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The Object Permanence of Friendship

We asked Year One teacher and SENCo Beth Dawes for her views about relationships, friendship and helping some of our most vulnerable young learners. 

Never has friendship been more important but less visible. As the current pandemic has taken hold, our lives have changed drastically. There have been visible, physical lifestyle changes but also unseen changes to our emotional wellbeing and state of mental health.

My experience of working with vulnerable young children on an inter-war council estate in the former mining community of Maltby during recent weeks has raised deeply concerning issues. There is especially one question that keeps recurring when I make telephone contact with the numerous families I am supporting:

‘My child keeps saying she has no friends anymore and suddenly becomes very distressed.  I’ve tried to tell her she has still got friends but that she is just not seeing them at school anymore, but she doesn’t understand.’

It’s an issue I see in boys and girls and highlights what we might call the 'object permanence of friendship' and there is no doubt that the issue of friendship for young people has been heightened by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Object-permanence has been a well-researched aspect of child development and attachment theories for years. It is about knowing that something continues to exist even when it is not physically present or visible. We know that children can become distressed when the main caregiver leaves, perhaps to go to work, as they do not have the conceptual understanding that that person continues to exist (and will return) despite their physical presence being elsewhere. This can become quite a frightening experience.

So, what about vulnerable children who are feeling these negative emotions as a result of their lack of object-permanence understanding around friendship during the current crisis? My regular phone calls to parents coupled with my research is giving me a new clarity on how this must feel for a young child.

Friendship is indeed an unseen support system that can allow a child to thrive.

Technology has been a great way to relieve some of this confusion and reassure children that their friends are still present, although in a different way through Zoom or Facetime. But on the streets around the school where I work, many of the children don’t have access to this luxury.

We model object-permanence to children at many points during any single day, without even realising it. Posting a letter. Taking the car to the garage. Lending a book to someone. So, let’s build a conversation around the things that are still there when they’re not there from daily activities. An interim strategy during lockdown might be to send a letter to a friend that we are missing and build this understanding from here. The letter still exists even though we cannot see it and so does your friend because they are going to send us a reply when they get it! We need strategies that provide a physical, reassuring presence to the child at a time where the physical presence of their friendships cannot be seen.

Transitional objects, such as friendship bracelets are another great example of this, and they offer a chance for the child to personalise them and make them reflect the friendship by using beads that represent their shared interests. This can then be worn by both children as a symbol of the friendship that continues to exist without being visible.

In the community that I am working in, I decided to set a challenge to the children to create kindness stones. The idea being that the children find a stone and create a message of kindness on it. They then place their stone around the community and hopefully when there are enough, they can spot the kind messages from their friends, or even leave a reply on a stone. I feel that this offers some comfort and sense of community in a time when this may not be physically visible, serving to reassure children that people and relationships are still present. Furthermore, this will allow us to re-establish connections on returning to school. The children will have created something that they can share with each other and will re-ignite their friendship based on a commonality and sense of ongoing kindness in the future.

At this time, the more we can do to create something of wonder that we can share and will draw people back together, the better.

Whichever approach is used I feel that it needs to be a personal response to the individual child. We must start with kindness and understanding. When we understand, we can build our strategies around this. Every friendship is unique and our approach to understanding it needs to reflect that. It needs to be a personal, interest-based approach that draws the qualities of the relationship back together again. Ask the questions – what makes those children friends? What drew them together? How can I use this to recreate a physical presence when the person is not visible? [ITL]

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