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Academic Views

September 2009

Friendly start to school

A national study of children entering primary school has found teachers who helped children make friends also helped their social, emotional and academic development.

The three-year Queensland University of Technology study was conducted by Professor Susan Danby, from the Faculty of Education's School of Early Childhood, and Professor Karen Thorpe, from the Faculty of Health's School of Psychology and Counselling.

Queensland University of Technology's Susan Danby and Karen Thorpe. Their study highlighted the importance of friendships for children beginning school.

Queensland University of Technology's Susan Danby. Their study highlighted the importance of friendships for children beginning school.

Our study involved families throughout Australia. About 500 children participated.

We asked parents and teachers to complete a questionnaire about children's friendships and transitions from preschool to the first year of schooling.

The children completed a sticker-based activity to name their friends and tell us what was important about being a friend. They also drew pictures representing their views about friends and learning.

The research team also observed the children interacting with each other in classrooms.

Overwhelmingly, parents reported their children settled in well at school, they liked their teachers and were happy to go to school.

While some parents reported some anxiety from their children about learning and school rules, most reported their children were happy, enthusiastic learners who were not having difficulties in the playground.

Queensland University of Technology's Susan Danby and Karen Thorpe. Their study highlighted the importance of friendships for children beginning school.

Queensland University of Technology's Karen Thorpe. Their study highlighted the importance of friendships for children beginning school.

More than half the responding parents reported that although their children were very tired at the start of the year, they were still able to talk enthusiastically about learning, their playground experiences and their friends.

From the children's point of view, friendships matter enormously. Children's first experiences of friendships are incredibly important in understanding their social worlds and developing new aspects of their social lives.

The shift to forming friends outside home offers new ways to understand who they are and how to interact in the broader social worlds. They also learn about themselves in terms of being future adults and future citizens, and about interacting with others of varying ages, gender and ethnicities.

When we spoke with the children about starting school, a common theme was they were anxious they might not find, or make, a friend.

However, our study found the children identified strategies they used to make friends at school.

For example, the boys talked about how important the playground was for playing games such as football as a way to bring together a group of players. Girls too talked about the playground and other places where they could be together.

The children identified strategies such as asking each other their names and if they could join in games.

Significantly for teachers, the children also found it helpful when their teachers spent time in class helping them to learn each other's names and do things together.

The children reported that having peers from the previous school setting or friends in the neighbourhood helped with the transition to a new school because there were familiar faces in the classroom and playground.

Establishing and having friends is really important for children's wellbeing, and for social and emotional support throughout a lifetime.

For young children, pretend play is one way they develop the social sides of friendship. In friendships, children learn new values and behaviours of intimacy, support, trust and a sharing of sentiments.

Just as for adults, friendships support individual well-being through times of difficulty. For children, critical times can include transitions to school, family upheavals such as the birth of a sibling and personal life crises such as bullying.

When a child is feeling vulnerable, having a friend and being liked by other children is important for developing and maintaining a positive sense of self.

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