As you might imagine, my school is a haven for those who have been bullied in previous institutions. Because we are small and we are also multi-age, it’s a lot harder to do that thing where kids decide (never the adults, do not kid yourself into thinking you have any say about popularity in a typical age-graded institution) who is and is not acceptable. Also, because we follow the philosophy of St. John Bosco, we actually hang out with and play with our kids a lot more than in traditional schools. We do this to mentor them more effectively and also to watch out for trouble spots.
Let’s think about a traditional school for a moment. In a typical school, there are 15-35 kids in each class (the exact number varies dramatically) and based on the historic segregation of Disabled people as well as people of color, the kids are typically one race and “abled” enough to be tossed into “gen pop” (those so Disabled that they make teachers’ lives too hard in gen pop get hidden in segregated classrooms).
There is one teacher or sometimes there might be two adults. The children greatly outnumber the adults.
And all the kids are the same chronological age.
No wonder they so easily ferret out who is different and make school a living hell for those people who don’t pass muster as “worthy.”
But my school is different.
My school is multi-aged (K-8). Currently, we are not as culturally diverse as we were, but we are diverse in terms of socio-economic levels and abilities and/or neurotypes.
(I should make a quick note here that historically people of color are reluctant to homeschool, or engage in alternative-type schools unless encouraged to do so by the public school authorities. It’s not because they don’t want to or can’t homeschool or look for alternative schools; however, there is heightened risk in parenting differently when you are a Person of Color. Many school authorities have bullied Black parents with a call to child protective services if they don’t raise their kids the “right” way. With longer-term success, I hope we can have more culturally diverse families using our program since it won’t be an “experiment” any longer.)
When children are constantly confronted with peers who are different ages, genders, races, and neurotypes/abilities, they are more acceptance of difference as no big deal. When class sizes are small, kids learn quite quickly to make do with whoever is in the class with them, too.
Normally, all goes well here.
But we take what we learned from the “outside” with us.
Sometimes, I have to explicitly teach friendship to my students.
Here are the main rules I give them, with adjustments made based on specific circumstances.
“Best Friends” is Not a Real Concept
Okay, we were all told we should obsess over who is our best friend, but when I was talking to other adults, most say they don’t have a best friend when they grow up, and even then, looking back, they didn’t really have one when they were kids. This is a figment of some obsessive person’s imagination. We have some friends who we love because they’re good at problem-solving, some who love to shop with us, and others are great to go out to coffee with since they have great stories. This is real life. So, it’s better to teach kids this concept now because it’s hard to undo the damage done by this rule. Otherwise, kids will be obsessed with finding “the one” instead of enjoying the time being with other people and caring about them for who they are. Do what you can as an adult to dispel the “best friends” myth and teach your students to back you up. It makes life so much easier when kids are open to playing with everyone, and not feeling forced to check in with a certain someone.
You can’t say you can’t play (and you can’t make someone feel like they can’t play either).
This is an oldie from many schools. Teachers always tell kids they can’t say that they can’t play, so kids can recite that. What they do not add is that you cannot ignore the person, sitting there, playing with you and make him or her feel unwelcome with your actions.
You can’t say you must play (and you can’t force someone to play with your actions).
If so-and-so doesn’t want to play Legos with you and he’s your friend, you have a choice. You can force him to play Legos with you, you can play Legos with someone else or alone, or you can do whatever so-and-so wants. Choice number 1 is bullying, and we don’t want to do that. Instead, we are trying to cultivate the type of friendships where everyone has agency: you can choose to play with what you want to do and your friend won’t get hurt feelings and you won’t get hurt feelings. My girls often choose to play something (iPad app or Lego) while some other girls might be reading near her, so they can still chat, but they don’t have to do the same thing.
You can’t tell someone to go away (and you can’t exclude people who want to play near you).
Let’s say you want to play alone with your friend and someone else shows up. You have to let that person play near you and talk to him or her sometimes. Maybe you’re playing different things, or maybe you’ll start playing together. Regardless, everyone is part of the school, together. We might make an exception for a student who has a specific withdrawal space that he or she has used to self-regulate or, say, the teacher’s desk may or may not be a place students can go. In that case, that location may belong to that person and that person has jurisdiction over it, but in general, all spaces belong to all people. We can’t chase people out of our favorite places unless there has been another rule established.
You are in charge of you. Play what you want.
This is really a restatement of earlier rules, but sometimes kids need permission to play another game no one else is playing. So long as your game doesn’t break other school rules (eg. no hitting, no name-calling, no swearing, etc.), it’s fine. Give it a try.
We don’t make friends in real-life based on how old they are, and we don’t do that here, either.
Some schools will chase kids away if they want to play with younger kids. We don’t do that here. We do have a few rules about being aware of power/agency, though to help big kids understand that their younger friends may or may not understand the world as they do and again, we keep watch to make sure these are okay friendships, but mostly they just play together.
Teasing has to be fair, and based on a mutually-acceptable relationship of give-and-take. No teasing people who are younger than you.
It’s impossible (and impractical) to stop teasing because it is not only everywhere, but teasing can have mutually beneficial outcomes. Some healthy relationships are built on teasing. However, inevitably it will go wrong if you are older than the other person or somehow have power over that person (or that person has power over you). The younger person will say he’s getting it, but inevitably, it takes until closer to the age of 10, in our experience, though sometimes it comes later or earlier, to really understand teasing enough to be able to say that it’s mutual. This is where the adults try to help out, to redirect teasing when a friend in the group doesn’t really get it yet.
We support each other, always.
So, let’s say your friend decides to dye his hair a jaunty shade of purple. It looks, uhm, not great. But hey, it’s better to try it out here, isn’t it? So, you support your friend’s choice. And it will wash out eventually. However, sometimes support is telling secrets. If you hear a friend is hurting herself or someone else is hurting her (or she’s hurting someone else), you tell an adult. We also go over that when in doubt, they should err on the side of caution and tell us and we promise to keep private the secrets that are okay to keep.
Interestingly, I have the most trouble with boys this year (my girls all play together and take turns with who they play with), but we have one male student who hasn’t been with us a full year yet. He is bringing what he learned from public school to us, and some of the rules he learned about friendship are very hurtful. Think about the things you learned in the “hidden” curriculum (no one taught this, but you figured it out on your own) about friendship. Then, think about how many of those so-called rules are actually grounds for destructive, and not productive, relationships.
You’d be surprised at how much you learned about being a friend is not really all that helpful as an adult and may have contributed to your own frustrations in childhood and in later life. Do what you can to interrupt that unproductive narrative.