The friendship factor

Transcript of interview with Madonna King, Dr Maryanne Theobald and Megan Laraghy

Madonna: Welcome to season two of Podclass, a series of conversations that delve deeper into the world of educators. I'm Madonna King and I'm excited again to be unpacking some of the important issues that face teachers and parents today.

Intro: Teachers help shape our children for the future. They develop the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators and they know better than most that learning never stops. Even for themselves.

Dr Chris Blundell: Technology is viewed as being part of learning now and so schools are moving in that direction. It's valued as something that's essential.

Alison Quin: It's certainly an Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander way of seeing the world where country is foundational.

Intro: This is the podcast for educators by educators.

Dr Lyndal O’Gorman: I think it's about communicating and understanding meaning, then that helps to step up our understanding of what art can do in education.

Dr Jennifer Alford: There could be 30 languages represented. Teachers don't need to feel that they need to speak all of those languages.

Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan: I think what are the key things is ensuring that students have an equal seat at the table.

Intro: This is QUT Podclass, and we look forward to diving into season two with you.

Madonna: What plays a role in success in the classroom? What challenges do teachers face? And what new opportunities can they embrace? There are so many important topics to cover. But today's episode is all about the friendship factor. What's the best way to teach a child to make friends? What kind of buy-in do you need from parents? And what does friendship even mean to a four or a five-year-old? To answer these questions and many more, I'm joined by QUT’s Dr Maryanne Theobald, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education. Hello.

Maryanne: Hello Madonna.

Madonna: So much to talk about, but let's start with what a child or a toddler gains by having friends.

Maryanne: Having friends is really important. One of the most important things of having friends is their sense of belonging. That will help them in times of stress. Having a friend is a preventative measure, when you're transitioning to school. Having a friend guards against loneliness and actually helps children feel positive about going to school, about challenges in their life.

Madonna: So what does ‘friend’ mean? Does it matter if it's the one really good friend or could you actually have a different friend every day of the week?

Maryanne: Children do interact and they participate with lots of children during the week. But as they're getting older, they're learning that they're feeling really good, they're getting positive vibes from one particular person or a few different people. But having a friend involves a sense of intimacy, there's a closeness there. There's a happiness and that's reciprocated. So it's not just one-sided, that's really important too.

Madonna: So what does a three or four-year-old look for in finding a friend?

Maryanne: Children are drawn to other children who have the same interests or make them laugh. Children like the same experiences, so time, place and culture, the interests of the group, that really plays a part in how children make friends.

Madonna: What we're talking about today is just so important to parents too. Can every child successfully make friends?

Maryanne: I think every child has the ability to, but sometimes it's a bit more challenging at times.

Madonna: What makes it more challenging?

Maryanne: Things like being a little bit shyer, not as communicative. Maybe some verbal skills are still developing. Things like not having the dominant language - that does make it more challenging because there's a barrier there.

Madonna: And while those things might make it more challenging, it doesn't mean that child won't form really strong, valuable bonds.

Maryanne: Absolutely not. All children have the ability to make friends and it's our role to support that and nurture friendships.

Madonna: If you can't find friends when you're young, is it more likely that you'll struggle to find them in adolescence, for example, when you're 14?

Maryanne: We really do need more research about that, Madonna. That's part of my interests, but I think having good strategies in making friends when you're young, you're learning about taking turns, you’re learning about respecting other feelings. You're learning about yourself and others, the identity of others, and your place in the world. And having those strategies and skills of being able to communicate, that's going to help you when you're in the teenage years. And friendship there can be very tricky. It happens in different platforms. It happens in digital spaces. It happens on social media. It's not just a face to face. So when you've got a good foundation or set of strategies and communication skills, that does make it easier.

Madonna: What about a boy or a girl, does it come naturally to a particular…?

Maryanne: Well gender is you know, socially constructed, it's not biologically determined. So everybody has the same abilities to make friends, but I think girls get some more practice in communicative skills that help them with making friends and interacting. Boys, we do tend to expect them to be more physical, I suppose, so our expectations then, they're usually making friends in very active ways with balls and games, Lego, etc.

