Now that the new school year is in full swing, the mounting pressure of yearly goals and curriculum objectives are falling upon us. As educators in the 21st century, we represent a unique place in history, having to merge both academic excellence and a “race to the top” with a social structure constantly in flux. In a digital age where “friends” are literally calculated for us by a side bar on a social networking site, at a time when 7% of infants have email addresses and social network “profiles,” it’s important to remember the positive benefits of friendships in the classroom. REFINING OUR FOCUS While many young children are just in the first stages of social navigation, the lessons they learn at even the earliest stages will stick with them for life. As their teachers and school counselors, we send these messages both through our curriculum choices as well as our administrative decisions and labels. That’s why it is so disturbing to find that a 2005 report by the Yale Child Study Center found that annually in the United States 6 out of every 1,000 children are expelled from preschool. This means that each year, upwards of 5,000 children have already been labeled failures by teachers, their peers and society. As they age, this label can leave a lasting impact. Children who fail once are far more likely to fail again. What’s more, the child’s confidence will be shaken, making him less likely to apply himself significantly in future academic endeavors and leading him to seek the company of other “failures” as friends. This lowered self-esteem leads to bullying, truancy, violence, drug use and increased rates of juvenile delinquency. So, rather than continue to contribute to these statistics, it is essential that educators find a way to better focus and respond to social and emotional issues in young children. While we want to emphasize academics at an earlier age, the cost of doing so in lieu of social skill development is far too high. We need to recognize and encourage friendship in the classroom. IT'S NEVER TOO EARLY In response to the Yale study, it is important to remember that the influence of friends on a child’s life can make or break that child in terms of academic success. In adolescence and pre-adolescence, there are additional factors such as prosocial versus delinquent friendships, but in early childhood the focus is instead on simply finding one or two buddies to bond with in class and using those bonds to foster growth and success. Many young children are far more likely to try something new, be it a dance class or celery, if their friends are already doing it. Because of these positive influences, it is essential to encourage a co-mingling among children of different social groups. While we cannot and should not force children to “be friends” with everyone, ensuring that all members of the class be given equal chance to play with one another as well as discussing the significance of inclusion among all students lays a solid foundation for the construction of these social hierarchies. SOCIAL SUCCESS = ACADEMIC SUCCESS It’s no secret that much of education and the policy surrounding it these days are centered on test scores, academic achievement, and global competition. However, the importance of social skill building cannot be ignored. Children as young as 22 months can begin to form “friendships.” As they age, it is the connection to those in their peer group that will help define children’s success in the classroom and beyond. Social training starts in the home, but as educators we need to reinforce inclusion among peer groups as a way to tackle to “big kid” problems like bullying before they even start by helping children to build friendships in the classroom.
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