How to Deal with Common Social Dilemmas During the School Year

Starting a new school year with new classrooms and new kids can be overwhleming. Here are few tips to help ease some of your child's fears

Illustration by Anna Shipside

Each May, the school that Debby Carreau’s children attend asks its students to list five kids they would like to have in their class the following year. Last September, when Carreau’s son, Josh, then six, showed up for the first day of Grade 1, he discovered not one boy on his list was in his class. “He was devastated at first,” says the Calgary mom of two. “I explained to him that the school likes children to meet lots of different people. I said it will be even more fun to see his old friends at recess and lunchtime if he isn’t with them all day.” Fortunately, she says, Josh made new friends. “And this spring when they just went through the same process, when I asked who was on his list, he chose a whole new set of kids.”

Naturally, it can be disappointing to not have any close friends in the same class, but the best thing we can do as parents is keep our oh-my-poor-baby reactions in check, says Toronto-based psychologist Ester Cole, PhD. “We want to protect our kids and we may exaggerate that we are stressed on their behalf. But when parents do that, the problem-solving process becomes more cumbersome.” Here are three common social dilemmas your child may face this year, and what you can do to help.

Dilemma #1: Not in the same class as her best friend
Your child and her pal may have been like two peas in a pod in Kindergarten, but class sizes, student-teacher compatibility or even moving into French Immersion streams might mean they get separated. While it can be unsettling, Dr. Cole suggests reminding your child of situations where she didn’t know any children—such as an after-school activity or on a family vacation—but made friends quickly. “Children often don’t make the connection that making friends at school uses the same skills that they employed when they approached someone new at a cottage or day camp.”

Andrea Huyghebaert, a Grade 1/2 teacher in Toronto, says it is not wrong to reassure your child that she will still see her pal. “Recess and lunch provide daily chances to play with friends from other classes.” If that is just not enough together time, scheduling weekend play dates with the best friend is an easy fix. “Or talk to the best friend’s parents about enrolling them both in an after-school or evening program, sports team or club,” says Huyghebaert.

Dilemma #2: No one to play with at recess
Don’t take this common refrain lightly, says Dr. Cole. “What is not helpful is to say, ‘You’re wrong, of course you have kids to play with.’ Instead, ask probing questions to allow them to remember that they are listened to and that their feelings and worries are understood, and start from there.” Carreau says doing this with her son and daughter, Jenna, 5, gets to the root of the “no one to play with” issue. “Often, it was other children wanting to play a different game or do a different activity as opposed to them choosing to play with a different friend.” “Often, I find that children who tell me that they have no one to play with haven’t actually asked to play with anyone,” says Huyghebaert. “They just expect teachers or other children to make others play with them.” This is especially true at the beginning of the school year, when everyone is feeling shy and unsure, she says. If permitted at the school, Huyghebaert suggests children bring a skipping rope or tennis ball to play with at recess—these can be very attractive to other kids who want to play along.

Dilemma #3: Classroom seating issues
The days of your child sitting beside whoever she wanted during circle time has now given way to assigned seats—and your child may not be thrilled with hers. In my own daughter’s Grade 1 and 2 classes, a shuffling of seating arrangements was a common occurrence, so remind your child there’s a good chance she’ll be beside someone else by the end of the year.

“For the most part, teachers try to assign seats that help each child do their best work,” says Huyghebaert. “If your child’s seat assignment is affecting her work—i.e., the other child is bothering her, talking with her and getting her in trouble—then I would encourage parents to discuss with their child how they can approach their teacher about this matter.” This is also an opportunity for children to develop their ability to self-advocate, she says. “It is truly wonderful when a student approaches me and asks, politely, to be moved and says these are the reasons.” They shouldn’t be too disappointed though, she says, when their desk or seat isn’t moved closer to or beside their best friend.

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