First graders are social little people. They are with lots of different kids, as well as adults, all day every day. This discusses certain aspects of social growth and changes that first graders encounter. It is by no means inclusive of every social issue that children may face – but it will give you a basis to understand and help children make the most of exciting social growth while successfully navigating some potentially rocky waters.
During the past two or three years Children have gone from being yours (parent) to being a soccer, tee ball, or basketball player; a member of a class and a school; a Sunday School or Hebrew School class member; a scout; and so on. This is the year that good citizenship at school and in the community has become the focus in social studies. Children have probably become hyperaware of the groups that he or she is a member of and the behavior expected to remain a member in good standing.
Identifying with a group is a good, healthy developmental sign. It must, however, be kept in check throughout Children’s life and the earlier this starts the better. You can look for these signs that may indicate that Children could use a little help interacting with groups of children in a healthy, appropriate manner:
- He/She excludes nonmembers consistently.
- She/He excludes nonmembers in a mean way.
- He/She has excessive anxiety over group activities.
- She/He has unrealistic expectations of group members.
- He/She tries to exert inappropriate control in group activities.
Children sometimes use group situations as a way to explore power, ownership and control: “You can’t sit here! This is our table!” This behavior indicates that Children are on the road to bullydom and you should start intervening right away. Don’t be afraid to step in to the child’s social scenario, there are several ways you can respond:
Acknowledge the activity that is already going on. As you describe to children what you see them doing and ask them to talk about it, they will start feeling less threatened and more confident that their play will be able to continue if a new person is introduced. “The two of you have been working hard over here. Can you tell Shondra and me what you are building?” In many cases, when kids understand that the new person won’t threaten their play, they allow her to join.
Talk with Children about ways the new person could join. You can offer a suggestion, “So, this is a fire station. Do you need someone to bring water for the fire? I wonder if Jake could help you with that.” Or you can ask children for their ideas: “What kinds of workers does a fire station need? Is there a way Lisa could help with the fire station?” Or, “Travis, do you have an idea of something you could do in the fire station?”
Establish limits to prevent children from being physically or emotionally hurt. You can set ground rules to help children be nice: “I won’t allow you to say that to Leila. It hurts feelings when you call people names. Let’s figure out another way to tell her your idea. You could say, ‘I just want to play with Sara right now. Maybe I could play with you later.’”
Find ways to challenge exclusions based on Children’s categorical thinking. It is important that we don’t allow children to treat somebody hurtfully based on their membership in a particular group. As well as stopping children from excluding someone because she is a “girl” or because he has a “funny nose,” it is important to challenge children’s thinking. You can do this by asking children to think about behavior, rather than physical characteristics: “So what do you need to be able to do to play here?” Once kids have outlined the necessary skills, you can talk with the person who wants to join about which of those things they might be able to do: “Julie says that she loves to dig. She could help you make your hole deeper.” If children “require” skills that the new child doesn’t possess, you can help them broaden their thinking by offering other ideas for help: “Darren isn’t tall enough to build on the top there, but he could bring carpet pieces for the floor.”
It can be hard to let go – or not. It is particularly not hard to let go when Children are lunging away from you with full body weight. He is testing to see how far the boundaries really expand with each age and grade. “Can I stay up until nine-thirty when I am in third grade? Can I do that when I am seven? Do first graders ride their bikes to school?” So get ready to hear (if you haven’t already) “I am in first grade now so I should be able to walk to the bus stop myself.” Children may have been asking to ride his or her bike past your street or maybe he will wear only clothes that he picks out himself.
You are noticing Children becoming more independent on an almost daily basis and it is scary. How did they go from two months to twenty years in warp speed? School is how. Socially, they are a full time member of a community with daily behavior and performance expectations in addition to academic issues. Children have stepped into a world to which his or her exposure has previously been limited. Children assimilate very quickly and you will notice a huge difference in your first grader’s behavior. This is great and totally normal.
If Children seem to be having trouble stepping out into the world, try helping by:
- Assuring him that it is okay to be afraid, but sometimes the things you like best are things you used to be afraid of.
- Enrolling him in one or two after-school activities (but not too many – let him or her focus and succeed).
My Best Friend
As a child (and as an adult) your best friend is your comrade in arms, your soul sister, and your security blanket. Having a best friend makes it easier to become a part of and enjoy new situations.
