Over the course of the last year, it’s likely that the nature of students’ friendships has changed. People have smaller social networks than they had before the pandemic, and some friendships have fared better online than others (Ribeiro, 2020). As face-to-face social interactions occurred less frequently or not at all, students may have grown closer with some friends while struggling to remain in contact with others. As we prepare for in-person learning, keep in mind that students may need some encouragement to reinvigorate their friendships and socialize in a productive and healthy way.
Friendships help students develop crucial social skills, feel a sense of connectedness, and improve academic performance (Ferrer & Fugate, 2002). Nurturing friendships in the classroom builds community and fosters a feeling of belonging (Yu et al., 2011), and positive friendships have been shown to be a predictor of better motivated students and educational success (Dechant, 2011).
As students return to in-person learning and reconnect with old friends—and connect with new ones—here are some steps you can to help students foster and nurture friendships as schools transition back to in-person learning.
Helping students to reconnect with their friends can help them reacclimate to their school community and lessen the stress of returning to in-person learning.
Remind students that all friendships come with ups and downs. Just because they may have lost touch with someone doesn’t mean that the friendship is over. Students can draw out the journey of their friendships, like a roller coaster, and note when they are having a fun upswing in a relationship versus a downswing. What steps can they take to return to an upswing as they are able to go out and socialize more? No matter how students’ friendships have changed in the last year, they have a fresh opportunity to reconnect with old friends as well as make new ones.
Coach children about social interactions. Returning to the classroom, going to a birthday party, or rejoining a sports team can bring lots of excitement but there also may be some post-pandemic fears about reconnecting socially. Have students reflect on their feelings about socializing. Why might they be feeling this way? Affirm students’ feelings by reminding them that whatever they are feeling is okay, and help them work through some example scenarios (Ferrer & Fugate, 2002). For instance, what could they say to a friend they’ve missed over the last year? How can they make sure everyone feels welcome?
Ease into returning to “normal” life. Consider partnering with your school’s PTA or students’ families to schedule playdates before or as students are transitioning back to school (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). One-on-one or small-group playtime can help students feel comfortable socializing again and set them up to have a positive experience in the classroom.
Facilitate meaningful social interactions. Acknowledge the difficulties that the pandemic created, and take concrete action to incorporate student-centered activities such as icebreakers or Think-Pair-Share. Arrange students into smaller groups so they can slowly acclimate to social interactions. Start this on the first day that students are back in the classroom (Schmidt, 2020), and be sure to allow time and space for them to discuss their experiences and make organic connections with new and old friends.
Helping students to reconnect with their friends can help them reacclimate to their school community and lessen the stress of returning to in-person learning. As students learn to maintain strong, supportive friendships, their confidence in this ability will grow.
Anjail Kenyatta is a lead program developer for the Fly Five curriculum for grades K–4, working with writers as a facilitator and supervisor to develop resources that will help educational stakeholders increase their awareness of and engagement of with social and emotional learning. Anjail began her career with Chicago Public Schools, teaching grades K–8 and working as a school counselor and case manager for 17 years.