Tuesday 21 August 2018

The Irish schools discouraging children to have one best friend - just like Prince George's school

With Prince George's school encouraging pupils not to have one singular favourite pal, our reporter discovers BFFs may be a thing of the past

In safe hands: Prince William brings Prince George to school
In safe hands: Prince William brings Prince George to school
No worries: Siobhan O'Neill White with her daughter Summer
Carmel Hume

Kathy Donaghy

'Best friend' relationships have been immortalised down the years through books exploring the childhood exploits of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn or Harry Potter and Ron Weasley to movies like Beaches, where two young girls strike up a lifelong friendship that will be the defining one of their lives.

But with schools encouraging a more inclusive practice towards friendship, perhaps the days of the best friend forever are numbered.

As Prince George took his first tentative steps into the school yard at Thomas's in Battersea, London, it emerged that the school does not encourage children to have one singular best friend. Instead, it promotes the ethos of 'kindness' and reinforces its ideas about inclusivity by insisting no party invites be issued in school.

Most schools here have similar policies about party invites being distributed outside school only. And while they can't ensure that children get invited to every party, they can ensure no child is left out in the classroom by taking charge of the seating arrangements and making sure children don't become too dependent on any individual child.

Carmel Hume
Carmel Hume

While most parents will recall their primary school days often spent sitting beside the same person from one end of the year to the next, mostly by choice, teachers today move children around regularly so that by the end of the year, everyone has spent some time sitting beside everyone in the class.

Carmel Hume, principal of Terenure Presentation Primary School in Dublin, an all-girls school, says that when dealing with girls, you would try to discourage the 'best friend' scenario which can start in junior infants.

She says children are assigned a place on their first day with up to eight girls at a table. The children would typically be rotated around this group every week so that nobody is sitting beside one person all the time. The groups would also be mixed up.

Ms Hume explains that some teachers are quite meticulous about this and would even have a map of the classroom and know where everyone has been sitting. And she says this ensures that while children are in school, they get to know everyone in their class.

In the junior end of the school, Ms Hume says girls are encouraged to play with different people in the playground to ensure nobody gets left out.

"These are the kinds of things teachers have to be aware of. It's to include everyone in the group. We want children to interact with other children," she says.

She points out that the policy of moving children around means they are exposed to different types of personalities. "Not everybody is nice to one another all the time and they learn that it's not all plain sailing. They learn you don't have to be best friends with everyone in the class and how to deal with the different personalities."

Child psychologist Sarah O'Doherty says children socialise and find friends in different ways at different ages. At the age of six, she explains, finding a friend is all about convenience - who you sit beside or who lives next door. As you get older, at around age nine or 10, friendships are based on similar likes with children gravitating towards those with similar interests. In the pre-adolescence years, she says children start looking at personality traits and the qualities of a person for friendship.

She believes that a policy of encouraging children to move around and getting to know all the different kinds of children in the class is a very sensible approach because it teaches them the value of personality difference at the earliest stage.

"When children are young, they can be quite mean to each other, and this policy avoids little cliques developing. The policy also means that children at the extreme end of the group - the wild children or the very quiet ones - are not left out," says Ms O'Doherty.

Primary school teacher Néidín Coulahan believes the practice of moving children around means no one child becomes over-reliant on another child. She says if a child is too reliant on one friend and their friend is absent, it can make the school day seem endless.

She points out that as well as discouraging dependence and making sure everyone gets to know one another, the practice also encourages better peer learning.

Ms Coulahan, who works in a Dublin primary school, says children learn well from one another and by moving them around, they can realise their own strengths and weaknesses. "Children are very social creatures and they adapt to every situation. When you shuffle things up a bit, it challenges them and represents society more," she says.

When Siobhán O'Neill White's youngest daughter Summer was starting school last September, Siobhán says like most parents she was anxious. One of her daughter's closest friends from playschool was going into a different class and her daughter was upset.

However Siobhán, from Bettystown, Co Meath, says she needn't have worried - Summer and her playschool friend found one another in the playground and still play Gaelic football together every Sunday.

"It hasn't hindered their friendship. I don't think parents need to worry about pairing them up. I know the teachers move them around in our school at Gaelscoil an Bhradain Feasa in Drogheda. All the kids get to sit beside different kids," says Siobhán, a mum of four who runs parenting website mumstown.ie. She says her youngest child has friends from sporting activities outside school, from school and from the neighbourhood. "She fits into different groups of friends," says Siobhán.

With 600 girls at her school, Principal Carmel Hume says what's most important is learning that while you don't have to be best friends with everyone, it's still important to be kind and respect the other person.

"Regardless of who you are or where you come from, we learn that we are all treated with kindness. You don't have to like everyone. Children fall out, but they learn from the process. That's just life."

When kids fight with friends

if carmel (2).jpg
Carmel Hume

Primary school principal Carmel Hume believes it’s best to let friends resolve their own problems. And she says parents should take a common sense approach when their children fall out rather than jump in and get into rows with one another.

“Children will fall out — it’s part of the growing process. The parents will also fall out and then the children make things up with one another,” says Ms Hume (above).

“Let them get on with it in school. We try to teach them to deal with things in their own way. We all have disagreements with people but we try to give them the techniques to be able to deal with people.

“We are trying to teach children how to deal with situations from a social point of view every day. They’re learning from a very young age how to deal with different types of people and that’s something they will take right through school and into the workplace,” she explains.

“Sometimes children are at loggerheads and they don’t like one another. But we say ‘when you’re in this school, you will respect one another and you’ll be kind to one another’.”

Irish Independent

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