Juliet (left) and Carys have been friends since they were preschoolers at Clarke Northampton.
Why Friendships Matter and How to Help Children Find Their Way
Outside of the family unit, a child’s friends are their closest connections, allies and influences. As such, childhood friendships leave a lasting impact. A healthy friendship helps to establish many of the social intelligence skills and coping mechanisms necessary for success in adulthood.
According to popular science writer and author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, Lydia Denworth: “Friendship is where kids build social skills—companionship, trust, loyalty, reciprocity and reconciliation—that they can only learn from peer relationships.”
Lydia Denworth, science journalist and parent of a Clarke alumnus.
Research from the University of Florida shows that friendship is crucial for school-age children’s healthy social development—providing children with practice in problem-solving, cooperation, negotiating different situations and regulating their emotions. It even impacts school performance, as children who have supportive friendships in school settings tend to feel more engaged and positive about their academics.
There may be long-term health benefits as well. In a longitudinal study of 267 boys published in 2018, Texas Tech University researchers found that the children who spent more time with friends during childhood and adolescence had healthier blood pressure levels and body mass indices at the age of 32. “These findings suggest that our early social lives may have a small protective influence on our physical health in adulthood, and it’s not just our caregivers or financial circumstances, but also our friends who may be health-protective,” says study co-author Jenny Cundiff, PhD.
Finding and sustaining these peer-to-peer connections is especially important for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, as they face more complex social scenarios. “Children who are deaf or hard of hearing and live in a world where most others hear, are at risk for isolation and loneliness even when they hear well with technology and have excellent spoken language skills,” says Jan Gatty, EdM, MED, EdD, director of child and family services at Clarke Northampton. “Sitting in a noisy environment with a group of people—following a conversation, identifying who is talking, who is interrupting, overhearing side conversations, detecting subtle changes in topics and nuances in the discourse—is tiring at best. At worst, they can be left out and give up on staying connected to the group.”
As such, children who are deaf or hard of hearing are frequently tasked with explaining their hearing technology and advocating for themselves when they miss something in social settings. Without guidance from families and teachers, this added responsibility can hinder the development of relationships that many children easily form. Supporting children to engage in healthy friendships is an essential way to bolster their self-esteem and set them up for success in adulthood.
From Preschool through High School: A Powerful Clarke Friendship
Juliet and Carys were preschoolers at Clarke Northampton in 2006 and have maintained a close friendship through the years, while at separate mainstream schools and even in different states.
From left, Carys and Juliet as Clarke preschoolers.
“We have been close friends as long as I can remember,” says 11th-grader Juliet.
Despite transitioning from Clarke programming into separate mainstream schools, they have remained close and involved in each other’s lives. In addition to their compatible, supportive personalities and knowing each other from a very early age, the young women both use cochlear implants to access sound.
“We are in similar positions where we have cochlear implants and are immersed in the hearing world, whether it be through school, our home lives or our social lives,” says Carys, a freshman at the University of Vermont. “We get to share such a big part of our experiences and relate to each other in a way that no one else was able to. Not our family, or our other friends, or our teachers or our classmates. It’s a place where none of us have to work for anything or explain ourselves to anyone.”
Lydia Denworth echoes this. “All of the elements of strong friendship are amplified for kids with disabilities,” she says. “For children who are deaf or hard of hearing, to have other people ‘get it’ is important. It’s especially powerful to have friends who are deaf or hard of hearing because they know what you’re going through and can share some element of your experience.”
Lydia shares her perspective not only as a researcher and author, but as a parent of a Clarke alumnus as well. Lydia’s son Alex, who has a hearing loss, attended Clarke New York’s Inclusion Preschool Program as a toddler and then worked with a teacher of the deaf at his mainstream school through the 12th grade. Now a senior in high school, he is a talented basketball player, hoping to play at the collegiate level.
In terms of getting involved with sports and activities, Lydia notes that “parents need to consider the ‘friendship factor’ when they’re making decisions in their kids’ lives. Kids are more likely to be successful in activities where they do have a friend. Sometimes adults discount that, assuming kids should have an experience just to have it. But don’t underestimate how important it is for kids to have that security blanket. And we can make life a little easier for kids if we remember that.”
While younger children connect and befriend each other through extracurricular activities and academic settings, as they reach adolescence their priorities shift. In “Friendships and Self-Determination Among Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing,” co-authored by Brittany Dorn, PhD, teacher of the deaf and Clarke Summer Camp counselor from 2014 to 2018, the researchers state, “Starting in adolescence, friendships evolve from relationships based on shared activities to relationships based on shared values. Adolescents see friendship as an intimate relationship built, over time, on mutual support, reciprocity, concern and understanding.”
In Carys and Juliet’s friendship, for example, they place high value on trust, acceptance and humor. “It’s so important to be able to trust your friends and to have that safe space to be yourself, without judgment or worry,” says Carys. “We can vent about our lives or just make each other laugh. I think that a good friend is someone who can make you laugh and smile!”
How to Promote Supportive Friendships
Just like learning to read or multiply fractions, making friends requires a certain set of skills, talents and abilities. As with any competency, this comes more easily to some than others.
“There’s a certain neurological predisposition for forming social relationships,” notes Jan. “Teachers and families can provide environmental structures, opportunities, modeling, reflective activities and narratives to foster forming intimate relationships, but they cannot direct or ensure the end product.”
While families cannot control a child’s predilection for securing these social bonds, they can help children develop healthy social skills, while also modeling healthy friendships for them.
For example, Lydia recommends that families focus on two strategies:
Communicate the Importance of Friendship: “Be sure your child understands that this is something you can practice and get better at—it’s a muscle that needs to be strengthened,” Lydia says. “Parents are often more worried about achievement but learning how to make friends is important. Parents should talk to kids about what it means to be a good friend and help facilitate situations that make friendship more likely.” It might help to seek out environments that are quieter or smaller and choose activities with fewer children involved.
Model Friendships: “Parents should model the importance of friendships in their lives and take time to be with their friends,” Lydia says. Children are highly attuned to their families and can see what it means to be a good friend through observation. This allows them to both adopt and seek out those same qualities in a friendship.
Families can also help by encouraging various social behaviors in their children. Jan shares this list of skill-building activities that are part of the Clarke preschool curriculum:
Engaging in turn-taking activities
Engaging in collaborative projects with small groups of children
Encouraging children to listen to each other
Practicing recognition and expression of feelings
Rehearsing social and linguistic routines (e.g., discussing the steps involved when attending a birthday party, or practicing the types of conversational exchanges a child can expect to have)
Engaging in role playing
Reading stories involving friendship, empathy and relationships
Calling attention to kindness and empathic behavior
Jan also notes that after children who are deaf or hard of hearing transition to mainstream schools, it’s important to continue providing them with opportunities to form friendships in natural settings with other children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Through Clarke’s Summer Camp and Clarke Buddies, for example, teachers of the deaf lead and supervise programming for school-age children, giving them the chance to play with, collaborate with and confide in peers who are just like them, in terms of how they hear. “In many cases,” says Jan, “the experience is transformational, and the friendships continue when they return to their regular school settings.”
Supporting the development of social skills, helping children exercise their friendship muscle and demonstrating caring friendships among adults are all valuable ways to prepare children for a life full of friendship. Lydia adds, “The ability to make friends and be a good friend are skills that will serve kids their entire lives. This is one of the most important skills learned in childhood.” And although families cannot navigate these important relationships for their children, they can be attentive to their burgeoning social skills while providing them with the acceptance and confidence they’ll need to identify and prioritize healthy friendships.