If anyone has seen kids’ friend-making and other social skills evolve – or devolve – through the pandemic years and now beyond, it’s elementary school counselors. They’ve had a front-seat view as kids navigated two-plus years of isolation and then returned to the social milieu of the classroom.
A social skills gap
“I’m noticing a lot of kids don’t have the social skills that you would expect students at their age level to have,” says Lynsey Burge, a counselor at Giddens School in Seattle. Giddens teaches students from preschool through grade 5.
Tracey Thompson, a public school social worker at Seattle’s Lowell Elementary, is seeing the same thing. The pandemic had a big impact on kid connections:
“We have students now who are in second, third and even fourth grades who missed out on those valuable and important opportunities to socialize,” Thompson says. “So now they’re arriving without having that experience and you see it in their behaviors.” Like Burge, Thompson runs a friendship group with kids at her school.
Please and thank you
“I notice that some students are almost on a toddler level when it comes to things like sharing, being respectful to each other, saying ‘Please pass the crayons,” Thompson says. “I am literally doing the basics I used to do with much younger children – offering compliments, saying ‘Thank you for sharing’, saying ‘Thank you for allowing this student to go first,’ saying ‘No, everybody gets a turn.’
Burge says friend-making skills are social skills – two sides of the same coin – and she finds herself teaching Friendship 101 a lot these days: “We start with how to make a friend. How do you introduce yourself to somebody? I’m seeing a lot of kids waiting for the other person to come to them. They don’t know how to initiate a friendship or even initiate a conversation.”
Burge recently worked with a 2nd grader who was struggling to make friends.
“I started by asking ‘What do you want in a friend?’ That way we could talk about their hopes and dreams. And then we brainstormed together,” Burge says. “Ultimately, the goal was not to tell them what I was going to do to help them make a friend, but to have them come up with some ideas.” She encouraged the child to consider who they might like to have lunch with as a starting place.
“And then we moved on to what does this look like now that we have had lunch together? How can you continue to get to know this person? Practicing those skills is important,” Burge says. “It’s like dating. I tell everybody, I’m like a matchmaker, but for little kindergartners.”
Breaking the digital habit
Like other school counselors in the region, Burge and Thompson say they are concerned that kids are more heavily relying on digital connections post-pandemic than they did before the COVID crisis.
“It’s almost like kids and adults picked up a habit from COVID and then stuck with it,” Burge says.
When Burge asks kids where and with whom students like to engage these days, she’ll often get an answer like this: “Oh, my friends are all in Minecraft or we’re all on Roblox.” Or, if they are a little older, “My friends are all in my group chat.”
“That’s often how kids are hanging out with their friends. You talk to kids and they say they are connecting, just not through in-person playdates,” Burge says. That is problematic since Burge, Thompson, and a lot of research support the theory that friendship skills are best practiced in person. This year they’ve both been working to reconnect both kids and parents with that simple idea.
Your kids are watching
“Kids follow what is modeled to them,’ Burge says. “And what I have seen is adults aren’t interacting the way that they might have before the pandemic. They don’t seem to go up to other parents as easily,” Burge says. “I’ve done a lot of playdate coaching over the last year, reminding parents it doesn’t have to be complicated. But I am finding it is hard for them to even think outside that very structured way that COVID made people think.”
Adds Thompson: “I have to say that it warms my heart and gives me hope when I see parents and the children linger after school and when I see parents engaged in talking with each other again.” But Thompson also gets why some kids may be more comfortable engaging digitally with their peers.
A different era
“It’s easy for me, who’s from a different generation, to say, ‘Kids need to play outside more.’ But parents don’t feel safe. They are on hyper-alert. They have fear. And our young people, because of their access to technology, hear and see things we didn’t as kids,” Thompson says. “There’s been a loss of innocence in the last few years. So to many kids, it feels safer to communicate via Roblox, Minecraft, or Snapchat. That’s a safer place for them.”
To help their kids grow social and friendship skills, Thompson urges parents to get them engaged in extracurricular activities.
“At the same time, I want to recognize the privileged mindset here,” Thompson says. “Many of our parents are working long and hard to put a roof over their heads, to keep food in their mouths, to take care of basic necessities. That leaves little time – or money – for extracurricular activities.” She encourages families to lean on school and community resources – social workers, family support workers, and organizations that can help cover costs and facilitate kids’ participation.
Schools: partners in connection
“Partner with schools,” Thompson says. “Kids need to engage face-to-face. [When they do] they have disputes, they go back and forth. They learn how to compromise and problem-solve. They learn leadership skills. Schools become very valuable at helping in this area so partner with schools.”
Thompson and Burke also advise simple unstructured play dates, preferably with non-digital outside time, to boost friendship skills. Boredom, research shows, boosts creativity.
“Kids are used to constant stimulation, so I feel they don’t know how to be bored anymore,” she says.
Parents are the best models
Both counselors encourage parents to model friend-making behavior for their kids and to normalize gathering together and hanging out with friends sans any digital media, especially with COVID restrictions soon lifting.
“Parents can model by inviting people over to their home. They need to model being brave and vulnerable, and maybe even getting to know somebody new,” Burge says. “If your child has a peer they are interested in being friends with, invite the whole family over, so that you’re all in this new territory. It’s really important.
“The root of helping kids develop social skills is modeling and creating playdates and opportunities for them to practice,” Burge adds. “It’s hard, but what parents have to remember is ‘I’m not doing this for me.’ You’re doing it for your kids, because there’s been this huge social deficit and we need to support them.”
Early healthy friendships have lifelong benefits
Developing the skills to build strong childhood friendships can have long-lasting effects.
“I have lifelong friends that I met in elementary school that have remained connected,” Thompson says. “I worry about young girls today and their inability to build a sisterhood. And young men who just have a hard time. I know that strong relationships get us through the toughest storms in life, that sisterhood, that camaraderie with your peers, helps you weather storms and not feel so isolated.
“When you have a strong network of people in your life, or even if you just have one or two strong connections,” she adds, “the statistics show you are more likely to be successful in life.”