Friendships and Belonging

This week, BGS Deputy Head, Ms Teale, guest writes on the Headmistress blog about friendships and how at BGS we work hard to make our curriculum inclusive, engaging and relevant to the young people.

I was asked recently what I thought young people needed in order to thrive at school. I could come up with a list of things: great teachers, supportive parents, a network of friends, modern facilities, extra-curricular clubs, a range of sports, music and drama opportunities, and all of the other things that we can offer our students as part of a holistic education. My feeling, having worked specifically in the sphere of pastoral care for girls during my eight years at BGS, is that what young people really need to feel if they are to thrive is that they belong. In the curriculum, they should be able to see people like them, feeling like they do, doing ordinary and extraordinary things. At BGS, we are working hard to make our curriculum inclusive, engaging and relevant to the young people in our care so that it acts not only as a mirror where they see themselves, but also acts as a window where students can see into the lives of others..

But fundamentally, my belief is that it is the relationships that students form in school that enable them to feel that they belong. Some students find their tribe seemingly easily, for some the journey is much more bumpy until they find someone or a group with which they “click”.

What is clear is as girls move through adolescence they may well experience problems with friendships at some point; it is a very normal part of growing up. The extent of problems will vary, some will struggle to make friends or keep friends, they might feel left out, or they might struggle to move away from a friendship as their interests and levels of maturity change. This last one is particularly difficult, as an adult we have a number of strategies to manage our  friendships. This isn’t easy for a student at school where friendships exist in elaborate networks. Typically in a school community they will continue to be around each other most of the time so how does a girl navigate distancing from a friend without ever being mean or losing a wider group?There are strategies we can use to help coach our daughters, and our students through these situations.  

Bedford Girls’ School is the first girls’ school I have worked in and what struck me very soon after joining, was the strength and closeness of the friendships I observed between students. This is a wonderful benefit of being in an all girls environment, the level of support they provide to each other; the empathy, care and attention they give to each other builds confidence and a sense of security. They grow up in a safe inclusive environment, with a team of experienced adults around them who are experts in working with girls. Regardless of single-sex or co-ed settings, the relationships between girls are different to those formed between boys which are possibly not so grounded in closeness and confidentiality. In Andrew Hampton’s book When Girls Fall Out (a highly regarded expert who we are excited to be hosting next year at BGS), the author asks us to understand that every girl must have at least one friend. Girls’ identities develop through their friendships so when these friendships are threatened, girls can experience panic and insecurity.

Young people can fall out over things that seem trivial to the adults in their lives, however, us adults view issues with years of experience and we’ve built up resilience and self-knowledge. We should avoid trivialising or immediately trying to fix the issues our daughters bring us. As a girl grows up, the ability of an adult to intervene successfully when friendship issues arise diminishes. Adult involvement can be interfering rather than supportive and can actually escalate an issue. We need to validate their feelings “that must have been hard for you” and just listen carefully for the emotion and ask how it made them feel. Ask them whether some gentle feedback would be helpful for the person they are having a problem with and help them to see other perspectives on an issue. It is hard for a parent to see their daughter go through hard times, experiencing things that parents can’t easily fix. Empathise deeply, be curious, ask your daughter how these things play out at lunch, ask her whether there are times when it’s OK. We can support through listening, asking questions and helping them to arrive at their own solutions. The more we understand, the better the guide we can be. 

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