How to use sociograms to support children struggling to make friends

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 The introvert, extrovert and the ambivert child

Are you an extrovert or an introvert?

Is it your idea of heaven to curl up on your own with a good book? Or is it to dance the night away in a nightclub with hundreds of other people? At what point in our lives do these social preferences begin to emerge?

At around the age of three/four children become more social in their play. Their social attitudes and approaches influence the way they relate to others. Successful group dynamics makes us happy, unsuccessful ones make us miserable, regardless of our age. Clearly, we need to place the support of social relationships at the heart of early years education.

A child’s social attitude highlights their social needs. The introverted child needs more time to process what they are thinking before they communicate, and will probably prefer to play one-to-one or in small groups. Extroverted children come across as more confident and assertive. They tend to interact more easily. Lastly, ambiverted children are a mixture of the two; they enjoy the company of others as well as being alone. Ambiverts roughly make up between half and two-thirds of the population, with introverts and extroverts among the rest.

Our world tends to reward extrovertism whereas introvertism is seen as weakness or a problem. Regardless of temperament and personality, every child needs to feel supported, valued and respected.  Our job is to encourage children to interact in healthy and enjoyable ways that best suit them. How do we do this?

Sociograms

Sociograms are visual representations of the interpersonal relationships in a group or class. Once a child’s play is interactive (usually around the age of four) sociograms become a useful tool for identifying children who may be socially isolated and in need of some help initiating interaction, or for flagging up unbalanced friendships.

Take a look at the sociogram below. The arrows represent who initiates interaction with whom/who likes playing with whom. Notice that Lisa initiates interaction/likes playing with others, but gets no response. She is not valued as a play partner. This needs to be addressed.

A sociogram (see above) can be created by:

  • Observing who initiates interactions with whom (verbal, non-verbal). Several sociograms throughout one session will build up a picture of social behaviour for a focused child or group.
  • Asking children (when no other children are with them) who they enjoy playing with. This method can be less reliable for the younger child as they may well give the name of the child they have just been playing with. Once you have recorded all the names the children give, you can create the sociogram. This is a ‘one-off’ sociogram.

Create the sociogram according to whichever method you think will be most effective in your setting.

What next?

Often sociograms simply confirm what we already know. At other times, less noticeable patterns of social behaviour/friendship preferences become apparent.

Talk about the results with your colleagues. What are the social patterns of the focused child? Does the child talk more with adults than children? Do they stay with one child/group all session or flit from one to the next? Are there any emerging friendships or rifts?

Effective strategies can be created to support children who struggle with interaction/building friendships.  Modelling and encouraging healthy interactions is key: “Sam and Lisa, I love how you are playing together with the play dough. You are having such a fun game!”

Highly appealing activities will draw the shyest of children into a group situation, providing the ‘appeal’ is tempting enough.

Crucially, when a setting’s emotional environment is healthy, children can relax into social groups that suit them. Not every child will have dozens of friends. Some will have just one or two. It is the quality of these friendships that builds happy children through positive interactions.

It is good practice to create regular termly sociograms to build up a robust record of a child’s social behaviour. By carefully noting friendships and interactions, and following this through with effective strategies, adults set up a supportive learning environment, thus encouraging social competence and cohesion amongst our youngest children.

About the author

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners’. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world. 

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