Good friendships not only give children a sense of belonging and help them to build self-esteem, but they are critical to success in their social and working lives. Studies suggest that healthy relationships in school lead to better attendance and test results, and higher academic achievement (tinyurl.com/attendance-framework). Having the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships, communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, resist peer pressure and collaborate are essential in all human interaction, and no less so in school.
While relationships education is a mandatory part of the curriculum in primary schools, it isn’t classed as a ‘core’ subject. Yet it develops one of the most important life skills that a child will need to learn at an early age.
The influence of families
For most children, their first experiences of developing and maintaining relationships start at home. Learning to play and share with their siblings, understanding and respecting the household rules and considering the feelings of others, are all skills that children start to learn from an early age.
Ideally developing children’s relationship-based skills should involve a close working relationship between school and home to extend learning opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom.
The relationships curriculum states that by the time children leave primary school they need to understand that other families may look different from their own, but that they “should respect those differences and know that other children’s families are also characterised by love and care”.
Teaching about families requires sensitive and careful delivery. Schools are often nervous about teaching this part of the curriculum for fear of inadvertent insensitivities. Our workshops are intended to take this pressure away from teachers and help the children to openly discuss their experiences.
Recognising unhealthy friendships
When teaching the skills needed to develop healthy relationships, children also need to understand the potential for unhealthy relationships. Promoting conversations about what less-positive relationships can look like with pupils, including those where there is an uneven balance of power, can help children to understand when they might be vulnerable to bullying, manipulation and peer pressure.
It’s vital that children know how to say no to their friends from an early age, especially when they are being asked to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable. As they grow up and transition to secondary school, they may encounter instances where they feel pressured to accept an invitation to a party that starts late or, in more serious cases, partaking in underage drinking or smoking. By instilling an understanding of boundaries and how to say no at an early age, children will be better prepared to navigate these difficult life situations.
This idea of consent also goes beyond friendships and is important when respecting everyone’s life choices - whether that relates to beliefs or opinions - and so should be taught in line with inclusion and diversity practices.
Communication is key
Setting boundaries is another skill central to maintaining positive relationships. In our role-play sessions we discuss constructive ways of communicating; something that young people can struggle with, which can often lead to misunderstandings. In these scenarios, the pupils see for themselves how easy it is to assume that their friends can read their minds. Open and honest communication is key to avoiding assumptions, crossed wires and misconceptions.
Of course, fallouts between friends are inevitable but engaging in discussion and debate remains the healthiest way to overcome disagreements, even in young children.
A global survey of teachers carried out by the OECD in 2019 (tinyurl.com/talisOECD) found incidents of bullying among children and young people are worse in England than other countries. Since 2013, bullying in other countries has declined, while in England it almost doubled. Because bullying at school can leave lasting mental scars, schools may want to explore pre-teen workshops that give pupils specific tips on how to manage conflict. Again, role play activities are an ideal way to teach them the knowledge they need to recognise and to report all types of abuse.
In primary schools, this can be delivered by focusing on boundaries and privacy. If anyone makes them feel un-comfortable, children have the right to speak up; it’s never their fault.
Using a kinaesthetic learning approach can also help make the activities interactive and engaging. Rather than sitting at their desks watching the sage on the stage, the children will be more open to sharing their feelings and asking questions.
These valuable experiences help children to feel empowered and confident; walking away with a can-do attitude that will help them take on the world with optimism and energy.
We need to equip young pupils with the knowledge and skills to build self-confidence, resilience and develop strategies to effectively manage anxiety and tackle friendship issues with minimal conflict. Despite children in primary schools being too young to have social media accounts, they will certainly be using the Internet and aren’t many years away from having their own social media pages – if indeed, they don’t already. It is therefore wise to prepare them for this inevitable part of their future lives.
Addressing online safety and appropriate behaviour should be done in a way that is relevant to pupils’ lives. By introducing these issues early, such as the fact that people sometimes behave differently online, including by pretending to be someone they are not, it gives primary aged pupils the insight to make healthy and safe choices.
Meeting the national curriculum’s objectives requires a graduated, age-appropriate programme of relationships education. Schools should consider what is appropriate and inappropriate in a whole-class setting, as teachers may require support and training in answering questions that are better not dealt with in front of a whole class.
Incorporating workshops and role-play scenarios to supplement lessons, with the potential for discussion on a one-to-one basis or in small groups, are the ideal teaching method to ensure pupils understand the nuances of relationships through experience.
Six ways to promote healthy relationships
1. Draft and implement standardised, whole-school policies, procedures and in turn, lesson activities that help children feel comfortable and confident
2. Substitute desk-based activities with role play, which many children love. It builds self-confidence and teaches young pupils to make sense of the world around them
3. Use role play to help children become adept at expressing their feelings while building up their language and motion skills. Encourage them to listen, as well as talk
4. Empower children to have individuality and help them to understand that everyone is unique
5. Talk to pupils about bullying in all its forms and ensure they know the school’s procedures for reporting it and getting support
6. Establish good relations with parents and carers and keep them informed of any friendship problems at school
Yvonne Kekeliadis is creator of Brightstarz, an organisation that offers a range of workshops aimed at equipping young people with the skills and knowledge to build their self-confidence.