State College, Pa. – Studies show as many as 15-20% of kindergarten students are socially rejected or ostracized by peers. With many students learning remotely during the pandemic, parents are worried that kids who were already having peer difficulties could backslide.
Dawna Miller has lots of mom experience. She’s an adoptive parent of eight. Still, when her son Braiden started school, she had no idea how miserable he was.
“Then the parent-teacher conference a few months in, they’re like, he cries every day,” Miller shared.
Braiden was anxious and struggling socially at a time that experts say is critical for development.
Dr. Karen Bierman, a clinical child psychologist at Penn State University, explained, “We’ve had research that has shown that social competence a child shows at school in kindergarten is a really good predictor of later life success.”
Bierman says when kids don’t have social connections, the isolation can have a snowball effect, leading to more anxiety, anger and behavior problems. Bierman is studying the Friendship Connections Project, a program that pairs struggling kids with classmates.
“We do activities designed to help them build the skills they need to communicate more effectively to manage their feelings, to work through problems that they’re having,” said Bierman.
Outside the classroom, Bierman says parents can coach kids for effective communication. For example, don’t scold them if they don’t handle a peer encounter well. Parents can also roleplay appropriate interactions and look for opportunities, like scouting, and clubs, where kids can build interpersonal skills. After one year in the Friendship Connection, Miller noted a change in her son, now 12.
“Even now I know he has confidence to be like, ‘Oh, hey, hi, how are you?’ to at least start a conversation,” she said.
Making connections in elementary school and beyond
The researchers studied students in schools in disadvantaged districts in rural and urban sections of Pennsylvania and found after one year, kids did improve their social and interpersonal skills.
Bierman says the program is also used in schools in Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer and Roque Correa, Editor.
Produced by Child Trends News Service in partnership with Ivanhoe Broadcast News and funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).