Whether or not your child is making friends at school is a weight that many parents feel heavy on their heart from the first day of preschool to the last day of college. The pain of feeling left out, unwanted or lonely is one that most of us have felt at some point in our lives, and seeing a child go through that pain is heartbreaking.
While social troubles or discomforts can appear throughout the school years (and throughout life) the time when you can really intervene to set your child up for success is during the early years of preschool and elementary school. Here are some tactics to get you started:
If your child mentions having a hard time with friends at school or you sense that they are having trouble, the first step is to gather information. Observe your child at school during drop off and pick up by spending a little bit of time being a “fly on the wall.” Resist the urge to run up to your child and give them social directions—instead, honestly observe the way they are interacting:
Do they immediately gravitate towards independent play versus joining in a group activity?
Do they attempt to join a group activity with social techniques that aren’t successful with the other children?
Are they shy, stand-offish or rude to other children who approach them? (This doesn’t mean you have a mean child! I just might mean they need some social coaching.)
Talk to your child’s teacher to gain insight into how your child acts at school when you aren’t there. Avoid being defensive or overprotective—try to get honest feedback that will help you move forward in the right direction.
Take Comparison Out the Process
You may have another child that has more friends than they know what do with and are known as the social butterfly of the school. Don’t compare one child with another. That includes their peers and siblings. Every child is different and when you’re intentional about avoiding comparison, you are able to see your own child’s needs, weaknesses and strengths more clearly.
Model Positive Social Behavior and Include Them in Social Situations
While you might be taking extra measures to observe your child, know that their main source of social understanding is through observing you. Model positive social behaviors and techniques at home, with friends, with the bagger at the grocery store and with your child’s peers.
Include your child in social situations where they could practice polite conversation. If you’re talking with a friend, ask them questions and make occasional eye contact with them as you speak so that they feel included and comfortable engaging. Encourage them to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you” and “please” even if they feel uncomfortable at first. Make it clear that they are expected to participate and use each opportunity to coach them.
Give Them A Head Start
If you sense that shyness or intimidation is at the core of your child’s social difficulties at school, try arranging moments for them to bond with their peers in a more comfortable environment. Plan a play date or let your child stay at school for after-school care once or twice a week where class sizes are smaller and less structured.
If you sense that your child is responding to social awkwardness by showing aggression or rudeness, put your defensiveness and protectiveness aside and address the behavior for what it is. Be intentional about letting your child know the behavior will not be tolerated and, if needed, work with a teacher or therapist to give your child tools to express themselves in a more appropriate way. Often times, young children use aggression to try to initiate a reaction (and ultimately, play) when they don’t know what else to do.
Find A Place Where Your Child Feels At Home
In the end, your child might be able to successfully socialize at school but not find a “best friend” in their peer-group. Extracurricular activities are great opportunities to form friendships based on interests and passions. Maybe school isn’t an environment where your child feels their most confident and safe, but they shine on the soccer field with their teammates or in art class with their peers.