Teaching Children How to Make and Keep Friends

If you are reading this, you likely spend a significant amount of time thinking about children’s friendship skills and providing instruction or intervention. Post-Covid this seems to be an even more prominent piece of our days! You probably search for or use making and keeping friends activities regularly.

Imagine the boy who is nearly silent with peers and doesn’t know how to engage (or doesn’t have the confidence to do so). Then imagine the girl that is constantly tattling on peers and doesn’t know why they’re frustrated with her. Imagine the boy that is overly physical in his play and pushes friends away (literally and figuratively!). And the girl that is an excellent conversationalist but doesn’t think before the speaks and gets involved in drama.

These are all kiddos that teachers say need help with friendship or social skills, but their needs are pretty different, and it may or may not work to group them together.

Friendship is complex for children (and adults!) and we often recognize when friendship help is needed. However, knowing that alone doesn’t give us the information we need to support them. To figure out where to start (what discussions to have, what interventions to put into place, what books to read, etc.) we need to dig a little deeper! In a recent social media post, I broke “friendship” down into five skills:

  • Handling friendship conflicts
  • Joining in and making friends
  • Pragmatic social skills
  • Understanding and respecting boundaries
  • Knowing what you want and need in a friend

This blog post will dive into each of these areas more closely, hopefully leaving you with the tools and resources to target each of them with the children you serve!   

Pragmatic Social Skills

For some students, friendship can be complicated because of still-developing pragmatic social skills. They just aren’t sure (yet!) how language impacts their relationships. These children are the ones you can see having some awkward or uncomfortable interactions with their peers and they can’t quite understand why. You might notice them hurting friends’ feelings without realizing it, talking over others, not picking up on social cues accurately, or struggling to converse in a developmentally appropriate manner. 

In these cases, explicit teaching, modeling, and practice can help to address any lagging skills which will, in turn, help them to develop healthier social relationships. 

Some skills you might want to explore may be: 

  • Using a social filter
  • Reciprocal conversation skills
  • Perspective taking
  • Nonverbal communication 

All of these (and more!) are targeted in our Friendship and Social Skills Group through sessions that follow a predictable and interactive format. Each session starts with an “adventure story” that introduces a skill. Next, students process and discuss the story with a spinner and to finish, they practice the skill (with the counselor providing reinforcement and feedback!). 

Let me walk you through one of these sessions to give you a specific example of what this might look like, using a session that focuses on what is funny vs. not funny when interacting with friends.

First, we read the story of Malcolm the Meteorologist who explains how predicting whether or not a joke will be funny is a lot like predicting the weather! After reading, students take turns with the spinner to answer questions about the story.

Next, children practice identifying what is funny and what is not funny through a sorting game, which could be a great time to incorporate movement! Maybe the children stand up if it is funny and squat down if it is not, or they can sort the cards into two opposite sides of your office -. whatever works best for your space.

While they’re sorting, we talk about:

  • Why different examples are funny or not (how do we know)
  • What other people might think and feel about the jokes
  • Alternatives for the “not funny” examples

Here’s how we wrap up: “Let’s do a quick review of the kinds of jokes that are off-limits because they might hurt someone’s feelings.”  If students need ideas, start them off with jokes about the way people look, the color of their skin, etc. “What are some times that might not be appropriate to tell jokes?”  (When your adult is on the phone, while the teacher is teaching, when you’ve already told it to the same people, etc.)  “Now let’s hope that we can do a better job of predicting whether our jokes will be funny than meteorologists sometimes do predicting the weather!”

Knowing What You Want and Need in a Friend 

What are friends for? What makes someone a good friend? How do we know what makes someone a good friend for us? Knowing what to look for in a friend is another important skill to help children understand. We sometimes see kiddos chasing friendships that aren’t a great match for them. This can cause problems in two ways. 

First, it might lead to them changing things about themselves, like suddenly changing the way that they dress or no longer enjoying piano like they did before, to be more like someone they hope to befriend. They may start acting out in class or speaking unkindly to others to impress someone they are seeking out. Second, it can result in a lot of hurt feelings. If someone is pursuing a friendship and the other person isn’t interested, there’s a high chance that they will experience rejection (and frustration). 

