to be a friend.

We all want our students to enjoy their schooling journey and having friends to share the journey is definitely a positive protective factor. Let’s have conversations in our staffrooms about the value and importance of friendship building for the purpose of enhancing school culture, student wellbeing and improved learning outcomes. Staff also function better having friends or staff buddies and so maybe the same principles apply to them — a friendship chair in the staffroom may not work as well as a good couches and great coffee, a place to linger and chat!

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh



Maggie wrote this article for Teachers Matter magazine.