Madonna: I'm Madonna King and my guest is Dr Maryanne Theobald from QUT’s Faculty of Education. And Maryanne, your PhD was in social order in the playground. What does that mean?

Maryanne: So I had the privilege of going to a preschool and, a prep setting, and I was part of the furniture for a few months. So I took my video recorder and I studied the children's hidden worlds. And what I found was the moral order of friendships came through, children spoke about following rules. They spoke about ownership of play, they interacted with each other. Very sophisticated ways, in terms of discussing whose idea would be taken up as play and they talked to me about their interactions.

Madonna: What surprised you?

Maryanne: Most surprised with some of the activities that we take for granted, like telling – telling tales. So that was used, at times, in the prep centre, where there might have been a dispute over a toy for instance. But what I found was the children didn't necessarily want the teacher’s involvement. They wanted to be seen to be going to the teacher and it was used more of a threat for children, as well, to take over the play and interact.

Madonna: So is telling tales good or bad? Because, you know…

Maryanne: I don't think there's any good or bad about it, but it's a strategy that children have as a resource and they might adopt. Sometimes our reaction to the telling will decide on the course of action, then.

Madonna: What age were the children you were studying?

Maryanne: They were four and five years, just before going to formal schooling.

Madonna: Did you see them being inclusive? I'm wondering at what age you see that kind of isolating other friends come into play.

Maryanne: They were inclusive but there were times where children restricted others as well. So children are learning how to interact, they're learning about their power over others and learning about how to understand other’s perspectives in this time.

Madonna: What did you learn from doing it?

Maryanne: I learnt that we cannot think that things are going smoothly in the playground. We need to be observing and we need to be listening to children. I also learnt that children do strive to be included and make friends and take part in games and they do work out ways to do that.

Madonna: There is such wonderful research in this whole area in which you're working and you're also the research assistant on a project that looked at bonds between twins and friends.

Maryanne: Yes, this was a QUT-led project by Susan Danby and Karen Thorpe. It was Australian Research Council funded and we studied 160 children. We looked at their transition into grade one - what would make that easier. I helped by interviewing children about their views on strategies for making friends. And we asked the question: does having a twin or having a friend make it easier to transition to school and having a friend did come out slightly more on top.

Madonna: That surprises me. Did it surprise…?

Maryanne: I think it was a surprising event. But I mean, when you're thinking about twins, they have different interests, they’re different people. They're not the same person. So, at the same time, you know, it's natural that they might look for others to have that closeness and intimacy and find that bond as well.

Madonna: And it goes to the power of friendship, doesn't it?

Maryanne: Friendship really does help children to feel secure, to feel safe. It's like a safety parachute.

Madonna: So we have with us today, also, Megan Laraghy - a teacher at Lady Gowrie Love Street kindergarten. And you work together on research that investigated friendship among three and four-year-olds who spoke different languages. Hello, Megan.

Megan: Good morning, Madonna.

Madonna: How important were linguistic skills?

Megan: It's so important in the environment where children want that sense of belonging. They see the dominant language and they really want to be a part of play and have a relationship with others. And so linguistically, they do want to learn the language, but sometimes you know, they find it a little bit difficult.

Madonna: So were there other ways of communicating that were as valuable as language?

Megan: Absolutely.

Madonna: Give me an example.

Megan: Connection. So for children to be able to play with similar objects or have similar interests, games with rules, children like to play things that are predictable or that is sometimes an easy ‘in’ with a friendship.

Madonna: What about things like hugs or holding hands?

Megan: Absolutely. You know gestures is another area where other children, if they can't speak the language, they might grab their hand and say ‘come play’ and guide a child over. So peer support is really important.

Madonna: So you're saying children of different nationalities who cannot speak to each other or understand each other can have quite a deep friendship at that age through gestures, through other means.

Megan: Absolutely, we do a lot of singing in different languages so that children feel really comfortable understanding different languages. And I think when they have that understanding, they're willing to bypass the fact that their friend may not be able to speak English, but they feel included. So we often sing songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Chinese, if a child speaks Mandarin.

