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Testing the Waters: Navigating Friendships in Elementary

It is no surprise to anyone that elementary-aged children are social beings. Up until this point in their lives, they have only identified themselves as part of their families. As they begin to exercise their independence from their familial society and become more extroverted, they seek out connection with peers. Playdates and birthday parties start to become key features of their social experience, and their friendships can overshadow the family relationships that were once at the center of their world. As children experiment to figure out their “social selves,” it’s common for them to run into challenges and misunderstandings.

Learning the Limits: What Behavior is Acceptable?

When children are toddlers, they test limits with the people they love most—their family members. Two- and three-year-olds hit, bite, and yell to see just how far they can push. The limits that parents set in these moments help toddlers realize that their family loves them unconditionally and, at the same time, these actions are also upsetting and hurtful. They learn how to have positive relationships and how to resolve problems within their families.

The same limit-testing behavior repeats itself in the elementary-aged child. Now that they are expanding outside of their families and forming friendships, they begin to test boundaries within the context of their friendships. For the six- to nine-year-old, this might look like not listening to peers’ requests, playing too rough at recess, or taking things that don’t belong to them. Most often, these acts are not done with ill-intent; in fact, they are a way for children to confirm that their friends will not abandon them even if they really “mess up.” That being said, it doesn’t always go as planned and can result in conflicts along the way. Though in most other aspects of life, they are working hard to assert their independence, in these moments, children rely on the adults in their lives to guide them through resolving these conflicts and moving forward with their friendships.

Understanding Perspective: How Does My Friend Feel?

Perspective taking is new to children this age. Toddlers are egotistical and can only see their actions from their own perspective. “I took that ball because it is mine!” Children in elementary are just starting to understand that other people have a different way of seeing the world or even a specific event. This ability doesn’t happen at the same age for each child, nor is it intuitive for all children.

Needing Guidance: How Can Adults Help?

Explicitly teaching social skills is important to help young children navigate this new social realm. At Wellan, we often use picture books and role-playing activities to give students the opportunity to be proactive and act out situations before they occur in real life. If students happen to have a conflict with a peer later on, they can refer back to the lessons learned or books they read to try and understand their friends’ perspective. Here are some books about building friendships and how to navigate conflicts that come up.

It is important that parents continue these conversations at home. Discussions about different social situations and problem-solving help children understand the normalcy of conflict-resolution. Author Rae Jacobson from Child Mind Institute wrote an article about the importance of teaching your child about empathy and respecting others’ boundaries, as well as advice on how to help children set clear limits of their own. When your child does come to you about a conflict they have with a peer, you can refer back to discussions you have had to better support them.

The elementary grades are a time for learning the skills needed to navigate the social world. Children are developing new and evolving friendships, and discovering their limits within each friendship. Bumps in the road happen, but their families and teachers can be there to help guide them if they go off course.

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