Children’s social experiences in their early years set the stage for developing friendships throughout their lives. For many children, friends in early learning programs are some of the first relationships that children make with people outside of their immediate family. These relationships give children an opportunity to learn important social skills, including how to interact and communicate with others, that form the basis of friendship.
Every child is different, and some will need a bit more support than others to form connections with their peers. As educators and caregivers, we can model communicating and bonding skills by ensuring that every child feels connected, accepted, and welcomed into the classroom.
Acknowledge Differences in Temperaments
ZERO TO THREE explains that, “Every child has his own way of approaching the world, which we call ‘temperament’…A child’s approach to new situations and unfamiliar people is one very important temperament characteristic. The fact is that some children are naturally more comfortable in new situations and jump right in, whereas others are more cautious.”
One of the most commonly referred to types of temperament is “slow to warm-up”, or shy. Children who are slow-to-warm are more cautious, and will often require extra support to get comfortable in new situations. These children often spend more time observing before jumping into social interactions with their peers.
As a caregiver, you can support these children by letting them know that you love and accept them for who they are. You might also try to help them feel more comfortable interacting with peers by putting what you think they’re feeling into words: “You are watching Emma build a house with the legos. Want to see if we can join in?”
Help Children Initiate Group Play
Some children might be interested in playing with other children, but do not know how to join in. These children might require support in learning how to initiate social interactions and play with their peers. You can offer guidance by showing the child how to jump into the group. For example, if children are engaging in pretend play, you might ask them: “It looks like you guys are playing house, and Max might be interested in joining in. Is there a job that you have for him?” This question helps the child to really be engaged and a part of the interaction and the group when they join in the play.
Use a Strengths-Based Approach
As educators, one of the best things that we can do is to acknowledge and celebrate each child’s unique set of skills and abilities. All children, whether or not they are quick to make friends, can be and feel a part of your classroom community.
With children who might have a difficult time interacting with their peers, giving them jobs or roles in the classroom will help the other children observe their competence and recognize the contribution they bring to the group. For example, if there’s a child who struggles with waiting quietly in line before going outside, ask them if they can help to carry your sign-in sheet or another item from the classroom. This job will help the child and the other children to see what the child can do, rather than focusing on what the child is struggling with.
For more resources and information about social-emotional development, you might enjoy these articles from the Good2Know Network archives: