Interpersonal Relationships: How Teachers Can Help Students Develop Friendships

From the first day of kindergarten to the last day of high school, teachers play a critical role in helping students develop interpersonal relationships. Whether it’s resolving a conflict or promoting cooperation, there are endless opportunities to teach students how to interact with those around them.

To ensure that each of your students creates meaningful interpersonal relationships, here’s what experts say about promoting friendships in the classroom.

Teachers and Student Relationships

The ability to make friends and interact socially is one of the most important life skills that children develop. Developing interpersonal relationships is so important, in fact, that many teachers may not realize their role in it.

However, Inclusion BC explains that making friends isn’t necessarily an inherent skill. Asking questions, listening, and being compassionate towards others are all skills that need to be learned and practiced. To promote the learning of these skills, teachers must create an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes all students to interact with one another. Author and education expert Michele Borba adds that social skills must be refined through trial and error. This means that when students are engaged in social situations early on, they have more opportunities to develop social confidence and feel a sense of belonging.

Teachers can also support interpersonal student relationships by identifying the things that deter friendship development. For example, teacher Laurie Futterman says that with technology and increased homework loads, students are more likely to stay home when school is over each day. Families also live farther apart than they used to, which makes it harder for students to get together. Teachers can ensure that students still have opportunities to connect with their peers by setting aside social time in the classroom.

Redefine Student Groups

Teachers have always used group projects and collaborative activities to encourage teamwork in the classroom. This remains a positive way to foster interpersonal development, but new practices and research are driving a fresh approach to this tradition. For example, teachers traditionally group students by academic skill level or aptitude in a certain subject. Instead of this approach, however, Geri Coleman Tucker at Understood says that teachers should group students by interest. If students are involved in musical activities like band and choir, for example, grouping them together may help foster friendships in an organic way.

Another way to foster relationships is to promote supportive relationships across different races and cultures in the classroom. Kendra Yoshinaga at NPR Ed explains that according to a recent study, students were more likely to maintain a cross-racial friendship with the help of a supportive teacher. Promoting cross-race friendships improves classroom climates in the short term, but it also has lasting implications for years to come. Recent research from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good also shows that “cross-race friendships among children can improve their academic motivations, their feelings about same- vs. cross-race friends, and their social competence.”

Education equality expert Melinda D. Anderson adds that teachers can promote friendships across races and ethnicities by turning to literature. Choosing books that represent interracial friendships help students see them as a positive and important aspect of life.

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Go Beyond the Classroom

Supporting interpersonal relationships outside the classroom is another important way to support the social needs of your students. Spark PE says that after-school activities help build both social skills and personal confidence. Working with others in a new environment, such as at a new sport, helps students learn the value of teamwork and to develop leadership skills.

To help students get involved in and benefit from after school activities, Paula Kluth suggests working with administrators to ensure a wide range of interests and lifestyles are supported. For example, students may have afternoon responsibilities at home that prevent them from being able to participate in after-school activities. Or, some families may not have the funds to support a child’s participation in sports. Teachers can ensure that all students get involved in social activities by leading free clubs during recess, lunchtime, or other free periods throughout the day.

Identify and Manage Conflict

One of the best ways to teach social skills is to take advantage of opportunities during real life situations. KidsMatter writes that when a student is visibly upset with another student, a teacher can intervene to help them express their emotions in a productive way that helps both parties learn. This is what’s referred to as self-regulation. The Highly Effective Teacher says that teaching students how to appropriately express their feelings and understand the consequences of their actions is key for developing friendships. In turn, strong friendships lead to more positive attitudes and higher academic achievement.

Author and speaker Signe Whitson explains that it’s also important for teachers to identify passive aggressive bullying and interpersonal conflict between classmates. She says young girls experience this more frequently and earlier than boys. Keeping an open dialogue with students can help them identify when it happens to them, which can help them resolve conflicts sooner. Additionally, teachers can help students embrace their anger and channel it positively into “I” statements, rather than seeing anger as always negative. By associating anger with the ability to resolve conflict and promote friendships, students learn how to build relationships.

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Encourage Kindness

Aside from identifying and managing conflict, teachers should also be proactive about promoting kindness. For example, teaching students how to share with and help others can make kindness become a habit. Kindness usually leads to more of the same, explains psychologist and author Eileen Kennedy-Moore. In turn, this often paves way to a friendship between two children who feel good about interacting with one another.

Roots of Action says that teachers can create a kindness project. In this activity, a classroom records one special act of kindness every day. Whether it’s hugging someone who seems sad or helping someone with an assignment, it helps students become more aware of acts of kindness and normalizes them in the classroom.

Other ways to teach kindness include reading stories about kindness and non-bullying. A list can be found on thebestchildrensbooks.org, a site created by and for teachers specifically to teach kindness in the classroom. To know if a book sends the right message, look for those that exemplify kindness in many ways. Sandi Schwartz says that books which demonstrate kindness at school, in the community and at home are best for showing how to be kind in all aspects of life.

Images by: jacqueline macou, Alexandra München, luvmybry

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