At the start of any school year, parents (and often the child, too) fret about whether or not their child will be able to make friends with their classmates. Suzanne E. McLeod, coordinator of educational leadership at Binghamton University, State University of New York and a former school principal and superintendent, offers tips for parents to help their children and that children can do themselves to make friends and to be a good friend.

  1. Realize the process of making new friends is a lifelong skill that needs to be nurtured. The New York Times did a piece on how to make friends as an adult, directly addressing the critical need for humans to develop and maintain connections to others. It’s the same for children, and the first step in connecting with others is having good communication skills. Parents can help develop this skill in their children by engaging them in conversation often, from the very earliest age, and encouraging your child to speak clearly and concisely, then asking questions to further the conversation. Move from this to sharing stories with your child to enhance the development of their listening skills.
  2. Try to encourage your child to participate in two extra-curricular activities. Research suggests that two is the “sweet spot” of improving children’s connections to both school and other students. (Knifsend, C.A. and Graham, S. Too Much of a Good Thing? How Breadth of Extracurricular Participation Relates to School-Related Affect and Academic Outcomes During Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, (2012) 41:379-389) For younger children, schools often don’t offer extra-curricular activities, but opportunities in the community, religious organizations, scouting groups can allow children to meet other children who likely have the same interests as them, thus leading them to find their peer group of like-minded children.
  3. Many parents worry about their child’s ability to navigate playground politics. Schools work very hard to proactively address bullying with policies, staff training, and bullying prevention programs for students. And, it’s important for children to learn how to navigate the give and take of unstructured settings. Understanding the difference between conflict (disagreement) and bullying (aggressive negative behavior rooted in a power imbalance, e.g. size, age) and then helping your child problem-solve the situation can go a long way towards strengthening your child’s social skills. Problem-solving can involve asking your child to suggest solutions themselves, including strategies to implement.

Developing and maintaining friendships is a crucial aspect of both health and happiness for people of all ages. A child’s ability to develop and maintain friendships is a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.