Many preschool teachers call their students “friends,” but do we think about why? My reason is straightforward: I call them friends because I want them to be friends. They’re in preschool, and they’ll probably be together through eighth grade. That’s a long time to go to school with someone you don’t like. While they won’t all be close, I do want them to at least treat each other like friends.
I once I taught at a summer school, and one day a student was angry because another student said they weren’t friends. Another teacher said to the angry student, “Well, you can’t be friends with the whole world.” I thought that was a cop-out, a way for the teacher to get out of having a difficult conversation with the student.
As an adult, I recognize that some relationships are unhealthy. As a parent, for example, you may not want your children to play with certain other children, and that’s fine. But a teacher has to educate and care for all of their students, and that means fostering a positive classroom culture.
Young children can often act in unpleasant ways: They throw loud temper tantrums, say mean things to peers and adults with no remorse, or suddenly hurt their classmates over small things. Preschoolers don’t have the toolbox to understand social norms, use appropriate problem-solving skills, or think through an adverse situation. As desperately as they want friends, sometimes preschoolers don’t know how to treat them.
Some get too attached, some will let others take all of their toys in order to be liked, and some will use their “friendship” to make others give them what they want—“If I’m not first in line, I’m not your friend.” None of these sound particularly healthy, but they’re typical of young children. But developmentally appropriate doesn’t mean free pass—especially when it comes to the emotions of the other students.
Friends in the Classroom
So what’s the solution? Teaching children appropriate ways to behave with each other. We can model several specific concepts to help students build healthy friendships.
Friends can be mad at each other: “You’re not my friend anymore” is a common refrain among young children. I emphasize that being upset with someone doesn’t mean they’re not friends and that all the way up to adulthood they will sometimes get mad at friends. We can teach children to forgive and also let them know their angry feelings are valid.
Friends don’t always have to play together: Healthy attachment is important, but we need to explicitly teach kids that just because they’re not next to their favorite person doesn’t mean the friendship is over. You can validate this with another student: “I’m playing with cars now, and I’ll play with you later.” Teachers can switch up who we spend time with so that students see us playing with everyone.
Friends can have other friends: It’s OK to have other people in our lives. One person doesn’t replace another. I once brought in two of my coworkers and explained that they were both my friends and, just as importantly, that they were each other’s as well. Again, we can explicitly make the point that sometimes kids play with their closest friends and sometimes with other people.
We care about everyone: As unpleasant as it can be for a 3-year-old to witness another student having a temper tantrum, it’s the teacher’s actions that set the tone for the class. It’s a difficult balance to be both firm and caring, but phrasing and expectations are everything.
If you need to give consequences for an action, remember that the class is watching. If you lose your cool, the kids will know it. You don’t have to appease or bribe the disruptive student, and you can (and should) set high expectations: “Please take a seat in the time-out corner, and you can return to circle time when you’re feeling better.” But be clear that you want that child to rejoin the rest of the class, when they’re ready.
Emphasize that consequences are in place to keep everyone safe, and sometimes students need to calm down before coming back to the group. There are no bad kids. If a child is having trouble, show that you care about them—if you care about that student, the rest of the class will too.
The more effort you put into fostering positive relationships with your class, the more they’ll play and work together, cry and laugh together. Using these strategies, I see tons of empathy in my class by May.
One last note: I hate to admit it, but that summer school teacher was right—we can’t be friends with the whole world. But 3-year-olds don’t know that, and why ruin things for them?