by Chris Marchioni, MD, Healthy Learning Paths
What challenge does every child face with a new school year? Some parents say it is adjusting to a new sleep schedule, while others insist it’s keeping up with homework demands. Kids of all ages share one universal challenge that weighs heavy in their hearts. Can you guess what it is?
When Aiden arrives home from school, his mother asks, “Did you make any new friends today?” Bingo! Whether they are five or fifteen, the common challenge kids face is, “Will I have a friend in my class?” A friend helps students look forward to school. When children make friends, they are more engaged in school, which leads to improved academic and social experiences.
As educational priorities shift to STEM, (science, technology, engineering, and math), children have less time to develop basic skills of learning to make friends. In fact, time spent working independently on classroom computers competes with person to person and team communications, and allows less opportunities for group problem solving skills. Think about it. In our frenzy to have children tech savvy, we freely trade off people savvy. While some argue that people skills can be nurtured later, today’s parents find just the opposite.
Melinda Gates, a mother and tech guru explains, “Parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my daughters’ pockets. Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.”
Kids need to practice how to make friends and understand emotions long before entering adolescence. Skills for friendship, communication, kindness, and empathy are an essential part of education starting in early childhood. But where do kids practice? Schools have always served as a perfect environment to learn and practice social skills with peers and adults. Planting the seeds of social skills early gives adolescents greater confidence to use these skills, which builds resilience that extends into middle school, high school, and beyond.
Here are a few ways for parents to help young children practice friendship skills. Start early in the school year and invite a classmate:
- To play in the park with your child
- For dinner and have your child and the friend help make dinner, set the table, and help clean up. Put on some music to make clean up fun.
- To play a board game, work on puzzles, or build a fort with used boxes.
This school year, let’s change STEM to SESTEM: social emotional, science, technology, engineering, and math. Intentionally emphasize social emotional skills to include friendships. Fostering friendships at all levels of education means making time for kids to practice being human at school. Developing these human skills takes away anxiety and loneliness that many children and even adults experience. As children develop social skills and understand emotions, they are better prepared to navigate science and technology both independently and with friends.
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