Friendship skills crucial to getting on at school

14 February 2008

It seems a child who makes good friendships in the very early years of school continues to be able to make friends later," Dr de Rosnay says.

The ability to make and keep good friendships is crucial for successful adaptation to school, says a researcher investigating how children make friends when they start school.

As thousands of children begin early primary schooling across the country this month, Dr Marc de Rosnay, a psychology lecturer the University of Sydney, says a combination of a child's individual characteristics and social experiences has much to do with his or her ability to make and keep friends.

However he says much can be done in the classroom to foster positive social skills in even very young children. Dr de Rosnay says these skills will increase the likelihood of children making and sustaining rewarding friendships.

"It seems a child who makes good friendships in the very early years of school continues to be able to make friends later," Dr de Rosnay says. "If we can identify the factors that promote the development of friendships, we can begin looking at ways to encourage these behaviours - for instance, in guiding the type of children's classroom play in the very early years."

Dr de Rosnay, a 1997 Rhodes Scholar and expert in children's emotional development, says children with more developed "social-cognitive understanding" are better at fostering and maintaining friendships. In other words, children who are able to feel and express empathy, and recognise other people have feelings and beliefs that determine their behaviour, are better at forging strong friendships.

"Play can be a wonderful medium for exploring different points of view and alternative experiences," he says. The ability to express appropriate and empathic social gestures is one of the most important factors in a child's ability to "get on" in a group. "Understanding and recognising another person's distress is one thing, but knowing how to try to comfort them is a much more complex task for a child."

Dr Rosnay and his team have been awarded a three-year $330,000 Australian Research Council grant to look at how children's social competence contributes to successfully adapting to the classroom. The team includes the University of Sydney's Dr Lisa Zadro (a specialist in ostracism) and Dr Caroline Hunt (a specialist in bullying).

The longitudinal study of four- and five-year-olds, beginning this year, will also explore what characteristics may lead to some children to develop bullying behaviours, and others to become ostracised or victims of bullying.

Dr de Rosnay says "school readiness" is too easily measured in terms of the child's age and early academic abilities such as reading and number awareness. Despite the best efforts of many individual teachers, not enough value is placed on the "massively important" social aspects related to the readiness for school, he says.

"When people look at whether school was a positive experience, their perceptions are generally based on their social experiences," Dr de Rosnay says. "This perception is not about a person being extremely popular or whether he or she was chosen to be a prefect. It's about having good friends."

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100