While sometimes this is a normal part of life, it’s something we can help our students avoid by helping them to identify their needs and wants when it comes to friendship. Help them figure out, “What is a good friend for me?”

One way you can teach students about this is by showing how friendship is like a recipe. In the first part of our Friendship Recipe lesson, children have the chance to think about what ingredients (or qualities) they want most in a friend. Some children want a friend who likes to play sports, some would prefer a friend who likes magic tricks, and maybe someone else wants someone who likes both! It’s thinking about common interests, ways they like to play, etc. Students are prompted to think about their answers to these questions and they also practice by identifying the best friend match with fictional character descriptions.

This activity can open up an important discussion about how each person has different interests, qualities, ideas, etc., and just because they may not match does not make either one right or wrong or good or bad. All of our friendship recipes are a bit different, but all wonderful! 

Older children may need support in this area as well, especially as they get older and priority shifts away from family and more towards friendships/social relationships. We want to ensure that these kiddos have a strong sense of what a healthy and strong friendship is. In this lesson, children start by playing a game of “Would You Rather” that gets their brains thinking about what they would prefer, and what they like. From there, they participate in a discussion about why we have friends, what friendship really means to them, and what a healthy and strong friendship looks like. Then, through explicit teaching about important parts of friendship like fun, respect, loyalty, trust, support, encouragement, and being yourself, students can see examples and practice. In the end, they’re able to prioritize what they need from friends. 

Joining In and Making Friends

Many students already know what they want from a friendship (or who they want to be friends with), but joining in can feel daunting! It’s intimidating to walk up to an established group and ask to play, so many don’t and then find themselves feeling left out. We can help give them the recipe for success when it comes to joining in and including others. 

A barrier to joining in can be as simple as not knowing what to say. One way to support students is to provide them with the language they need when they either want to join in or when someone else wants to join them. Explicitly teaching language like: 

  • “Can I sit with you?”
  • “That game looks fun! Can I join?”
  • “Will you be my partner?”
  • “Do you want to try this with me?”
  • “Can I join the next round?” 

Once they have the language, it’s time to practice! One activity (with movement) is to prompt students to move around the room and “mix it up.” They will be instructed to find three people, ideally, children they don’t usually play with or talk to. With each classmate, they practice using the language they were taught to join an imaginary game or group. They should also practice responding to requests to join (you may need to model this).

Older students may also need this support in joining in with play or starting conversations with new potential friends. You can give them the opportunity to come up with their own scripting, using their own language. This image is from our Making and Keeping Friends flipbook activity.

Avoiding and Handling Sticky Friendship Problems

When I created the graphic posted on social media about the different friendship skills, the fifth area was Understanding and Respecting Boundaries. This is definitely an important skill, but as I started writing this post, I realized how interconnected this is with handling friendship conflicts. While different students (or classes) may need support more specifically in one versus the other, it’s really a broader skill of avoiding and handling sticky friendship problems.

Avoiding problems can mean understanding and respecting other peoples’ boundaries and also communicating our own.

I discussed this more in a previous blog post so I won’t go into too much detail here, but adults and children alike have boundaries. Children who struggle with understanding or respecting them may continue to act in a way that makes others uncomfortable, both in actions and words. For example, these are the children who might continuously invade others’ personal space, attempt to control their friends’ choices, or share more with others than a friend would like them to.

On the other end, children can also struggle with setting their own boundaries with others. This may look like students who don’t voice their thoughts or opinions, go along with others when they don’t really want to, and/or feel uncomfortable with the actions of others but don’t feel comfortable saying so. 

First, you might explicitly teach the concept of boundaries. Next, you want to help them understand how to communicate these boundaries to their friends. You can provide specific examples to help them grasp the language, like: 

A friend has been making fun of your new haircut recently. You don’t really like it and at first, it felt like they were joking, but it’s not funny and it’s hurting your feelings. You try to change the subject and are visibly upset, but they keep laughing anyway. What can you say? 

  • “I’m really hurt because you keep making fun of my haircut. Can we please find something else to talk about?”  
  • “I am frustrated because I’ve asked you to stop making fun of my hair. That’s not okay. I need you to stop.” 
  • “I don’t think that’s funny. Please stop talking about it.” 

