Knowing how to make friends most important for starting school

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A new study suggests when preparing children to start school there should be more emphasis on building skills to make and maintain friendships.

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‘The children talked about what it might be like to approach another child and ask to play'

The study, based on the perceptions of Reception children, is believed to be the first of its kind to explicity ask pupils what they believe to be important skills for starting school.

Researchers from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge asked 42 four and five-year-olds attending a school in a deprived area of North Dublin seven months into their Reception year what they thought a new school starter would need to know.

While many of the top 25 priorities listed by the children match those already regarded as important in preparing children for school, including skills in reading, writing and counting, the children identified skills that are not typically measured or targeted in school readiness programmes.  

They highlighted the need for strong social skills to make new friends and navigate friendship, but also to avoid distress and victimisation. Other priorities suggested by the children included having the confidence to ask to go to the toilet, be able to play creatively and outside in a space where they felt safe, as well as strong links between school and home.

One child said that a new school starter would ‘need to know how to say hi in the playground’. Another warned ‘her friends might not let her play’. The children highlighted the risk of loneliness and rejection, with one noting, ‘he has no-one to play with, no-one to speak to’.

Researchers used pictures showing typical scenarios to focus discussion with the children and asked them to give a cartoon character named Riley Rabbit advice on preparing for starting school as well as discussing their own experiences.

The study is published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Christine O’Farrelly, who led the study, said, ‘While there is a lot of overlap with what adults think is important, what is really striking here is children have been able to point us to other areas that are important for adjustment.

‘Adults tend to zone in more on numeracy and literacy, while children think about all the skills that help them navigate their school environment. They focus a lot on being able to make friends and maintain those friendships, and maybe deal with loneliness, rejection and conflict. These were central to what mattered to them.’

She added, ‘The children talked about what it might be like to approach another child and ask to play, what would happen if they said no, and how to manage aggression or a conflict situation.

‘We need to support them in developing those skills, not just in the classroom but in the playground.’

  • The study, entitled Reconstructing readiness: Young children’s priorities for their early school adjustment is available here
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