Carnegie Education

How can schools support pupils manage anxiety around friendship groups?

Anxiety is a common problem facing many of our pupils and for some it can mean socialising with their peers becomes a challenge. How can schools help increase their sense of belonging?

Image of child writing

Positive friendships can provide support, companionship, and joy throughout the school years and help children develop important social skills too.

But if a pupil is finding relationships at school difficult, it can leave them feeling anxious and isolated.

So, what strategies can schools use to help pupils struggling with friendships to manage their anxiety and increase their sense of belonging?

What can cause pupils to become anxious about friendships?

In primary school
Given their comparatively young age, the factors underlying social anxiety for primary school children are likely to stem from day-to-day interactions with friends. These can include having someone to play with at breaktime, being left out of a game, or experiencing unkind behaviour.

In secondary school
Friendships become increasingly complex as older children and young people navigate the often-choppy waters of adolescence. Peer group influence grows stronger and stronger, and ‘fitting in’ can begin to take precedence. Rejection from a social group is to be avoided at all costs and teenagers can become more vulnerable to bullying, both online and in person.

How does anxiety about friendships affect students in school?

Social anxiety around friendship groups can affect how a child behaves and how they view themselves. In fact, it is one of the key reasons that children and young people seek support from specialist counsellors.

There isn't one specific indicator of social anxiety; it can manifest in several ways, depending on the pupil. Students of all ages who are struggling with friendships can feel self-conscious, angry, or frustrated. They might withdraw from activities they previously enjoyed; or they may experience feelings of worthlessness and loneliness.

Feeling anxious about friendships can impact a young person’s future, too: a lack of concentration in lessons, low self-esteem, or even school avoidance can have serious ramifications on a personal and academic level and prevent students from fulfilling their potential.

How can schools reduce pupil anxiety around friendships?

In recent years, there has been a shift towards building positive relationships and connections throughout the whole school community, so pupils can feel safe, connected, and able to express their thoughts and needs.

Here are four ways staff can help foster this approach.

  1. Create a culture based on mutual trust and respect

    Pupils who feel socially anxious are overly concerned about how other people see them. This can make them reluctant to join in with activities inside and outside of the classroom.

    One way to help them overcome their fear is to structure classroom activities that enable students to forge strong bonds with one another. Where they can see each other as team players through small and large group activities, role-play, and paired work.

    Relationships based on mutual trust and respect are the bedrock of any positive and supportive school environment. That’s why it’s vital to establish ground rules for how students should listen to each other and see things from each other’s perspective while completing tasks collaboratively.

    By setting clear parameters and expectations, schools can help students to build a strong sense of self, alongside compassion and empathy for others.
  2. Build a positive relationship with pupils

    Try to make sure interactions with pupils are not just confined to the classroom. Connect on a more personal level by welcoming students as they come into school in the morning and greet them as you pass in the corridors and playground.

    A quick question about a young person’s hobbies or interests reminds them that they are important to you. Feeling valued and ‘seen’ can reduce social anxiety and give children a deep-rooted sense of belonging. They are more likely to feel they can share their worries with you too.

    Even though school life is busy, being visible, available, and interacting with students is essential for supporting them through friendship difficulties.

    For example, if you notice a child is left out at breaktime, you can intervene quickly, talk to the child, and locate some of their friends. You may want to follow up with a whole class discussion or assembly about what makes a good friend.
  3. Enable students to resolve disagreements

    When friendships falter and issues arise, encourage everyone involved to explore a solution. This is known as a restorative conversation. This will help them to identify how, when, and why someone might be hurt by the other person’s actions.

    Restorative conversations support students to take ownership of how they can resolve the conflict and think about what steps they could take to make amends, and which strategies they could adopt to make sure incidents are avoided in the future.

    It might be, for example, that secondary school pupils are struggling to get along, and arguments are spilling over into online exchanges beyond the school gates. It can be hugely beneficial for everyone to set up a restorative conversation where staff support those involved to understand each other’s perspectives and feelings.

    Lessons on building empathy can help students recognise that their actions have consequences. This can lessen the likelihood of reoccurrence and reduce pupil anxiety around the friendship.
  4. Teach students to be kind and respectful online

    Encourage students to be open about how they behave on social media and to report cases of online bullying. Use restorative conversations to demonstrate how a student can be affected by unkind posts or exclusion from group chats.

    There are a number of organisations, such as CEOP and the NSPCC, that provide e-safety training for staff, filling any knowledge gaps and ensuring that everyone is fully up-to-date with the latest developments regarding online safety and cyberbullying.

For more tips on the best ways to tackle anxiety in your school, download our FREE Tackling Pupil Anxiety guide. 

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