For the kiddos who struggle to respect other’s boundaries, we want to be sure that we support them in listening to their friends. That could sound something like: 

“I’ve noticed that every time you walk by your friend, you flick the back of his ear. It looks like your friend doesn’t like this and I’ve heard him ask you to stop. I wonder if you can tell me a little bit more about what’s going on.” Maybe they think it’s funny or maybe they didn’t hear their friend, but in either case, we want to reiterate the importance of listening to our friends’ words, just like we would want them to listen to ours.

Many friendship problems can be solved through conflict resolution.

In elementary schools, we can see conflicts from disagreeing about whose turn it is on the swings, arguing about which soccer player is best in the league, fighting over supplies, or spreading rumors about others. We want to be sure that our kiddos are prepared to tackle everyday conflict or ask for help when they need to.

This conflict is completely normal but it can get in the way of making and keeping friends if children don’t know how to peacefully and effectively resolve the problems. Friends can get mad at one another if conflict is never resolved. Students might avoid peers who solve conflict aggressively. Conflict impacting friendships can be especially true when multiple students in a class or friend group are struggling with this skill because then conflict escalates even further.

Here are some of the specific conflict resolution strategies that we can explicitly teach the students we serve:

  • Determining the size of the problem and sometimes choosing to ignore something
  • Using I-messages (also super helpful in the area of boundaries!)
  • Making genuine apologies
  • Compromising 
  • Walking away/going to play with someone else

For younger students, the friendship adventures group teaches some of these skills through a story and matching game. Students read the story of “Captain Chris” and his crew and their journey to solve small problems. Once they have read and discussed the story, they play a memory match game! When students make a match, they practice using that problem-solving strategy. 

For older students, this process is detailed in our friendship plan flipbook.  Children are prompted to practice three skills: 1. I-message, 2. Apologize, and 3. Compromise. They are provided with prompts in each of these activities, but it could be helpful to have them come up with their own examples, too!  

One specific sticky friendship problem that many students struggle with is friendship changes.

These changes are both being the one wanting to end or distance a friendship and being the one who is feeling left behind. Maybe a child and their friend have grown apart and have different interests now, but neither of them is sure what to do about it. Maybe one friend is making choices that the other doesn’t agree with and they want some distance. Or maybe one friend is feeling ignored by another friend and doesn’t understand why. Any of these situations can leave children feeling rejected, worried, confused, sad, angry, or guilty. We want children to feel confident in handling friendship changes so they don’t feel so “stuck!”

In our Sticky Friendship Problems lesson, we teach students strategies for handling both sides of a changing friendship situation: I-messages, helpful self-talk, and planning for how to move forward.

The lesson also includes opportunities for students to role play different sticky friendship situations. Role playing (for all of the skills in this blog post!) can help bridge the gap between what you teach them and then actually using the skills in real life.

Putting it All Together

So, a teacher refers a kiddo to you and says you need help with friendship…now what? A student self-refers and indicates that they need help making friends…where do you start? Using your knowledge and discussions with the teacher and/or student, you can determine which area(s) they may need support with. Are they struggling with their pragmatic social skills? Are they unsure what they need in a friend? Is making friends/joining in feeling really scary? Do they not yet understand boundaries or how to communicate them? Or, are they struggling to handle friendship conflicts?

We can often expect that younger students will need more support with pragmatic social skills, making friends, and solving minor conflicts. Older students may benefit from support with healthy friendships, setting boundaries, and sticky friendship situations. 

These skills are included in both prevention/universal development and intervention. That means these are areas you will probably find yourself providing support in, both at the classroom level and at the small group or individual level. Or both, as you might find yourself with enough referrals within a cohort that it warrants some whole class lessons!

I would love to hear about how this connects to your work; are there specific friendship skills you see as the main issues with your students? Comment below and let me know!

Do you like thinking through things like this? Do you wish you had access to resources for all of these skill areas? If yes, then I think you will LOVE Your Counseling Compass, where you get the resources and trainings you need to be the strongest and most fulfilled counselor you can be!

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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

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


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