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Promoting Social-Emotional Development: Positive Relationships

Establishing and maintaining positive relationships is a vital part of the social-emotional development of school-age children. This lesson will detail the types of relationships you will see as a school-age staff member and provide information on how and why children need to establish friendships.

  • Discuss the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships.
  • Identify the three main types of relationships school-age staff members may experience and ways to support them.
  • Describe the importance of friendships and identify methods to help children make friends.



Positive Relationships: An Introduction

As humans, we need the affection, attention, and acceptance of other people. Relationships are such an important part of the human experience that it is difficult to think about what our lives would be like without them. Think about your relationships with others. Some are professional and others are personal. Some may be superficial, while others are rooted in a strong bond. Chances are, if you think about your favorite memories as a child, there was another person with you in most of them. We need people in our lives to bring us joy, to measure our potential, to learn from, and to live with. The ability to establish relationships is a crucial part of social-emotional development. This ability will help children be successful as they grow. As a school-age staff member, there are three main types of relationships you will see in your program:

  1. Adult-to-child relationships: This type of relationship occurs between you and the children in your care.
  2. Peer-to-peer relationships: This type of relationship is between two children. These relationships are often called friendships, however not all children are friends. It is important to promote positive relationships with all peers.
  3. Adult-to-adult relationships: This type of relationship will be evident in your professional relationships with your colleagues, family members and other professionals or community members.

Adult-to-Child Relationships

The adult to child relationships created in your program are vital to creating an environment built on trust and community. The relationships you create with school-age children should be ones of mutual respect. Positive relationships with adults help children feel good about themselves and encourage them to be active and participatory in their learning. Research shows that children who have relationships with positive adult role models have reduced stress levels and higher academic achievement and are able to get along better with their peers than children without these relationships.

A caregiver kneels to talk with a crying child
A caregiver plays cards with a child at a table

According to the Council on Accreditation’s After School and Youth Development Standards, methods to create positive relationships with children include:

  • Helping children feel welcome, comfortable, and supported
  • Recognizing positive accomplishments
  • Treating children with respect
  • Listening to what children say
  • Responding to children with interest, acceptance, and appreciation
  • Being consistent and following through on what you say you will do

Peer-to-Peer Relationships

Friendships are a necessary part of a child’s social-emotional development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, friendships allow children to “broaden their horizons beyond the family unit, begin to experience the outside world, form a self-image, and develop a social support system.” Because the ability to establish and maintain friendships is necessary throughout children’s lives, it is considered the most important goal of social-emotional development for school-age children.

Making and keeping friends is especially important for school-age children because their friends play many parts in their lives, such as:

  • A companion: Someone to spend their time with, share common interests with, and enjoy each other’s company
  • A confidant: Someone to share secrets, to engage in pretend play, and to share thoughts and feelings
  • An ally: Someone with which to form a team when facing difficult tasks
  • A support: Someone who provides stability and motivation during difficult times
Two children play with legos
Two children play with legos

As children age, the types of friendships they form change from those rooted in common interests, and often convenience, to those of deeper emotional bonds. The earliest form of friendship, those usually seen in younger school-age children, are formed out of common interests. Children who enjoy the same games, books, or sports may bond while enjoying their favorite activities. These friendships are also created out of proximity and convenience and children in the same class or program, or children who live near each other, are more likely to be friends than those that do not. The next stage of friendship development is one of shared values and rules. These types of friendships are rooted in something stronger than a shared interest. They typically appear in older school-age children. These peers bond over similar outlooks on life, values, and ethics. In addition, children with similar temperaments and play patterns will tend to seek each other out as friends. Around puberty and in the preteen years, children tend to form larger peer groups, sometimes referred to as “cliques.” In many cases, children in a large circle of friends can be highly influenced by each other and often take on similar ways of dressing, talking, or specific behaviors.

Helping Children Make Friends

As a school-age staff member, you should encourage healthy friendships. A healthy friendship is one where children are equals in the relationship and take turns making decisions, such as choosing activities. Friends should be able to work together to solve a problem and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Children who have been exposed to positive relationships at home typically have an easier time making and keeping friends. They understand the normal give-and-take found in healthy relationships and know how to apply it to their peer relationships. Children who have not been surrounded by examples of positive relationships may have difficulty making and sustaining healthy friendships.

There are many reasons children may struggle when trying to make new friends. Children may not have mastered the social-emotional developmental milestones, or they could be shy or aggressive in nature. A child’s personality and temperament play a large role in his or her ability to make and keep friends. It is important for you to understand how to identify a child who might need help establishing friendships. This support can have a huge influence on a child’s development, as friendship-building is a skill that will be used throughout life. 

