Many times I hear adults who work with children referring to a group of peers as friends. For example when two children start fighting over a toy, I often hear, “Be nice to your friend,” or “Your friend wants a turn.” What is a friend? Who in your life do you truly consider your friends? What signs do children give us that convey to us that they are friends? It is not enough nor appropriate to assume that all children are automatically friends—instead we should focus on how to help children learn what it means to be kind and respectful to others. Children also need our support to learn about empathy, how to express themselves through words, as well as learning about how to problem solve with one another. Here are some ways to support children’s social development:
Model using your own behavior. Children learn by imitating those around them. When they see others treated with kindness and respect, it teaches them what is socially acceptable. This also includes being transparent to children. It is okay to express your feelings aloud to children along with owning up to your mistakes. This can teach children that feelings and mistakes are natural and normal to experience.
Make it clear that everyone is entitled to their feelings. Labeling and validating emotions helps young children not only learn about what they are feeling but also that it is okay to feel them. When children understand that it is safe to feel their emotions they can learn to self-regulate and work to understand why they may be feeling a certain way. This is when they can move past problems and work with their peers to solve problems; not to mention make friends.
Refrain from fixing conflicts. Telling children how to solve a conflict—whether it is through forced sharing, time limits for turn taking and taking away the object or toy that is the source of the conflict—hinders children from learning how to problem-solve on their own. This can be a challenge because conflict can be uncomfortable for many people. It takes trust and patience to help children learn these skills.
Facilitate conversation. Sometimes starting a conversation with, “What is the problem here?” or “How can you work this out?” is enough to get to the root of the problem. Adults can help facilitate conversations so that children can learn to identify what the issue is and then figure out steps to a resolution. Remain neutral, stay calm and do not take sides. Repeat what you hear children saying or see them doing through their actions. Ask, “What should we do about this?” You will be surprised what children can come up with on their own.
“Intentionality” has become a buzz word in the world of early care and education for good reason. We should not only be aware of what activities are being planned and why but we should also be intentional about the words we use when speaking to children. Being intentional supports social development and a lifetime of skills that will help children initiate play, resolve conflicts and make friends.