We’ve all seen it in our classrooms at one point or another. The “popular” kids forming a group and leaving others out. The one kid no one wants to be partners with. Two students who seemed like the best of friends one day aren’t speaking to each other the next. Friendship issues in the classroom can be complex. But should we be spending valuable time in class on “how to be a good friend”? Absolutely! Learning how to make and be a friend is an essential developmental skill that will help our students be successful in school and in life… and we’re in a great position to help. Let’s take a look at the most common friendship issues that arise in the classroom and how can we help our students navigate them.
Friendship Issue #1: Exclusion
What it looks like: At recess, Jane, Lola, and Kyle like to play the same kickball game. But one afternoon, Kyle comes crying to you, claiming that Lola says he can’t play with them anymore.
What it means: A sense of belonging and connectedness to peers is essential for students of all ages. So being socially excluded can be devastating. This is particularly true for tweens. Adolescents are especially dependent on their peer groups and relationships. And it’s not just “one of those things” about growing up. Kids who experience social exclusion can suffer lasting psychological damage.
How to respond: When it comes to exclusion, like so many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Develop a culture of respect for individual differences and kindness toward others. Teach empathy. “How would you feel if someone said you couldn’t sit next to them at lunch? Or if no one wanted to sit next to you on the bus?” If you see a lot of exclusion happening in your class, consider assigning partners and groups vs. letting kids pick.
Book to read: Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev
Friendship Issue #2: Rejection
What it looks like: Thomas is a bright, quiet, out-of-the-box thinker, but he has sudden outbursts when he gets frustrated. He usually sits alone at lunch and gets picked last for groups.
What it means: When being left out develops into active dislike, we get peer rejection. And it can be a vicious cycle. Peer rejection often occurs because of the rejected child’s behavior, whether that’s shyness or lack of impulse control. And the rejected child’s response to it (drawing further inward, blaming others) only serves to reinforce the rejection.
How to respond: Ask WeAreTeachers advice columnist Elizabeth Pappas shares, “As you seek to build a more just classroom space where each and every student feels valued, be sure to protect your classroom circle time. Move beyond ‘quick check-ins’ and discuss scenarios that include teasing, exclusion, and any kind of marginalization. Infuse high-quality read-aloud texts as springboards to address the concerning issues and create a classroom culture brimming with compassion and empathy.”
Book to read: The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
Friendship Issue #3: Bullying
What it looks like: Jack repeatedly teases Daisy about her family. He says they’re not a real family because she has two moms.
What it means: There’s a difference between bullying and just being mean. We address them in fundamentally different ways, so it’s important to know the difference. Bullying occurs when someone repeatedly and purposefully says or does something that’s hurtful to a person who can’t defend themselves. It has three distinct characteristics:
- Bullying is an intentional and negative act.
- It usually involves a pattern of behavior over time.
- Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
How to respond: The most important thing is not to ignore bullying. Director of Welcoming Schools Cheryl Greene says, “Every single student is watching how you respond to bullying incidents. Your response, or lack thereof, sends a clear message to all students. Center the student, hold those engaging in the behavior accountable, and work to proactively create a classroom where all students feel valued.”
Book to read: One by Kathryn Otoshi
Friendship Issue #4: Gossip
What it looks like: Mallory starts a rumor that Hazel wets the bed. It spreads on social media, and other students start whispering “baby” when she walks by.
What it means: Gossip was once limited to whispering and passing notes in class, and that was bad enough. I think we can all remember revealing a secret crush to a “friend” in the morning only to have the entire school know by lunch. But with technology, gossip has moved online and has become even easier to spread, leaving all kinds of damage in its wake. In the age of social media, the cruelty that transpires online has become an epidemic—and one that can lead to depression, anxiety, and self-harm.
How to respond: When you overhear gossip, it’s important to say something. In an article for the Anti-Defamation League, Rosalind Wiseman suggests the following language: “I am hearing students that I really respect gossip about another student. I’m hoping that is beneath the standards you have set for yourself. And I have to tell you; it’s bothering me that someone else’s embarrassment is being used for your entertainment.”
If the gossip takes the form of cyberbullying, you have a responsibility to report it. Do what you can to create an environment where it doesn’t occur in the first place by teaching digital citizenship and empowering student leaders to stand against mean behavior online.
Book to read: Rumor Has It by Julia Cook
Friendship Issue #5. Bossiness
What it looks like: Jennie starts a “Girls’ Club” of which she is president. She makes all the other members do exactly what she wants at recess.
What it means: Kids who boss others around are exploring power dynamics in the relationships around them. It “originates from a desire to organize and direct the behavior of others,” according to the Center for Children and Youth.
How to respond: Remember that being bossy isn’t always a bad thing. And we need to be careful that we aren’t only applying it to girls (while boys are praised as “assertive” for the same behavior). But when bossiness crosses into disrespect or rudeness, we need to respond (without crushing their independent spirits!). Make sure that you teach and model politeness and help your students with bossy tendencies develop empathy (i.e., “How would you feel if someone talked to you like that?”).
Book to read: Bring Me a Rock! by Daniel Miyares