Helping a Shy Child

A child who is shy might need your help navigating social situations. However, before you intervene, observe the child and determine if he or she is in need of assistance or is just slower to open up to others and make friends. If you determine a child is shy and does need help, consider the following:

  • Connect: Take time to get to know the child’s personality and temperament. Observe the child in the learning environment by watching play patterns, preferred activities, and interactions with peers. This will help you to get a sense of who they are and might help you to match them up with another child. You should spend time talking and establishing your own relationships with these children. They need to trust you so you can help them branch out and make new friends. You will also want to gain a deeper understanding of their personality and temperament, something that can only be done through engaging in conversations and participating in activities with them. 
  • Express: Encourage children to express themselves. During conversations, it is important that you encourage them to express their feelings. You can do this by asking questions and providing motivation. It helps to be familiar with children’s interests so you can discuss topics that are important to them.
  • Shine: Create opportunities for children who are shy to shine and be the experts. Once you have taken the time to get to know a child, give the child the chance to come out of his or her shell. Depending on the child’s interests, talents, or skills, give the child an opportunity to demonstrate a skill or discuss something important. Children who are shy sometimes need help feeling good about themselves. Helping them feel important and special is a great way to boost shy children’s self-esteem.
  • Search: Help children find healthy friendships. Use what you know about the children in your program to find good matches for children who are shy. Make sure that you are mindful when setting up children to work together in groups or share activities. Encourage the formation of healthy friendships by pairing a shy child with another child who has similar interests. You may need to give the children conversation starters to help them realize their similarities.

Helping an Aggressive Child

It is inevitable that you will also have children who have a difficult time controlling their behaviors or who are not able to clearly express what they are feeling. These children might have aggressive or domineering personalities and need help building relationships. These children may have trouble interacting with others, taking turns, and cooperating. You might find that some children who have had difficulties in their lives, have low self-esteem, or feel lonely act out in aggressive ways. As a school-age staff member, you will help these children find healthy ways of expressing themselves so they can improve their social skills and establish healthy relationships. When helping a child with aggressive behaviors make friends, consider the following:

  • Observe: Take the time to observe the child in the learning environment. Watch for patterns or triggers that bring on aggressive behavior. Try to understand what messages they are trying to communicate when they act out or become angry. Whenever possible, help them avoid these behaviors by intervening before the situation escalates. Also, take time to understand their interests, skills, and talents. Like working with children who are shy, you will need to establish trust to help and develop a healthy relationship so you can understand the reasons behind their aggression.
  • Root: Try getting to the root of the problem. If you feel a child is acting out aggressively because there may be a bigger problem at home or in school, bring it to the attention of your supervisor. Meeting with the family to try to understand the cause of the problem could be beneficial.
  • Consequences: Help the child understand how to express himself or herself in healthy ways and understand the consequences when he or she does not. Give children ways to cope with their anger or frustration so they do not act out aggressively. You can suggest taking deep breaths, reading, or writing in a journal. Be consistent in your redirection and consequences. If you tell children that they will not be able to participate in a game if they continue to throw the game pieces, you must follow through.
  • Set Limits: Boundaries and clear expectations will help children understand what is expected of them and what will happen if they behave in a positive way. Reinforce positive behavior and redirect negative behavior. Refer to the Positive Guidance course for more information.
  • Control: Once you gain an understanding of why the child behaves or reacts the way they do, you can work on controlling those behaviors. You can help children establish friendships by creating opportunities for them to work with children that share interests, skills, and talents. Just like when working with children who are shy, these children need the opportunity to be an expert and share their knowledge to boost their self-esteem.

Helping a Child who is Anxious

As our understanding of mental health has developed, supporting children and youth’s mental health has become a regular part of care. You will most likely see a wide range of mental health concerns in your experience as a school-age staff member, including anxiety. Children with anxiety disorders may exhibit some of the same behavioral issues as children who are shy or aggressive, such as a failure to speak around others or throwing tantrums. While certain accommodations can be made during program hours, some of the most effective strategies you can employ are forming positive relationships, building trust, and modeling coping skills. Encouraging the child to build friendships with others and strengthen their own coping mechanisms is the key to helping these children reach their full potential within your program. Consider using some of the following strategies to accomplish this goal:

  • Validate and Brainstorm: During a busy day, it may be tempting to tell a child to relax. For children who have anxiety disorders, statements like this may only cause them to redirect their anxiety into another area of their lives. Instead of asking children to suppress their anxiety, listen while they express their worries, and then calmly redirect them towards brainstorming solutions to their worries with your support.
  • Reframe: Just like how our minds can sometimes get carried away, children can become focused on hypothetical, “what if…” problems when experiencing anxiety. Encourage them to think about whether their worries are based on facts that are known or assumed interpretations of known information. Asking a child to label their worries and practice reframing skills can help them stop their anxious thoughts from spiraling and causing larger program disruptions.
  • Coping Skills: Teaching children to choose relaxation strategies when anxious can help them build calming skills for the future. Deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation techniques, and mindfulness practices are all excellent self-soothing strategies. Consider creating stress balls as a craft activity or inviting a yoga instructor to the program as a guest.
  • Empathize: Children who experience anxiety may feel alone or isolated. Relate times when you have felt anxious to model for them that anxiety can be overcome. Help them build a library of positive outcomes and demonstrate how to properly deal with anxious thoughts.

