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Teaching Kids About Healthy Friendships and Friendship Boundaries

We spend a lot of time talking to our children and students about the importance of friendship: making and keeping friends. Sometimes, we spend time talking about what to do when there’s a conflict in a friendship. What we don’t always do, at least not explicitly, is spend time teaching kids about what healthy friendships look like and what friendship boundaries are. As grownups though, we know how important this is! It’s also important for children. They usually get the basics (don’t kick, share, be nice) but they need us to help them understand some of the more complex parts of friendship both responsively and proactively.

Teaching kids about healthy friendships and friendship boundaries students standing in the hallway talking

What is a healthy friendship?

Like other skills or ideas, it’s helpful to be really explicit and specific when you teach students about healthy friendships. Depending on your group, there’s a few different elements of friendship you might want to teach about:

  • Support
  • Encouragement
  • Respect
  • Trustworthiness
  • Loyalty
  • Fun/Happiness/Togetherness
  • Being Yourself
  • Be a Good Sport

Provide them with definitions and examples of these ideas. Some like “support” might not be super obvious to kiddos. Then give them lots of opportunities to practice figuring out what these ideas actually look like in specific situations. I’ve done this through task cards, slides, and little stories.

flip card scenarios, respect story, support and encouragement, trust
Store prompt, everyone is still coming into class... how can you be loyal
sam the good sport story is he being a good sport

I’ve gone on some exhaustive searches for picture books for 3rd-5th grade students that show positive examples of friendships. There are not very many! I was surprised. Lots of books about friendship problems, or that show friends being kind to one another during one specific event, but not a ton that illustrate more than one specific example of what it means to be a good friend or what a healthy friendship looks like. I ultimately found five that I think are great. They all appear to be for more primary grade students (illustrations, animal characters, etc.) but I think these all have enough meat to them that you can talk more deeply with your “big kids” about them. (the following links are affiliate links)

a sick day for amos mcgee book cover

A Sick Day for Amos McGee: Focuses on ways to be helpful to friends (based on what they need) and shows what a reciprocal friendship is.

splat says thank you book cover

Splat Says Thank You: This story includes several examples of what healthy friends do/say for one another – examples that work just as well for humans even though the characters are critters.

maybe tomorrow by charlott agell book cover

Maybe Tomorrow?: About a character grieving the loss of a friend. Shows several ways the new friend is a good friend (listening, encouraging, sitting with, accepting).

friendshape by amy krouse roenthal book cover

Friendshape: Really simple and illustrations look young, however, each page has a metaphor which opens the door for more upper-level discussions of what they mean. It does also exist as a free video for Amazon Prime members but I haven’t personally watched it yet!

stick and stone by beth ferry and tom lichtenheld book cover

Stick and Stone: Short and simple, about standing up for friends (loyalty!) and spending time together. This is the one you’re most likely to already find in your school’s library.

Healthy Friendships: Reflecting and Reinforcing

While all elements of healthy friendships are important, one way to process these with children is to ask them to identify which of these is most important to them or to rank them by importance. You might also have them reflect on ways in which they show these things in a friendship as well as ways their friends demonstrate these elements.

One way to make some of these ideas stick more is to provide teachers with a way to reinforce them. The simplest option is usually to provide them with something they can incorporate into morning meetings. Here are some of the questions included in my Healthy Friendships Lesson to provide teachers:

  • Tell about a time a friend encouraged you or supported you.
  • What is your favorite thing to do to try and cheer a friend up when they’re sad?
  • Some people think you have to be a good friend to yourself to be a good friend to others. What does it mean to be a good friend to yourself?
  • What is a friendship pair or group from a TV show or movie that looks like they have a happy healthy friendship?
  • Are there any secrets a friend might tell you that you should not keep?

Teaching About Fences, Lines, and Boundaries

The world is talking a lot lately about boundaries; setting them and respecting them. While this is starting to trickle down into work with kids (especially around the idea of consent), there’s more we can do. We can teach them about boundaries within our friendships and how some behaviors can easily cross over from fun to hurtful.

Here is one way to introduce the idea to students:

“What is a boundary? When have you heard the word boundary before? Here’s one definition: A line that divides two things or indicates the limit of something. Such as lines on the road, fences, or the lines on a basketball court.

What about friendships? Do friendships have boundaries? Are there lines in friendships that show in vs. out of friendship boundaries? Today we are going to talk about some friendship boundaries. We will learn about some different ones and then talk about being problem solvers if a friend has crossed a boundary.

Sometimes in friendships, people make mistakes and they cross the line with a behavior that makes others feel disrespected. We can call these lines “friendship boundaries.” The friendship boundaries divide disrespectful or annoying behavior from respectful and fun behavior.”

In my girls’ group, we use a garden theme and talk about our “Friendship Fence lines”, and in my boys’ group, it was “In and Out of Bounds”:

friendship fence lines describing touch joking telling what to do exclusion and chit-chat
friendship in and out of bounds sheet describing touch joking telling what to do exclusion and chit-chat

I talked about friendship boundaries with individuals and groups really often. Super often. So often, that I realized these skills needed to be taught universally as part of a tier 1 curriculum. Here are some slides from my guidance lesson on friendship boundaries that give some more examples of how to talk about the boundaries:

BFF's togetherness vs exclusion
which boundary is being crossed story prompt
hurtful touch picture of girl dragging another girl by the arm
joking fun vs mean how does it make them feel

Friendship Boundaries: Reflecting and Reinforcing

For the processing piece of friendship boundaries lessons, I ask students to reflect on times that they have crossed a boundary (or which boundary they cross the most). Sometimes, we also talk about if they’ve been on the other side – if they’ve experienced a friend crossing a boundary with them. Like any other time we talk about personal experiences, however, we have to make sure we aren’t using anyone’s names or otherwise talking about other people specifically.

Some reinforcing questions you can give teachers about friendship boundaries:

  • What is one thing you do that might bother your friends?
  • What can you say to a friend that is pressuring you to do something you’re not comfortable with?
  • Why is it better to talk it out with a friend you have a problem with than complain about them to another friend?
  • How do you know if it’s time to end a friendship?
  • What if YOU have crossed a friendship boundary? What can you do?
  • What if you notice your friend being disrespectful to or making fun of someone else?

If you’re looking for books for teaching kids about friendship boundaries and being a respectful friend, look no further than the author Trudy Ludwig because her books are phenomenal. I’ve written specifically about how I’ve used a few before: Sorry!, Just Kidding, Trouble Talk, and Better Than You.

Hope some of these ideas are helpful for you! Let me know if there are other ways you love to teach your kiddos about healthy friendships and friendship boundaries.

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and
educators!

I value quality over quantity,
effective practices and resources,
and meeting the unique needs of all
our diverse learners.