By Eric Braun, author of Make a Friend, Be a Friend
New pencil box. Backpack. Bouncing through a crowd of kids, tummy full of butterflies. What’s my teacher like? When’s recess? Who’s in my class? Who do I sit by?
Who am I going to be friends with?
The thrill of back-to-school season (or plain old “to school” season for younger students) always comes with an edge of nerves for young kids as they navigate a different, often bigger social world after being off all summer. Finding their place in this world and making friends can be intimidating even for the most outgoing kids. For the less outgoing ones, it can be a true ordeal.
And that’s in a typical school year. This year may present extra anxiety for a lot of students who, due to COVID, didn’t get the chance to attend school in person last year, or who had their in-person learning severely limited. Beyond school, face-to-face socializing in general has been minimized for a long time, and now we’re all working our way back into it—often clumsily. Most adults I know have felt rusty getting back into the swing of hanging out, catching up, and *shudder* small talking. Imagine how it’s going to feel for our nervous kids.
You can help young students feel more confident navigating the chaos of the early school year by spending some time as a class focusing on friendship skills. Here are a few fun and simple activities you can do in the first few days to break the ice and get kids socializing more comfortably.
Talk About Friendship
Have a group discussion about friendship. Start by asking students:
- What makes a good friend?
- What do you like to do with your friend or friends?
Since social skills is a broad topic that includes having conversations, listening, sharing, taking turns, working out conflicts, being a good sport, and more, it can help to make the art of friendship accessible by putting the focus on one critical “secret ingredient”: empathy.
Talk about what empathy means. Simply put, empathy means understanding and being aware of another person’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. It means actively putting yourself in their shoes. As you continue the discussion, ask students:
- Why is empathy such an important ingredient in friendship?
- What does empathy mean?
- What are some examples of showing empathy?
When discussing particular social skills or working through activities with children, it can be helpful to prompt them to center on empathy. “What might Keri be thinking right now?” “How do you think Hakim feels about that?”
As a group, read a few picture books about friendship, such as Be a Friend by Salina Yoon, Ash Dresses Her Friends by Fu Wenzheng, Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems, and A Letter to Amy by Ezra Jack Keats. (You probably have other ideas to add too.)
Talk about the stories. Who are the characters? What happens in the beginning? What is the main idea or problem? How do the characters get along? How do they fix a problem? Ask children if they would like to be friends with the characters. Why or why not?
Things We Have in Common
Put kids in groups of two or more, preferably not with other kids they are already close with. Tell them to have a group discussion to find things they have in common. You can give them a goal, such as to find at least five things, or just see how many they can come up with. If you like, you can provide topics to get them started, such as favorite animals, games, toys, movies, stories, foods, sports, and so on.
This activity not only helps kids get to know one another, but it also helps them see how much they have in common even if they’re from different social, cultural, ethnic, or other groups.
Introduce students to the basics of starting and having conversations, following the three talking tips:
- Ask questions about the other person.
- Take turns.
- Listen to what someone says.
Group children in pairs and offer or brainstorm together some topics they can ask each other about, such as favorite sports, books, or superheroes; games they like to play; shows they like to watch; or people in their family. Allow enough time for partners to start a conversation. As an option, you can then have pairs introduce each other to the larger group.
It may have been a long time since your students have had the challenge of being in a big group and finding friendships within it. For the youngest, they may never have. We can show empathy for them by giving them tools and opportunities to meet the moment.
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons. Say “Hey!” to Eric at heyericbraun.com.
Free Spirit books by Eric:
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