As a parent, you want your kids to get good grades. But you also want them to be happy, to have friends, and to enjoy going to school each day.

Making friends is an important part of your child’s school experience and may even have an impact on her grades. If your child has found her niche in her classroom’s social scene, she’s more likely to do well academically, says Sheneka Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Education. “Children with that sense of belongingness are not feeling threatened,” Williams says. “They are more likely to be able to focus and feel comfortable at school.”

For some children, making friends comes naturally from a young age. Others struggle to fit in. Even kids who usually make friends easily can hit a rough patch when they change schools, are assigned to a different class than their best friend, or get into an argument.

“Just about every child struggles socially at some time and in some way,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, coauthor of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies To Help Your Child Make Friends. She suggests these steps for helping a child through a difficult social time:

1. Empathize, but don’t overreact.

Your son may say he “hates Chris’ guts” one day but be back sitting next to him in the cafeteria the next. Don’t rush to try to solve your child’s problem. Just listen and give an extra hug.

2. Get the facts.

“Kids, by definition, lack perspective,” Kennedy-Moore says. “They may be teased by one person and feel everyone is picking on them.” Remind your child that disagreements are a normal part of friendships.

3. Respect your child’s personality.

“If your child doesn’t want to be the life of the party, that’s OK,” Kennedy-Moore says, adding that this revelation can be hard for a parent who is more of a social butterfly.

4. Offer guidance.

Some kids pick up on social cues easily, while others need more help. For example, your child might not be able to perceive the difference between an accidental slight and an intentional one.

5. Seek help.

“If the situation is going on and on and is causing distress, get professional help,” Kennedy-Moore says. A school counselor or pediatrician is a good place to start. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a child is having serious problems fitting in at school as opposed to just the usual ups and downs. Kennedy-Moore offers this hint: “Do they have someone to sit with at lunch? If they’re comfortable in the cafeteria, parents can probably worry less.”

What Parents Can Do

If your child is having a hard time making friends, it’s difficult to know when to intervene and how much involvement is appropriate. Natalie Madorsky Elman, coauthor with Kennedy-Moore of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, encourages parents to step back as much as possible when a child is having a dispute with a pal.

“Whenever you can, allow your child to resolve their conflicts on their own,” she says. “That is the preferred way.” But if your child is being picked on, bullied, or excluded, you may need to get involved by teaching your child how to handle difficult situations.

For children who are being excluded or treated badly, parents can encourage them to find other friends. “It’s important for kids to understand they should not want to stay with friends who treat them unkindly,” Elman says. “When a child says, ‘You can’t sit with us,’ the child can respond, ‘I don’t want to sit with you.’ ”

Parents often want justice for their child, a resolution that involves punishment for the kids who said mean things. But a child can learn more from the experience if she responds on her own, Elman says. “This gives the child a chance to make a choice and stand up for herself.”

When a child needs to find new friends, parents can help by initiating play dates. “Friendships are made one at a time,” Elman says. She adds that some children will need structured play dates all through elementary school, while others can direct their social lives from an earlier age.

Elman favors play dates that are short, planned, and activity-based. Going roller-skating, swimming, or to the playground gives kids something to focus on besides the interaction, which can be hard for shy children.

Boys generally favor more physical activities. Or they might like to play a game on the computer or build something. Try to pick activities ahead of time that your child and the new friend will enjoy.

If your child is nervous, role-playing in advance can help calm her nerves. Many kids are so busy with activities that they have limited time for unstructured play and need to be taught social skills more explicitly, Elman says.

As parents get more involved in helping their child socially, frustrations can surface. Often parents will invite a child over for a play date, but the other parents won’t reciprocate. “Don’t worry,” Elman says. “Your child needs practice and social skills.”

A child getting passed over for a birthday party invitation can particularly sting. “Help your child understand the myriad of reasons she might not get invited,” she says. Some parties may only accommodate a few guests, for example.

A final tip from Elman: Involve the school. Teachers know the social dynamics of the classroom and have experience handling conflicts. When there’s an altercation at school parents are often tempted to call the other child’s parents. “The best thing to do is work with the teacher and principal,” she says. “It’s so much better if the guidance counselor can deal with it.”

When Kids Need More Help

Some children aren’t just shy. They aren’t just having minor problems making friends. They can’t fit in socially, possibly because of sensitivity to noise, problems with sensory integration, or difficulty relating to the world.

“These are often the kids who just can’t crack the code,” says Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician who coauthored Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In—When To Worry and When Not To Worry.

Klass chose the word “quirky” to describe such children because it is an affectionate word, she explains, “but we did not shy away from the fact that many of these kids do have a hard time.”

Parents can help their child by focusing on what he’s good at, Klass says. Whether it’s music or dance or soccer, it may be an opportunity for a child to make a friend. Another strategy is to allow your child time and opportunity to practice interacting through a social skills group. These groups, which are often run by child  psychologists, help kids learn such things as how to pick up on changes in a person’s voice and expression.

Whether your child has trouble making friends or is upset about a fight with a long-term pal, it’s best to let him take the lead. Parents can help their children develop the social skills they need to build friendships, but kids have to take the next steps themselves. And even with intervention, some kids will resist friendships. “Give it time,” Klass advises. “It’s a hard thing to force.”


Social Growth, Grade by Grade

Children develop at their own pace, but educators cite these common characteristics in kids’ social development at each grade level.

Kindergarten: Loves school; considers everyone a friend

1st Grade: May be choosier about friends; mimics other children; develops a sense of humor

2nd Grade: Shuns opposite-sex friends; likes to express opinions; friends influence choices

3rd Grade: Has a single best friend; shares less about social life; interested in pop culture

4th Grade: Thinks about which peer group to belong to; mood influenced by social life

5th Grade: Craves privacy; gets a crush; may seek out a new circle of friends

6th Grade: Embarrassed by parents; changes personality based on peers he’s with

7th Grade: May start dating or may cling to childhood

8th Grade: More mature; finds a social circle; craves freedom

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.