Madonna: Go on do it.

Megan: [Sings first two lines of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star] and actually my children at kindy love to sing it Chinese.

Madonna: Yes.

Megan: Than English, because they feel that that's important to that child who does speak Mandarin.

Madonna: And it's also great to go home and do it with mum and dad, isn't it?

Megan: Absolutely, so many comments, you know parents have said, I can't believe that they have such an interest in children with other languages.

Madonna: And so why Chinese? Is it because you have Chinese students or do you do it in other languages as well?

Megan: In other languages as well. So we sometimes sing different songs in Japanese and Spanish, depends on what some of the dominant languages are within the classroom.

Madonna: So you spend your day with toddlers and young children. How do you see children show that they like each other, is it always obvious?

Megan: I think sometimes it is. It is very obvious with the climate and the environment of the room, you know, you can tell by the noise or the happiness and the joy of what’s transcending in the classroom. If someone's feeling a little bit like they need to spend some time alone. That's okay too. And we as teachers just check in with them and say, you know – hi I see you’re over here by yourself, what are you doing? What are you playing? You know, would you like to tell me what's going on? And normally if it's a big feeling that they're feeling they'll tell the feeling or they might just say I've come over here to make, to do something on my own because I want to investigate this or I want to try this.

Madonna: Do you see each day the difference in how young boys and young girls set about making friends?/p>

Megan: Sometimes the girls are a little bit more sophisticated in their understanding of social skills because they're kind of you know, that society says, well, you know, that's what girls do they’re very good socially. However, I find boys are really inclusive in their play, that if someone's interested they love children just to join in the play, So sometimes it can be a little bit different. And again, as Maryanne said, it's very fluid, you know, you never quite know what to expect with friendships.

Madonna: At what age do you see children beginning to exclude each other?

Megan: I think, I actually think it happens from toddlers, you know, that if a toddler isn't liking a response from another toddler, they will push them away. They won't use language. But again, they use that gesture of oh, hang on this is my space. So sometimes you know, that's when the educator has the role to support that child in having those feelings about how they feel about that friend at that time.

Madonna: So be specific, how does an educator support the child?

Megan: Okay. So if say two friends, you know one friend is being excluded, I might come up to some, you know, a group of children and say - such and such would really like to join in the game. Is there a role that, that child, little Johnny, could play in this scenario at the moment? And some of them might think oh, yeah, he could he could fill up the bucket with water or he might like to tip the sand into the tunnel. I'll say that's a great idea and then I will just sit there and help, maybe the child who hasn't got language. Oh bucket. Oh tap, turn it on, you know things like that, that help with the language so that the child can then maybe next time support their way through joining in like, can I play? Just say a simple phrase that will guide that child into the play.

Madonna: You’re listening to Megan Laraghy, a teacher at Lady Gowrie Loves Street Kindergarten and this is Podclass with QUT. Megan, if you went up and asked that question of a child and the child said no, there's no room for someone else where we've got our team playing - how does the educator then deal with that?

Megan: I often redirect to a different space because I have to honour and respect the play and what's happening over there. So I might say to the child, well let's go and do a drawing or let's go and do something with another group and then go and redirect or just spend time with that child feeling valued.

Madonna: I'm intrigued by that because isn't there a role to say well that child who said no has to learn to be more inclusive and to share more?

Megan: I think that's correct. We should be, you know, encouraging but however, I still have to respect the fact that there might not be enough resources there or their play plan may just be too involved at that time. And I have to respect the child and their point of view. And so sometimes I will have to talk to the other child and support them through the fact that, that does happen sometimes.

Madonna: Let me bring Dr Maryanne Theobald from QUT back in. And Maryanne, we’re talking a lot about inclusivity because the national discourse when it comes to teenagers, is that this is something that is a challenge. So if you don't learn inclusivity early on is there any evidence about the impact of that later on?

