Friday, May 2, 2014

The Friendship Can

After a day long training on teaching social and emotional skills to young children one of the facilitators approached me after the course and offered me the "friendship can" she had made as a teaching tool, for encouraging friendship. I gladly accepted. The can sat on my desk for weeks. I finally pulled it out recently with the intent of trying it at circle time, to just see what would happen.

Teaching a mixed ability class while wonderful and ideally what I strive for as a teacher, is not always easy. Full Inclusion doesn't actually translate to four and five year old children who are developing friendships, learning to share, communicate and form bonds over shared interests such as Batman and Princesses. The children that are struggling to communicate, who have more significant delays in their skills often end up alone during play, or observing the other children wistfully while the classroom staff try a variety of methods for encouraging interaction and successful socialization. Moments of social success are seen often with the "typically developing" peers. They are aware of their classmates differering abilities but not motivated to reach out to them without adult direction. And this is where something as simple as a "friendship can" has made all the difference.

Each child puts their name in the can at the start of our afternoon meeting. We do the mandatory preschool routines of the calendar and a discussion about the weather. Each child is offered the opportunity to share an idea or thought with the class about their lives. Sometimes the discussion is cohesive, sometimes it isn't. Everyone is however offered a turn to talk. Then I ask them about what it means to be a good friend. How can we be friendly to each other? How can we be kind and respectful? "Don't take toys!" "Don't kick!" "Don't say mean words." While rudimentary, these are in fact exactly what it means to be a good friend. I close the circle by randomly drawing two names from the can, and those two children are then encouraged to discuss what they would like to do together for the next several minutes of class. The children have learned to greet peers they ordinarily would never choose as a play partner, and to share materials, space, and ideas with each other.

The classroom itself during this time of deliberate partnership is incredibly calm. All the children are busy, engaged,  practicing empathy, communication and are learning to appreciate their differences. For a child called Alejandro, who almost never speaks and typically always plays alone there has been a significant shift in his affect. He looks happy, he is laughing out loud. When Daniel sidled up to him while Alejandro was cooking in the dramatic play area in the face of two other peers attempting to take over the space and the game and said to him, "I'm going to make the coffee while you do the cooking." Alejandro felt seen, heard, and appreciated by someone he'd never had the opportunity to communicate with before. Daniel on the other hand, practiced a social skill he'd not yet used, looking out for someone else, being protective, loyal, and empathetic.

The "friendship can" does not always produce a perfect pairing. Charlie was devastated that he was paired with Alina instead of Austin with whom he had bonded the day before over a shared love of Mario and Luigi. He sat next to Alina at the art table and cried for twenty minutes. I told him that he could calm down, say hello to Alina, make a picture next to her and then I would know he was ready to go play with Austin. He took a few deep breaths, got himself a piece of paper, and began to draw Mario (of course). With prompting he said "hello" and "goodbye" to Alina who was busily engaged in learning to write "Happy Birthday to her mom. The next day when Charlie came to afternoon meeting he sat right next to Alina and said " I hope I pick Alina today! She's on my team!"

After several minutes of play together, sometimes ten, sometimes thirty depending on the activity level of the classroom my staff and I let the children know they can say goodbye and thank you  to their friend and choose another peer to play with if they are ready. More often than not I will hear, "Nah Teacher I'm gonna stay with her today."

The change in the social atmosphere in my classroom is palpable. Happier, more productive children who feel good about the ways in which they are learning to be good friends. The Social Emotional Trainer after observing in my classroom recently suggested that I rig the can, to intentionally pair higher functioning children with lower functioning peers. I told her I can't. Part of the beauty of the name drawing is the children watch me close my eyes, they know it's random, they know I believe that each and every one of them has something to contribute to the other, to the group as a whole. No matter how difficult or challenging someone can be to play with, there is always a way, an opportunity to learn something new about oneself and about someone else. Now more than any other time, is when to learn and to teach these social skills.

" We can provide our children with opportunities for play with their peers. We can offer them suggestions for compromise, and we can intervene when necessary. But our greatest gift may be the examples we set in our own friendships. It is from us, I believe, that our children are likely to learn best."  - Making Friends by Fred Rogers 1987

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