There is a video doing the rounds on my local community pages on Facebook of a junior school child launching a vicious verbal attack on a former friend. The video is appalling, and must be devastating viewing for the target and her family and friends. But the vulnerability of both the victim and the perpetrator is clear to see.
I have no idea whether such extreme occurrences are relatively rare or increasingly common, and I suspect it’s not possible to know for certain. In this instance, the school is working with outside agencies to support all involved, but how many other perhaps less visible forms of abuse and bullying slip under the radar with victims suffering in silence? Friendships and friendship groups break down, this much is indisputable. The question is, what, if anything, can be done at school?
To a degree, we can help young people to navigate the friendship tides. We can give them tools for handling big emotions and negotiating more positive outcomes with their friends and colleagues. We can intervene when necessary and show more harmonious pathways ahead. But this takes time, and it assumes that we have not only the knowledge but also the patience to do this effectively and empathetically.
Fortunately, help exists! Childline has some great advice for children and young people who may be struggling with friendships. There are some key ideas that can help us too; these are worth considering if you find yourself supporting children and young people through friendship breakups and breakdowns and pre-empting disharmony in your classroom:
Kindness counts… From their earliest interactions with friends pre-school, to the challenges of the teenage years, we can never overemphasise the need for, and benefits of, kindness in our dealings with one another. There are many strategies to help with this goal. Kindness UK has some resources and ideas for promoting kindness in the knowledge that research does appear to support the benefits that can be derived from kind environments in schools. For example, happy children, enhanced self-esteem, improved concentration, greater gratitude, harmonious classrooms and so on. Kindness matters so any efforts to enhance it in our classrooms may well be beneficial in the long run.
Focus on control…Help children to understand what is in their control and what is not. This can help to foster healthy relationships with others as we encourage them to view their friends and classmates as equals worthy of their care, kindness and support; particularly helpful for those who like to demonstrate leadership qualities among those who wish not to be led!
Diversity and inclusion matters…some children and young people thrive in large friendship groups, others prefer a select number and there may be some who like their own company at times. All of these options can be healthy, but it’s worth encouraging children to have an open mind when it comes to friendships, and explore how they might get on with a wide range of people. We can support that through working groups, team sports and so on. Friendships are rarely fixed, and flexibility and mutability can be healthy.
Keeping it real…explore what healthy friendships look and feel like. How do good friends communicate? How is trust built and respect fostered? What role does equality have in healthy friendships? How do we express ourselves within the context of a healthy relationship? If we talk about these ideas freely and often, children and young people not only have the opportunity to discuss where friendships are deviating from healthy norms, but they can also explore how they typically relate to others and perhaps even strive for more balance in their friendships.
We’d be hopeless idealists if we thought for a moment that we could eradicate friendship disputes, and perhaps that wouldn’t be desirable. After all, the young of many species engage in scraps and scrapes (as I write there are young fox cubs in the garden, looking not a bit like their reputation for cunning; balls of fluff, brushes tipped white, playing, scrapping, and discovering life). And having taught in mixed schools, single sex schools, FE and HE I can say beyond any doubt that friendships between children and young people do, at times, falter!
While the tool of choice of the contemporary bully can cause widespread devastation (the implications of the video described above will almost certainly be deep and far reaching), the more we equip children and young people to spot early signs of disruptions in their friendships that can be addressed in good time, the better. And the benefits of time spent on developing friendship skills (for want of a better word) may be seen spilling over into more collaborative behaviour in the classroom and beyond. Surely a goal for us all?
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.