This guide focuses on supporting relationships between students to develop their sense of belonging and wellbeing and to improve their learning outcomes.
It outlines whole-class and small group strategies that support every student to build relationships and work successfully with others. These strategies are most effective in the context of a whole-school approach to positive social interaction.
Supporting and strengthening peer relationships
Relationships foster a sense belonging, which is an important basis for learning. Create an inclusive environment where students can work together and support and encourage each other to learn.
For many students, school can be a lonely place, and low classroom acceptance by peers can be linked with subsequent disengagement and lowered achievement.Source: Hattie (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximising impact on learning (p. 78). Routledge.
Supporting communication and relationships (video)
Students’ social development
A student’s social development influences how they interact with others. The student’s stage of development, the social context and differences (such as ASD or dyslexia) will shape a student's behaviour.
When a student seems uncomfortable in social situations, consider:
- Are the social expectations mis-matched to the student's stage of development?
- Have the social expectations been explained in ways the student can understand?
- Do they have the skills, including vocabulary, to participate equitably?
- Have they had opportunities to learn and practise the range of social skills needed in a particular context?
These resources will inform you about how to support individual students to build relationships with their peers:
Problem-solving at Mission Hill School (video)
Targeted social skills teaching
Some students may need targeted teaching of social skills. For example, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder often need specific teaching to learn how to initiate interactions and share and take turns.
Define one or more social behaviours the student needs to learn, in measurable terms.
Use a range of teaching techniques (for example, structured discussions, social stories).
Facilitate the generalisation of social skills to peers through role-playing and video modeling.
Transition from a structured teaching situation to everyday situations – the student may need supports to achieve this.
Check for social validity – can the student use the new skills in different situations?
Positive social skills contribute to resilience and well-being. When students have strong social skills, they feel more confident negotiating and problem-solving in difficult situations. Provide specific teaching to:
- teach assertiveness – practise saying “no” to things they know are wrong
- instill resiliency – practise strategies for facing difficult situations
- model empathy – discuss how they feel in different situations and help them to identify how others may feel
- practise problem-solving – students need to know how to identify their feelings and manage their impulses.
This website includes strategies, lesson plans, social narratives, and resources for teaching vocabulary to describe feelings and emotions.
This online website offers free social skills teaching resources for students aged 6–18. The skills covered include communication, relations, and emotions.
Information about the FRIENDS programmes for schools is available on this website. The programmes include Fun Friends for years 4–7, Friends for Life for years 8–11, and My FRIENDS for youth aged 12–16.
Supportive peer culture (NZ) (video)
Encourage students as they work at making friends with peers. Create opportunities to talk about how to build conversations, expand interactions, and be a good friend.
Be a positive role model and respect individual differences. Model respect, caring, patience, and positive interactions.
Promote connections around common interests.
Provide opportunities for ongoing student connections.
Help students to join ongoing group activities and support roles where they can participate and contribute fully.
Help keep student interactions going – explain the actions of students whose social skills are just developing.
Share information about emergent friendships with parents so that they can arrange for students to get together outside class.
Peer tutors and helpers (image)
Talking about friendships (video)
Using technology to build friendships (NZ) (video)
This site provides a list of ways that professionals and parents can help support friendships.
Classroom activities to support students to learn how to make and be a good friend.
This guide includes a list of ways educators can encourage interactions and support friendships between students.
Circle of friends (video)
Sometimes structured or facilitated supports are needed to enhance or help maintain friendships.
The Circle of Friends approach recognises that a child who displays distressed and difficult behaviours is likely to suffer from isolation from their peer group, both in and out of school. It is often used to assist students with ASD to develop social and communication skills.
Identify a facilitator and a group of students willing to provide support. Establish a timeframe, a location, and develop activities based on mutual interests.
Being a buddy is not the same as being a friend. Buddy systems can be used to promote interactions that allow students with special needs to learn social skills.
Buddies are given training on how to help students develop specific skills, such as recreation, social, and communication skills.
Buddy systems result in personal growth for non-disabled peers. To promote high quality interactions, students should also have opportunities to interact in activities that are not always instructional.
This explains how to set up a circle of friends.
Ben, his circle of friends and his teachers model and explain how the group works for him in this 13-minute video clip.
Teacher strategies for supporting students with disabilities to make friends are outlined in this Ministry of Education publication, from the Springboards 2 Practice series.
Recreational activities (image)
Supporting unstructured time
Unstructured times, such as lunchtimes, can create stress for some students
having a small choice of organised activities for students to participate in at break times
providing buddies to model and mediate (if necessary) interactions during break times
ensuring that students know where to go to find the duty teacher or peer mediators when they are concerned or need some help
how to make all staff aware of the support individual students may need and how to provide it most effectively
outlining the school boundaries and the school rules regularly
providing alternative break times for junior and senior syndicates in larger schools.
Quiet spaces for play (image)
Buddy systems (image)
Consider the environment
Work with students to identify adaptations that can be made to enable all students to participate in physical education, games, and outdoor activities. Think about:
- Sensory integration – including students with sensitivity to bright light and loud noises by:
- lowering the volume when using music
- using soundproof headphones in the gym or hall
- using sunglasses for outdoor activities in bright sunlight
- turning off some lights and relying more on natural lighting or using LED light bulbs.