Adult-to-Adult Relationships

As a school-age staff member, you will also need to establish positive relationships with other adults. These adults may be your colleagues, supervisors, community members, and families. For more information on establishing relationships, refer to the Communication & Language Development and Family Engagement courses. When working to establish and maintain relationships with other adults, it is important to consider the following:

Engaging With Families

  • Families can be your program’s window into culturally responsive experiences. Invite families to share meaningful experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for families of children in your classroom and program to meet and get to know each other.
  • Invite families to observe and participate in some of your classroom activities.
  • Send home books about emotions and social-emotional skills with children.
  • Encourage families to nurture social-emotional skills at home by extending some of your classroom and school experiences in the home environment.

A caregiver speaks with a child and his parent

Engaging With Colleagues

  • Connect with your colleagues. Share your interests and experiences with colleagues during staff meetings, lunch breaks, or in-service days. Get to know the people who you work with on a personal level.
  • Exchange ideas with colleagues about experiences that foster social-emotional growth. Invite a colleague to come to your room, observe some of your activities, and give you feedback. Offer to do the same for your colleagues.
  • Ask a trainer, coach, or administrator to observe your classroom so they can offer you feedback about your use of materials and experiences and support you in promoting children’s social-emotional growth.
  • Acknowledge colleagues who are doing great things, who offer you guidance and constructive feedback, and who inspire you to strive for excellence and to be a team player.
  • Keep it professional. Avoid talking about your personal life while at work.
  • Establish lines of communication. Have regular check-ins with other colleagues so you can discuss any concerns before they become problems. It is also good to discuss program-planning ideas. Keep families informed by providing regular forms of communication and maintaining an open-door policy.

three staff members line-dance

The relationships you have with other adults in the program also serve as a way to model healthy relationships for school-age children. Always stay calm, professional, and respectful when speaking to another adult and ensure your body language is positive.


Social-Emotional Development: Positive Relationships

Listen as we discuss how positive relationships affect social-emotional development in a school-age program.


As you have read in this course, social-emotional growth and development is a crucial part of the human experience; it helps us learn about ourselves, it helps us establish and maintain relationships with others, and it allows for meaningful learning experiences. In your daily interactions with children in school-age programs, it is your responsibility to build relationships with each child and foster relationships among children by designing supportive environments and by being responsive. Building relationships is an essential and primary component of good teaching.

In your work, you are responsible for creating meaningful experiences that incorporate opportunities for the practice of social-emotional skills throughout the day. Being a socially and emotionally competent teacher can be expressed in a number of different ways:

  • Take the time to work on establishing and maintaining relationships with children and colleagues in your school-age program
  • Try to work out and problem solve solutions to challenges or problems that arise
  • Demonstrate flexibility
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes
  • Be nurturing and responsive
  • Try new things out
  • Ask for help or support when facing difficulties
  • Lend a helping hand to others in need
  • Be willing to accept new and different perspectives
  • Embrace diversity
  • Be open-minded
  • Share your own emotions and thoughts


Helping children establish and maintain positive relationships will require you to observe children in the learning environment. Reflect on children’s behaviors and consider ways to promote relationships in the Observe: Relationships activity below. When finished, share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Some children will need your help making friends. Complete the Helping Children Make Friends activity below. Brainstorm ideas for each scenario. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


A colleague asks for your suggestions for helping a shy child make friends. What do you suggest?
True or False? Allowing yourself to make mistakes as a school-age staff member is a characteristic of a socially-emotionally competent teacher.
Finish this statement: A healthy friendship between school-age children…
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2004). Caring for your school-age child: Ages 5-12. Bantam.

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed). Pearson.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 22). What are childhood mental disorders?

Council on Accreditation. (n.d.) Standards for child and youth development programs.

Erdman, S., Colker, L.J., & Winter, E.C. (2020). Trauma and young children: Teaching strategies to support and empower. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Ginsburg, K.R. & Kinsman, S.B. (2015, November 11). What parents can do to support friendships. American Academy of Pediatrics.

Huebner, D. (2006). What to do when you worry to much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety. Magination Press

Hurley, K. (2018, October 11). Helping kids with anxiety: Strategies to help anxious children. Psycom.

Mulrooney, K. & Williams, D. (2012). Understanding the experiences of young children in military families in the context of deployment, reintegration, injury, or loss.