Maryanne: I think we're seeing that now, aren't we? That people feeling excluded, feeling anxious, feeling alone. That's rising. It's part of our mental health challenge. It's really a crisis. So knowing how to be inclusive. Having feelings about belonging, feeling connected, does help you later in life. And we see these rising, you know, it's a crisis in our youth with the high rate of anxiety and mental health challenges.

Madonna: And I suspect that that’s then added to by social media and the like. Children this age are not on social media, are they?

Maryanne: Young children at three and four?

Madonna: Yeah.

Maryanne: Well, I mean, I think they're probably participating on social media with their parents or older siblings. You know just by so and so on Facebook said this and having a look.

Madonna: Or watching The Wiggles on an iPad maybe. Does that come into play when it comes to friendship?

Maryanne: I think pop culture is part of how children do play their interest. If you know the pop culture and that's part of the group's interest. Well that's easier, then, for you to access play in that way - understanding and taking on others, encouraging others to think about what other children might be interested in.

Madonna: When we're talking about friendship, how do you see a teacher helping support a family?

Maryanne: I think lots of discussion about friends, about feelings in that regard. If your child is not getting along with others in the group, they might think about how others are feeling and how they might share their feelings with others. So we need to be teaching children to listen to others and read social cues.

Madonna: How does a parent do that?

Maryanne: For parents then, to set up times where children can make friend, they might then ask another parent to meet them in the park. It might be a brief encounter. So it's successful. It's not a long time and it's a neutral space so that they're not having ownership issues over whose toy and etc.

Madonna: And it's not in front of a whole class.

Maryanne: That's right. It's just the two, it's a quietest time. It's a time where more one-on-one, each child can have a bit of a say, have a go and find something in common.

Madonna: So are there specific strategies for children who are struggling to make friends, at say three and four?

Maryanne: We would be supporting them to have some language around play, around entering play. So trying to find opportunities for them to enter play where they just can come in naturally. We might find a friend who has something in common. Maybe they live nearby, that might make it easier for them to have times outside of the classroom. We also could set up lots of times during the day where there's partner games, where they're finding out they can have a turn safely. They can move onto another person and have a turn with that person. So setting up lots of small group activities and times where children can participate in partners.

Madonna: What do you think makes a child sophisticated in their friendship making skills?

Maryanne: It's not just about their own strategies. Although being communicative, reading the social cues from other children, really does help. But it's also about how that's picked up by other children, so I can think of a time in Megan's classroom where this little guy, he had some great strategies for entering the play. He asked - can I play? He asked about what they were doing - are you building? He drew on his moral kind of code - I'm your best friend, can you play with me?

Madonna: Yeah.

Megan: And these are great strategies, but at that particular time, his little buddy was wanting to join another group of friends. So even though he has good strategies, they obviously had a connection, but it wasn't successful at that time because his friend had other matters, other social agendas and another play plan, as Megan suggests.

Madonna: From your research, how difficult is that then for a child to cope?

Maryanne: It can be a sad time. I was watching this experience and it made me sad. I saw Megan support that child by getting some of the activities, some of the objects. They were building a dinosaur city. So she brought some objects of dinosaurs into that play area, and he was able then to access a dinosaur and he kind of shadowed the other children with the dinosaur and he was able to enter the play that way.

Madonna: And so he did? And Megan, can you come in here - did he end up then being able to play with the larger group?

Megan: He did, he did, it was at his own pace. So, you know that tailing of what he was doing was, you know, he was still involved and he was actually still, his disposition, was really happy. And he really did enjoy the play, it didn't make him feel excluded. He found ways to still feel included in the play, when there is you know, discourse in regards to friendships where they're feeling excluded. I'll often do some role modelling with my assistant and we show and model and demonstrate, maybe something that's happened, like that moment in the sandpit. We might say to the children - this happened yesterday. Can I show you, can I demonstrate to you what happened? What could we do as a group next time? What could, how could we make that person feel better if this happened? And so then the children as a group, can think about their friendships and relationships and how they could support that person.

