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Teaching Friendship Skills for Beginning of the Year

Two toddler girls sitting next to each other, playing with blocks together.
Two toddler girls playing with blocks together.

It's been a smooth back-to-school start for us, I’m hoping the same for anyone reading this!

So far this school year, we’ve observed younger children trying to but unsuccessfully enter play or children who try to enter play but become frustrated or discouraged when it doesn’t work out. This is common and developmentally appropriate, especially in classrooms with mixed ages like mine. For some children, joining play comes more naturally than for others. Because of this, it’s important to teach children skills to help them play with others and also to cope when trying to play with someone doesn’t work out.

Part of my personal philosophy is that I don’t force sharing and try not to force friendships or playmates, but I do try to encourage it, as well as teach skills like being kind to everyone in the class no matter what. I’ve learned that not all children will be best buddies, but that doesn’t mean they can’t show kindness to each other and play harmoniously in the same classroom. I want children to come up with the idea of sharing on their own, I want them to learn it as a skill, to do it out of the goodness of their heart, to learn that if they share with someone, that someone might share with them next time. I use the same principles for friendship and play. I teach children how to ask to play, give them ideas to join the play, and even talk with the child on the other side about letting someone join them. However, if a child says no, they want to play alone, if they don’t want to share their blocks, if they’re worried about their tower breaking, etc. I'm not going to force it. Below I’ll share more about just how I do all of this.

A group of 5 young kids sitting around a table with their hands in the air.
A group of 5 young kids sitting around a table with their hands in the air.

The number one thing you should do at the beginning of the year and in any classroom should be relationship building and learning about the children. Once you know about the children, you start to see why they do the things they do and you can also use their interests and current skills to scaffold them into play and make friends. If you have a good relationship with them, the better your chances of successfully guiding them into gaining new skills.

Next, we have to become investigators of behavior. We’ve had challenges in our classroom, of course. But with the help of my team, we watched and paid attention to the behaviors in question and figured out why they were happening. It was pretty easy to see that children were becoming frustrated when they tried to play and it didn’t work, which would then bring about behaviors like throwing toys, hurting other children, and trying to run away. We looked closely at what happened just BEFORE the challenging behavior.

With investigating, we looked at what was helping or adding to the challenging behaviors in the room. Another crucial step in any classroom, setting up the environment for success. I’m sure you’ve heard this all before. Regardless, be sure you have spaces for children to be alone and spaces for children to be together. I make labels in my room that says “I would like to work alone” and “I would like to play with a friend”. Children can put a label in front of them and their toy(s) to send a message to others about what they would like. I also like to have something out for ALL of the children. Even though we might be learning about fall and pumpkins, I’m still going to have dinosaurs, cars, babies, and legos out almost all of the time.

Finally, explicitly teaching friendship skills. Here are some examples:

  1. Puppet shows. Watch out for a problem you see in the classroom and work through it using puppets. I recently did “too many kids in dramatic play” three puppets talked out their problem and figured out how more kids could play in dramatic play.

  2. Modeling. Watch for a child who needs help. Sit by them and model the friendship skill. It might look like this:

    1. “Hey, John, can Jill and I play with you?”

    2. “No thanks.”

    3. “Okay, well, can we sit and watch you play with your blocks?"

    4. “Sure."

    5. “Thanks! If you’re not using all of the blocks, maybe you could give us some and we’ll just be neighbors who play right by you.”

  3. Coaching. A child comes up to you and says “He won’t let me play with him!” Find out more information first before trying to solve the problem. “Well, what’s he playing? How did you ask to play? What do you want to do in his game? Did you ask him if you could be the firefighter? Okay, so let’s try this. Tell Jack you know he’s the police officer so you were hoping to be the firefighter. If he says no, ask him what his idea is. If it’s still not working, come back to get me and I’ll help.”

  4. Social stories. These are stories that are made to indirectly teach children a skill during whole group at first and then perhaps individually, over and over again. You could make the book specifically for the child using their name and then only use it with them, or you could make it vaguer so that it works for any child. A social story could be as simple as teaching the child to ask “can I play with you?” or as complex as figuring out how to choose a new activity when a child says “no, you can’t play with me right now.” A story about coping when a child says no you can’t play could be very beneficial for children on both sides. It could be about coping and moving on as well as how it hurts when you’re told you can’t play and working to include others.

    1. Explore this website to learn more about the origins and creator of social stories linked here.

    2. Access few examples of some easy but effective social stories by clicking here.

  5. Assigning a child in the class to be a special friend or a helper. This child may know they are the helper or not. This child is typically a natural leader, exhibits kindness and a willingness to help. You can ask them to help a child solve a problem like finding their coat, pushing them on the swing, comforting them if they are sad, etc. I’ve seen classrooms assign a different child to be this each week or each day and make it known, or talk to a child privately about being a helper for the week. You will have to figure out how to make it work for your classroom or school. Remember to be mindful of children who seem like they would be a great helper but don’t feel comfortable, or watch for others who are almost ready to be a helper that could use some coaching from you before you enlist them to help.

Here’s an interesting discussion post about using the word “friend” for all children. I just thought it was good to read to learn about different perspectives and ideas. Read it by clicking here.


Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, a mama to a rambunctious toddler, and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.

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