Your first grade child is still trying to understand what friendships are and how they work. There are periods during the first five years when children think that they can only have one friend at a time, so when they’re playing with one friend they tend to exclude a third person who wants to play. Even though your six or seven-year-old is emerging from this way of thinking, she still categorizes friendships. For example, she may have my best friend at school (and that can change from year to year or month to month!), a best friend at home or in the neighborhood, a best friend at church, a best friend at soccer, and so on. Children will probably have a best friend but by and large he/she will categorize friendships (as many adults do) by activity, place, or convenience.
The basic rules of first grade friendship are:
- They often fall into categories.
- They are volatile – feelings can get hurt and mended easily.
- Distance does not make the heart grow fonder – it is more like out of sight out of mind.
- They are the basis for Children’s success at forming and maintaining a variety of friendships in later life.
- They can be formed through healthy (common interests) or unhealthy (excluding others) events.
Categorizing friendships is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a healthy developmental stage – but be careful. The fact that we, as adults, still revert to this behavior means that it is easy to ignore or accept as normal limiting ourselves to just a few friends. It is important to make the effort with children to foster friendships that are ‘outside of the box’, even if it means a thirty five minute drive across town. If you and children limit yourselves to friendships that are convenient, it is likely that you are also limiting your and Children exposure to new and different experiences. Here are some tips for helping Children broaden his or her base of friendships:
- Intramural sports. Sport teams that are sponsored by your local parks and recreations league are more diverse than those that are neighborhood based.
- Classes. Swimming, art, gymnastics, dance, and computers – any kind of class that interests.
- Volunteer. It is never too early to teach Children that public service is a good way to meet nice people while helping the community. Depending on where you live, you will find activities such as cleaning a park or beach, planting flowers, visiting seniors, collecting food for the needy, and so forth. They are easy to find and rewarding in so many ways.
No, you can’t play!
No matter how many best friends Children have, no matter how popular he is, and no matter how well behaved, Children are likely to have some kind of issue that revolves around the playground. He has recess one to three times a day, and if you haven’t dealt with playground problems yet, you are about to. It is the time of day where children are given a break from close adult supervision and that means that there is greater chance for conflicts to arise.
The most common playground problem is one child being excluded from playing with others. This can lead to children defining roles for themselves such as bully and victim. If you suspect that Children have taken on either of these, get to the root of the problem now and talk with him about how to handle the situation.
Children exclude others for many reasons. With beginning-level social skills, they sometimes end up playing with a friend without knowing how they got there, how the play started, or how to get the play going again in the future. The friendship may seem tenuous to them and any little distraction can feel like it threatens the continuation of their activity.
Children also exclude others because they are too concrete (remember Piaget?) to conceptualize playing with more than one “type” of friend at once. Many times children play a different role with different people. Children may act one way you, another with brothers and sisters, and still another with Grandma. Children easily categorize her behavior with friends. For example, she may play dress-up with one friend and make forts with another friend. Trying to play with both of these friends at once may be confusing. She doesn’t know how to be the dress-up self and the fort-builder self at the same time. This is a developmental stage that children simply must outgrow. If Children are excluded from a play date with one of her friends and you suspect that this is the reason, comfort her and divert her attention to another activity. Try arranging for the children to play at a later date when Children and their friends can play one on one.
Children at this developmental stage have difficulty being flexible. If Children are intent on joining playmates who are trying to exclude her, then you can arm him/her with these tricks:
- Teach Children to compliment the other kids on their play: “That is a cool fort, how did you build it?”
- Teach Children to think of a way to contribute to the activity so that the other kids can see that there he or she can have a role: “Are you playing house? I have a tea set. Can I be the sister that serves tea?” Or, “Can I help build that sand castle? I am really good at digging.”
- Teach your kids to ask for help: “I have been trying to hit a ball without a tee (transitioning from tee ball to softball); can you show me how you are doing it?”
- Talk to Children about knowing when to walk away and let the other kids play. No one likes a needy person – even at six and seven. Part of the trick to playing with others in a fun way is also knowing how to entertain yourself.
- If you find that Children are being particularly choosy about whom she plays with, ask why. Children may have a valid reason for not playing with certain children.