Madonna: Then you'll get into the sand pit and play active, so that they actually see it?

Megan: Or just in the classroom later on at another time of the day where – ok so I had to support a child through a difficult situation. Then we might problem-solve as a group about how we could make that person feel included next time. So, you know the bucket full of feelings books - we might use some narratives to support how that child might feel and how the group feels and grow that empathy for that child. But also for that other child to grow resilience in feelings as well.

Madonna: Well, so I was going to come to the role of resilience because perhaps it's valuable for a child to really struggle at some point with a connection so that they learn empathy and that they may approach it in a different way next time. Maryanne?

Maryanne: Well, we know that resilience does get built from experiences and sometimes, you know a hardship, or a difficult experience, does make us stronger. And having a friend as well too, if you can have a friend to support you through that time, that's going to be another safety buffer. So resilience is constantly being learned at this point in the early years, as children face challenges with friendships, with disputes, with just growing up and you know learning new skills. They're building their resilience in lots of different areas.

Madonna: Can you think of a more important quality for children at that age to learn than friendship? I mean, we send our children to kindergarten and they come home with drawings and they come home being able to sing in a different language, but the role of friendship and the empathy and…

Maryanne: I think it's foundational. I think it's so important because research shows that when they go to school, having friends makes them feel good about themselves. It makes them feel as though they belong, they’re put a part of the group. That makes them feel positive about school. They're more likely to have success in school activities.

Madonna: If they have good friends?

Maryanne: Yes.

Madonna: Megan talked about the role modelling in the playground, what about role modelling at home? Do you think parents know how to address this and do we need to focus sometimes in giving parents more support?

Megan: I think parents probably find it's a big thing to talk about because they're at the end where they're seeing upset. If it's not going well, they sing joy, if it does go well and that's great. But if it's not going well, they're the ones who are having to deal with the upset. I think being very open, having conversations about feelings, trying to encourage your child to express themselves in an appropriate manner and giving them some words, some tools where they might be able to do that. So you're not feeling happy about that happening at school, or kindy, maybe you could say this next time and give them some actual words. I can see it's making you upset. Maybe you could tell your friend or that person. How do you think that person might feel if they're crying? What do you think that they're telling you about when you're taking their pencil or you might be doing that game together?

Madonna: Are there some good resources in terms of books that an educator or a parent could go to, to read with their child?

Megan: I really like the Bucket Full of Feelings series of books and I use that quite extensively in my program at kindy. But also there's Trace Moroney books that talk about feelings because I think really it comes back to big feelings and little feelings and normalising those feelings, I think are really important. And because sometimes children might come to kindy with a really upset tummy, they feel sick, but sometimes when I start to unpack it with the child, it's actually anxiety. But of course, they don't have that understanding of what anxiety is and I'll talk about a big feeling or a little feeling and so sometimes that really helps children to then calm down. We might do some zipper breaths or…

Madonna: What's a zipper breath?

Megan: A zipper breath is where you breathe in, pull your zipper up, breathe out. Pull your zipper down, breathe out. And we do a lot of that, those breaths for calming our bodies. So that children can then speak and talk in a more calm way.

Madonna: Are you seeing anxiety at the age of three and four?

Megan: Sometime, yes. Separation anxiety is a very normal feeling.

Madonna: Oh see, I thought that was just for mums not the children.

Megan: No, I think it does affect children and maybe sometimes that can be a problem when a friend is away for the day and you know not seeing that friend straight off in the morning can cause a little bit of a big feeling until they have an in again.

Maryanne: That's right and having a friend in that instance, making a friend, if a child is feeling anxious about going to school, they're worried, they're having that separation problems, making a friend is one of the best things that can happen.

Madonna: So the details of those recommended resources will be in the show notes at the end of this Podclass. Maryanne, I remember my father-in-law saying that when my children walked into the school gates, I would lose some influence. And I hated him saying it, but he was right because of the power of friendship. How often do we see the influence of, or what age does the influence of, peers almost trump the influence of parents? When do we see that?

