Is Friendship a Skill That Can Be Taught in Schools?

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It seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? That kids, between reading and writing and ‘rithmetic and crafts, will also learn a social skill or two? In the earliest years of elementary school, the day is crammed with friendship lessons, both structured and ad hoc: Kids learn about sharing and taking turns. They learn to not yell, to not shove, to refrain from hurling epithets like fart or butthead, to keep their thoughts about someone else’s cootie status to themselves. They sing songs about being nice and circle up to listen to books with thinly disguised morals about being helpful.

But really, most of what kids learn about being a friend comes from the breaks in between all that, from the nonschool parts of the school day — from, well, being a friend, in recess and games and the unstructured pockets of time when they’re left to their own devices. According to Caron Carter, a professor of early childhood education at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K., children around kindergarten-age form friendships primarily through play.

“If someone likes to play football, they’ll play football together,” she says. “If you like cars or you like Star Wars, those friendships often develop from those shared interests or similar preferences for play experiences.” Support, emotional intimacy, all the other, deeper trappings of friendship — those come later; the first friendships in our lives come from discovering that we like to do the same thing as someone else, and then deciding to do it at the same time. But often, schools don’t leave enough room for that play to happen, meaning their students’ social growth goes ignored.

Carter is the co-author of a small study recently published in the International Journal of Early Years Education titled “A Pedagogy of Friendship,” examining the small ways schools can help young students learn to form social bonds — from the behavior of the teacher to the layout of the classroom to the structure of the school day — and how they often fall short.

The study followed three boys and four girls at a school in northern England, all between the ages of 5 and 6. Over several sessions, Carter and her colleague Cathy Nutbrown, a professor of education at the University of Sheffield, interviewed the students about their attitudes on friendship, using strategies like drawings and toys arranged in a playtime scene. (“I might say, ‘Tell me about your friends, draw me a picture of your friends,’ Carter explains, or, with the toys, “‘This little person hasn’t got anyone to play with, who do you think he would like to play with?’”) Because the sample size was so small, the researchers compared what their interview subjects told them against existing research on friendship in the same age group.

Their takeaways: First, the children’s burgeoning friendships are largely governed by playtime rules invisible to adults. To the teacher’s eyes, for example, three children refusing to let a fourth join their game might seem mean and petty — but the kids, research has shown, view the extra person as a threat to a make-believe world they’ve worked hard to build. “Those three that are already playing have gone through a lot of hard work thinking about what to play, and [who gets which] parts,” she says. An adult, blind to those nuances, might force the group to make room for one more, but kids have their own, more subtle strategies for working their way in, observing until the right moment or picking up a toy that can be used as a prop in a scene that’s underway.

And second, the emotional reverberations of these friendships are deeper than adults often realize. “Say you went out on the playground and had a fallout with one of your friends, and then you came back into class,” Carter says. “Some children [in the study] spoke about the adult saying, ‘If you don’t stop squabbling, you’re going to the head teacher,’” inadvertently minimizing the very real feelings of hurt and anger that kids can feel about seemingly small battles — what looks like an easily forgotten squabble to grown-up eyes can feel all-consuming to a child. “Sometimes we think they’re low-level things, but they’re quite a concern. They find it hard to focus on their learning because they’re thinking about the fallout with the friend, and they’re quite upset. Often, as adults, we don’t appreciate the emotional effect it has on them.”

But small tweaks, the study authors wrote, can help schools optimize the amount of social interaction students get. For one thing, teachers can familiarize themselves with how their students form bonds — both through observation and reading up on the literature — and give kids more agency to resolve social problems on their own, whether it’s joining an existing playgroup or patching up a fight.

But that autonomy is dependent on giving kids both time and physical space to be with one another. That doesn’t necessarily mean cutting down on academics to make time for a second recess — even things like collaborative or game-based lessons, Carter says, can inspire the same bonding as games of their own making. They also need physical space in which to conduct their friendship, something that can be achieved by segmenting off corners of the classroom where two fighting students can take a time out to talk things over.

“We really have to focus on the whole child — not just their academic performance, but also their social development and emotional learning,” she says. “If children feel secure socially and emotionally, if they have friends, and if when things go wrong they know how to get back on track, or have the support to get back on track,” the classroom will be a more comfortable place for them, eliminating one potential obstacle to learning. But “if they haven’t got that security or if we neglect that development, that will impact their learning because they won’t have that sense of well-being. They won’t want to be in that environment to learn.”