- Accessibility – hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt may be dangerous for individuals with dyspraxia, and softer surfaces such as sand or wood chips make it difficult to manoeuver a wheelchair. Consider:
This is a series of suggestions to support students with special needs to participate during playtime and lunchtimes.
Structuring your classroom to facilitate collaborative learning
Use a structured, collaborative approach to provide students with specific roles and supports to build successful relationships. Create spaces that support and encourage students to work together.
Design learning opportunities where students with differing skills and achievements learn together and take responsibility for both individual and group achievement.
Classroom spaces (image)
Create a warm classroom climate to facilitate positive learning and social behaviours
Set clear boundaries and high standards and expectations.
Be aware of, acknowledge, and label your own feelings.
Acknowledge and affirm students’ feelings.
Talk through emotional situations.
View emotional events as “teachable moments.”
Avoid punitive tactics, put-downs, sarcasm and criticism – specify the positive alternatives.
Be self-accepting, confident, and secure.
Remain calm – your emotional state is mirrored by students.
Develop student supports.
Accept and empathise with students’ feelings
Listen with interest.
Design your classroom layout to support students with varying learning needs and preferences in their collaboration. Choose a flexible layout that adapts to the learner, rather than limiting the learner. Include:
- seating patterns, configurations, and spaces to facilitate social exchanges among students alongside quiet reflection time
- a variety of technologies to support participation, communication, and collaboration
- visual supports such as timers, visual displays, and graphic organisers to support self management
- different types of furniture to support students’ varying physical needs and preferences (for example, wobbly stools for students who move to concentrate).
Open flexible spaces (NZ) (video)
Supporting student preferences (image)
Videos of interviews and discussions about modern learning environments in New Zealand.
This guide provides New Zealand illustrations of the distinguishing features of classrooms that value diversity and are truly inclusive.
Writing collaboratively (NZ) (video)
Tuakana-teina in a primary school (NZ) (video)
Leadership roles at Onslow College (NZ) (video)
What is tuakana-teina?
The concept of a tuakana–teina relationship
The tuakana–teina relationship, an integral part of traditional Māori society, provides a model for buddy systems. An older or more expert tuakana (brother, sister or cousin) helps and guides a younger or less expert teina (originally a younger sibling or cousin of the same gender).
In a learning environment that recognises the value of ako, the tuakana–teina roles may be reversed at any time. For example, the student who yesterday was the expert on te wā and explained the lunar calendar may need to learn from her classmate today about how manaakitanga (hospitality) is practised by the local hapū.
Teamwork through PE
Social skills and collaborative teamwork are benefits of a balanced physical education programme
- Select games that only succeed when a whole team works together, for example, Ants on a log.
- Organise peer-to-peer support groups or buddies to ensure students needing extra support understand the game rules and their role in the team.
- Explain behavioral expectations from the beginning with visual supports such as pictures, diagrams, and a clear timetable of events.
Information to support setting up a successful cooperative learning programme in your classroom. Created for the NZ Ministry of Education.
This is a list of ways to include best practices for collaborative learning in the classroom.
This resource outlines six different approaches to organising discussions that support all students to participate.
Educational psychologist and teacher Julia Westera explains what reciprocal teaching is, and why she believes it has such potential in this Education Gazette article.
Jigsaw learning (NZ) (video)
Reciprocal teaching of reading
Reciprocal teaching of reading is effective in improving the achievement of learners from diverse backgrounds.
While the focus of reciprocal teaching is on developing the comprehension and critical thinking of independent readers, the structured small-group approach (where students have specific roles) provides a tool for supporting students to interact and collaborate successfully.
It involves four explicit strategies for reading comprehension:
- formulating questions to stimulate thoughtful discussion
- clarifying ideas and information in the text
- predicting what might follow, using prior knowledge and information in the text
- summarising information in the text.
Peer tutoring is a form of cooperative learning where two students work together – a more skilled "tutor" with a less skilled "tutee".
Benefits for tutees
- more individual teaching
- gains in learning
- gains in social/relationship skills
- improved attitudes towards learning
- improved self-esteem
Benefits for tutors
- practice/reinforcement of skills at earlier levels
- learning gains
- insight into the learning process
- development of social/relationship skills
- development of responsibility
- development of self-esteem
Benefits for teachers
- more effective use of time
- greater coverage of individual needs
- opportunities to observe students at work, and to assess skills
Cooperative learning groups
Successful cooperative learning groups:
- can be teacher-selected to ensure balance, inclusion, and productivity
- can be formed around target students with supportive peers
- are no larger than four students
- give students specific roles
- can be changed periodically. It can take students some time to build relationships. Think about changing groups to extend the relationships your target students have.
Cooperative learning formats provides information on how to set-up and implement cooperative learning groups.
This resource provides step-by-step instructions for using Jigsaw reading combined with reciprocal teaching.
This resource provides step-by-step instructions for introducing reciprocal teaching with your students.