Maryanne: I think that’s happening early on. I think children are seeking to be part of a group, they want to join groups. I can think of a time in some of my research where I was watching a group of boys sitting down and I'm thinking - what are they doing down there and they were telling stories to each other. They were telling stories about bad things that happened or when they were sick. And each time somebody would tell the next story, they would enlarge the sickness. So it was quite comedic. They made it - when I was sick I, you know, fell down the stairs and I threw up in a bucket and each time it was you know, more emphasised and they were trying to get some response from the others. To get part of the group to be aligned with that group of telling stories and having a good story to tell.

Madonna: So that was more about the importance of fitting in than competition in a like.

Maryanne: That’s right. The competition was a way of affiliation and making friends.

Madonna: Megan are there different types of play that be can be used to help friendship making?

Megan: I think that as a teacher we sometimes put out intentional things so that sometimes children, like there might be play props, we look at the dynamics of our group and I might think - you know such and such is really struggling today. So I might put out some play props that I think that child would be interested in with maybe a couple of the other children in the group. And so sometimes I find that's really helpful for that engagement to happen and then I can sort of scaffold. Which is sort of be around there to see how the play is happening. I think it's my role to just always check in with friends and see how they're relating to one another within the classroom. So quite often, you know, if a little group, you know, I can see that someone's really trying to get in there, I will sometimes just go and see if I can lend a hand if they're struggling. So I might just go up and say is everything okay here, what are you up to?

Madonna: And what's your favourite play props, what are the most successful?

Megan: I think a big bucket full of dress-ups is always a lot of fun. Lots of loose parts in the playground, such as tunnels and pipes and water and scoops. Where the children can be creative together, where there's not a set plan of what could be done, there’s lots of different possibilities for play. And I think that then children co-construct together what they're going to do in that space.

Madonna: And this is the birth of creativity too isn't it?

Megan: Absolutely. And imagination and storying as well.

Madonna: So is there a link between friendship and creativity, or friendship and imagination?

Megan: I think so, very much. You know, we have this yarning area upstairs in our top terrace of our playground, and the other day there was some children sharing stories. And you know we talked about how a narrative, a story, has a beginning and a middle and an end. And they were actually practicing and having turn-taking of telling a short story and I thought not only have they comprehended what we'd learnt in the classroom, but they were giving it a good hot crack and allowing each other to take turns. And it was really a lovely thing to see.

Madonna: And the were learning the structure an essay too, weren’t they?

Megan: They were. And they were just sharing the joy of being together and I liked seeing that. I couldn't go too close because I didn't want to interfere with the fluidity of what was happening.

Madonna: So if a teacher goes to a group who are playing well, is that a barrier? Is it best for a teacher to take a step back and allow that play just with the group?

Megan: I think it is. I think it's really important just to watch and to listen. I think that's the most important thing.

Madonna: Do they play differently if an adult is there?

Megan: Sometimes they can.

Madonna: Maryanne?

Maryanne: I think there's always a risk when an adult comes, that the play then turns to the adult’s social agenda or we're making it into a learning it time, then aren't we. We're going to extend on that topic and take it in a way that the children might not necessarily wanted to take it.

Madonna: Everything you're both saying to me comes back to empathy. And the development of empathy in a sense. How young can you see that develop?

Maryanne: I think even young babies can show empathy.

Madonna: How?

Maryanne: Well they're watching, they’re learning by observing, they’re watching facial expressions. And if somebody’s crying, we've seen babies tap people on the shoulder to comfort them or they might start crying themselves. So they’re not understanding the concept of empathy, but they're displaying a reaction.

Madonna: So from that you're saying connection, maybe the first step towards friendship?

Maryanne: Yes, definitely.

Madonna: And connection is almost at birth?

Megan: I agree with that. I think connection is exactly that, from birth, you know, it starts off with the mother and the child, and the father and the child, and then extends to grandparents. And grandparents make that connection and then extends to that, you know, the family unit, the extended family unit. And that's the child's first practice of those social skills, and that connecting skills.

