By | November 20, 2020

Almost everything we know about friendship in schools was learned from research conducted in classrooms and intended for use during in-person education. Now that many children in the United States are learning at a distance, teachers and parents need new strategies to make the most of peer relationships. Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor in Washington, D.C. and author of Middle School Matters, spoke with MindShift about how best to support existing friendships, promote the formation of new ones, encourage healthy friendship, and put friendships to work as an academic resource. The exchange has been lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s say we have two students who were buddies last year. How can schools support that relationship from a distance?

One of the challenges of growing up even before coronavirus is that friendships cycle in and out. They’re at once critically important to kids and also fragile, because kids are learning skills such as empathy and flexibility, and many don’t yet have a strong sense of self. They’re trying on new identities and moving between peer groups. Now add on remote learning and the heightened sensitivity that comes from not being able to smooth out misunderstandings in person, plus the awkwardness of interacting through a screen when you may not be that adept at carrying on an insightful conversation in person, and then the layers of stress they’re feeling about what’s happening in their lives and the world. That cumulative anxiety can lead to more impulsivity and greater potential for conflict.

I think explaining all of this to kids is helpful, both in terms of normalizing that everyone is a bit insecure and out of sorts, and in terms of communicating why they need to assume positive intent, and pause before posting or doing anything out of anger.

Schools can be thoughtful about how they pair kids for group projects and make kids aware of their resources, too. A counselor could help them talk through a dispute if they need mediation support, or offer emotional support to a student who is feeling left behind by a friend, all over Zoom. 

This fall marks the first time most kids met unknown classmates virtually. For some this is a transition year from elementary to middle school. How can educators promote new friendships? Do you anticipate digital interactions making it harder or easier to form friendships across traditional chasms like gender, race, and class?

Schools can thoughtfully pair families who already are a part of the community with new families, incorporating buddy programs, and host “mix it up” virtual lunches to expand kids’ peer groups. I actually think this can happen more organically during remote learning than face-to-face instruction. It’s more daunting to sit with strangers at a table in a crowded school cafeteria than to attend a virtual lunch with a visiting speaker or to participate in a mixed-grade book club online. Once you have kids with different backstories in a Zoom room, you can do some icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities. Schools also can ask kind kids with social capital to take a leadership role, brainstorming ideas for ways to reach out to kids who may be feeling isolated.

To promote cross-group friendships, schools can offer affinity groups, interest-based clubs, speakers, facilitated lunches, read-alouds, game or movie nights, and other structured, inclusive activities that give kids a reason to meet up online.

We know friendships are more likely to grow to be healthy and strong with in-person contact rather than just social media interaction. How can we help students maintain healthy boundaries and patterns of interaction at a distance? 

Not all social media is bad. If kids are using social media to FaceTime a friend or work on a social justice issue or connect with a grandparent, that’s a lot different than just passively scrolling through other kids’ feeds while feeling bad about yourself. I’d also be concerned about a child spending a tremendous amount of time doomscrolling through grim news feeds. Returning to the idea that kids are hypersensitive right now, experiencing intense emotions, and perhaps acting more impulsively because they’re more anxious or want attention, we want to focus on preventing them from blowing up their friendships.

Schools can remind kids to sit on their hands long enough to consider whether what they’re about to post or say could come back to haunt them or could hurt someone else. They can urge kids to set themselves up for success by removing technology from their bedrooms or refraining from interacting when they’re tired. They can have class contracts with agreed upon norms for behavior. They can be told that the school will hold them accountable for out-of-school actions that end up bleeding into the digital classroom.

The goal is to create a culture where kids want to look out for the more vulnerable among them, whether that’s a new student or a child who may have some social skills deficits. 

Some strategies have been proven effective for harnessing the motivating power of friendship for learning. Can these efforts translate to distance learning? How?

This is where teachers can be aware of and sensitive to children with different strengths and challenges. When kids complain about themselves or someone else, I like to ask them to come up with two strengths for every so-called weakness. A kid with attention issues might bring dynamism and energy to the classroom. A kid who is distractible might have sudden bursts of insight. If you can see that a student is being ostracized or getting in their own way—maybe making funny faces or getting annoyingly off-topic on Zoom—talk to them individually about how you can support them. Try to point out their strengths authentically in front of peers, too.

Work with their parents as well. Now more than ever, this is going to have to be a home-school partnership. If you use Zoom breakout rooms, pop in frequently to ensure no one is hurling insults or dominating a project. On a broader level, make sure the books you read, the videos you show, the examples you use, and speakers you bring in reflect the diversity in your classroom in a positive way.

This article is part of the “Friendship in Schools” series, which explores the complexities of friendship at various stages of learning.

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