Madonna: So Megan how do you start to teach a child those connections or friendship? Let's say my 9-month old is at kindy, how would you recommend an educator teach her to be a good friend?

Megan: I think it's about using certain words that the child might understand, like sharing, that's a very complex word. But it's just modelling and demonstrating – ball, would you like the ball? Let's play with the ball together and just little moments in time. Children of that age are just taking, you know, friendship as a little moment in time. And then you know, they get very distracted very easily. There might be then, a mirror and then you know, sometimes a mirror is a really great way of sharing a friendship because they're looking at themselves, but they're also looking at the other person. So you'll often find in a nursery environment, you'll see lots of mirrors down low for children to explore self, as well as the person beside them. You know it’s sort of pointing and poking to the person but they can see their response and reaction. So therefore, they're connecting with self, but they're also connecting with the person near them.

Madonna: Do you see any difference in a child who has no brothers and sisters, as to a child who is from a big family?

Megan: Not necessarily, no. I sometimes find that after connecting with someone, sometimes the only child can get really exhausted. I noticed that from my own experience of having an only child that sometimes they play, play, play and then they need their own time and space because they're used to it. They really like to have moments in time without children around. So we often as educators setup quiet areas for children to follow their own interest in that area, where they might just need some time out away from others.

Madonna: Maryanne, how important is language, inclusive language, in forming friendships?

Maryanne: Modelling inclusive language is important - children, you know, they respond if they hear the words ‘take turns’. They hear about feelings, they hear about how others might be reacting and responding, so that's part of learning. And also we talked to 70 children, didn't we, about how they made friends when there was language difference in the class. It was a very diverse classroom where Megan is working and they had lots of strategies though, other than language, that they would use. They talked about activities, they talked about playing Legos playing Play-Doh. They talked about balls, games. Games without words such as musical statues, for instance. They also gave strategies with multimodal, didn't they? They talked about drawing and writing letters. They also spoke about learning each other's language. So there was a real underpinning attempts to include others, to have that inclusiveness.

Madonna: Do you think a child can teach their parents about inclusivity?

Maryanne: Yes, I think so and I know you know at home if parents might be having a dispute, sometimes children say - oh you need to listen to each other, one at a time. They might tell you the rules about how to how to overcome disputes, etc.

Madonna: Maryanne, you also did some research on disputes between children, tell me about that.

Maryanne: So that was a QUT study, Madonna, into schools. We went to playgrounds where children were in prep to year three and we just watched and studied. What we found was children are bidding for the teacher’s attention in some ways, not just to solve disputes, but just for their attention in interactions. So having one teacher with 80 children is quite a challenge. We also found that sometimes teachers, in very well-meaning ways, investigated a dispute and actually made it worse.

Madonna: How did they make it worse?

Maryanne: So there was one incident I can think of where child had told the teacher about another child pushing him off the swing. I think according to that child, he was happy.

Madonna: He'd he just wanted to tell the teacher.

Maryanne: He’d let the teacher know.

Madonna: And so what did the teacher do in this situation?

Maryanne: After the playground interaction and the playground time had finished, she asked each of them to give their side. And during that conversation, the dispute actually was reignited, if you like. Sometimes our very well-meaning actions can cause more upset.

Madonna: So what you're saying is the child wanted to alert the teacher but didn't want the teacher to then intervene in the friendship because they sorted it up themselves.

Maryanne: That’s right. Sometimes children tell teachers but it's not always a call for help. It’s more - I'm just letting you know, and I'm also letting my friend over there know that I'm telling you.

Madonna: So when should a teach intervene and when should they not?

Maryanne: That is a tricky one, Madonna, it's really about knowing the children in the playground. Which is hard when you're in a playground at school and you don't necessarily know all the children. But I think it's about watching and understanding the feeling, the climate of the playground, what's happening there as well.

Madonna: And surely it's also important for teachers to ensure children learn resilience. So not all friendships are going to work, not everyone's going to be nice all the time.

Maryanne: That's right. So part of learning to respond to others, part of talking and having challenges in the playground does help us build resilience. It helps us build strategies to be able to understand others, but also to get our messages across. And teachers can model some of that behaviour - one strategy that teachers find successful is after a playground time, the whole class has a discussion about what they did like, what they didn't like. And that's a time where it's more of a general conversation, children aren’t put under the spot so much, that the strategies and some of the concerns that some children might have, or worries can be talked about in a more general way and they might gain strategies in that time.

Madonna: So much focus is on combating bullying in primary schools and indeed secondary schools. In your research into disputes, did you see the beginning of bullying in any way?

Maryanne: What I saw was everyday disputes and they do happen and it's an important part of actually maintaining and building friends. So sometimes children need to be able to express what they don't like and do like and that will help them then when a bully does come along and there's a behaviour that is repeated. So I didn't see any repeated bullying behaviours in my research.

Madonna: It's also important, I guess, in a dispute for the second child to learn how to respond as well.

Maryanne: That's right. So having a chance, having times where you're practicing those skills.

Madonna: Yeah.

Maryanne: Is important - it's building that resilience. It's building strategies for knowing how to respond or what not to respond to as well. Because a dispute is actually a three-part sequence - it's an action, there's a counter action, then it's back to the first person's action. Are they going to respond or not? So you know, it's a three-part sequence there.

Madonna: Are there groups of children, perhaps through specific challenges, that find friendship more difficult and there needs to be different strategies there, Megan?

Megan: Yeah. I think that children sometimes have to draw on other ways to work things out. It might just be that they support and help someone or I really like to empower children to problem-solve as best they can. That's the goal, is to get them to go to school with a toolbox of phrases or there used to be this – stop, I don't like that.

Madonna: Yes.

Megan: I go a little bit further and say stop - what don't you like, explain to your friend how they're making you feel right now. And often after they've said that I'll say to the child - what did you make sure that you said don't do it again? And that's like, you know, a finale to that dispute or that problem is to just go – well, I'm just making sure that you don't do it again. And it makes that child feel, then, safe to know that they've had a bigger voice.

Madonna: So we've got a whole lot of teachers listening and I want to ask you both about your top three take outs. And so Megan, I might start with you. And can I ask you how can a teacher support children in actually making friendships in the classroom?

Megan: I think you need to invest in relationships. Having great relationships with everyone in the group. Not necessarily being friends, but being friendly to all of the participants around you and I also make sure that I start to create connections with parents as well. And parents create connections with each other. I also do a little project - every child at the beginning of the year does a family project so that we can understand the child, the family, their background. And we have a little book that families can share together. And you know, they might have some commonalities that, you know, parents might say - well I see you like going to the beach, so do we, how about we do a play date or something like that? So it's just starting to make those connections.

Madonna: Thank you, Megan. Maryanne Theobald, what are the three things teachers really need to know here from your point of view?

Maryanne: I think teachers need to know it's important to allow time. Friendships take time. So we need to allow children blocks of time to encourage this activity. It's great for teachers to give those opportunities through the day as well in their program time. So for instance, they might make little games where children are being partnered with each other and then they're moving on and finding a new person. They might introduce each other to part of their classrooms. And knowing the children and their interests is also important and they can be kind of a matchmaker, if you like. They can support by finding someone who might have similar interests and try to encourage that friendship to blossom.

Madonna: So time, the activities they pursue, and a knowledge of their children and their passions.

Maryanne: Yes.

Madonna: Dr Maryanne Theobald from QUT and teacher researcher, Megan Laraghy from Lady Gowrie Kindergarten. Thank you. I’m Madonna King and this is QUT’s Podclass, and remember, the more you learn, the more they learn.

Madonna: Thanks for listening to this episode of Podclass. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. For a little homework, links to further information and insight on this topic, see the details provided in the show notes. Or to continue broadening your thinking in the classroom, listen in to the other season 2 episodes.

Outro: Podclass is an initiative of the QUT Faculty of Education. To take your teaching potential to the next level, explore their range of professional development and postgraduate study options on offer. Because the more you learn, the more they learn.