Within the Canadian context, concepts of peer relationships and friendship are currently understudied. There is a dearth of literature about early childhood peer culture—especially what occurs with very young children. Much of what is available is focused on peer relationships in a school setting and has a decided psychological approach, especially in relation to conflict and bullying. However, there are a couple of recent trends in the literature: first, toward schoolwide initiatives to address bullying that assume a more holistic approach, and, second, implementation of Aboriginal/Indigenous ways of knowing and the particular needs of this culture in considerations of early childhood.
Canada does not have a national strategy for early childhood education and therefore it is managed differently according to province and territory. For example, within Ontario every child aged 3.8 can attend free, full-day Kindergarten (Ontario Ministry of Education 2016), thereby essentially moving preschool children into the school setting in this province. As a result, behaviors that may normally be associated with a school setting are now being noticed in younger children. Or are preschool teachers seeing different behaviors because younger children are spending longer in school? According to Coplan and colleagues (2015), most often children’s first formal peer group starts with their early childhood classrooms where social skills are emphasized and valued by preschool teachers. Furthermore, “preschool teachers are thought to play a particularly critical role in the facilitation of children’s social development” (Kemple 2004 as cited in Coplan et al 2015: 1). Therefore, both adults and children can contribute to establishing friendships in preschool years.
This need for the teaching of social skills in Canadian preschools is corroborated by Mize (2005), who asserts that the predictive power of early peer relationships is based on the transactional social system that can be found in preschooler interactions. For example, children play with those with whom they share interests and behavioral characteristics. Cooperative play among peers can be reinforced, and those children “who play co-operatively with peers become better liked over time” (Mize 2005: 1). Mize (2005) further suggests offering social-skills programs in preschool settings as an intervention for children who struggle to make positive peer relationships so that they are not further marginalized as they enter the school system. Thus, teacher guidance and peer support are needed in order to build positive peer relationships.
A component of preschool peer interaction is teasing. Harwood (2008) contends that teasing differs from bullying and “involves skills of social understanding, understanding of intention, pretense, non-literal communication, and emotion regulation,” and “children’s capabilities with these skills may affect the nature, form, and intent of teases as well as the responses generated to teasing scenarios” (Harwood 2008: 16). Harwood (2008) has further recommended that opportunities and resources need to be provided for children to have conversation and further discussion about different teasing situations through a variety of activities, such as role-play, guided reading, and puppet shows, so that children can better deal with different peer interactions like teasing situations. Indeed, positive preschool culture in early childhood settings plays a significant role in fostering positive friendship among young children.
Education is a provincial responsibility in Canada. However, most Canadian children spend about 7 hours a day for 180 days of the year in school (OECD 2013). It is no surprise, therefore, that bullying is a problem that touches most children and youth at some point in their school years (Pepler and Craig 2007). According to Statistics Canada (2012), 47 percent of parents report having a child who is a victim of bullying, and it is helpful to use relationship-based solutions as opposed to working only with “the bully, the bullied, and the by-stander” (Craig, Peppler, and Atlas 2000). In Ontario, for example, where children as young as 3.8 years of age are now in the school system full time, there has been a concerted effort to focus on self-regulation in full day kindegarten (FDK) settings (Becker and Mastrangelo 2017). Becker and Mastrangelo (2017: 20) also indicate that Stuart Shanker’s (2012) text Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation is widely used “to help children articulate their emotions and help them develop both calming and alerting strategies to use as needed” and to help kindergarten teams “realize the difference between a stress behaviour and a misbehaviour,” so as to further support children to manage their emotions in groups.
While bullying is being addressed within the school context, childhood poverty is a nationwide concern that Canadians are struggling to overcome. Census information for 2015 reveals that 1.2 million children in Canada lived in low-income households (Statistics Canada 2017). Even more concerning is the fact that the younger the child, the more likely they are to be living in poverty because of the decrease in earnings by single mothers after childbirth, and for several years following (Statistics Canada 2017). The effects of poverty are wide ranging and even impact the creation of peer groups. Robinson, McIntyre, and Officer (2005) argue that, “Poor children at a young age recognize that they are different,” which is termed as “feeling part of the poor group” (345). Further, Robinson, McIntyre, and Officer (2005) determine that “members of devalued groups sometimes protect self-esteem by disidentifying with the group,” which might cause these children to have “less sense of belonging to any group” and, consequently, lose “peer support” (346).
One of the largest cultural groups of children in poverty are those identifying as Indigenous (Friendly et al. 2018). Factors that contribute to low Aboriginal [Indigenous] student outcomes include “a lack of awareness among teachers of the learning styles of Aboriginal [Indigenous] students and a lack of understanding within schools and school boards of Aboriginal [Indigenous] cultures, histories and perspectives” (Aboriginal Education Office 2006: 1). Nguyen (2011) points out that creation of “state-funded early childhood education that focuses on the cultural needs of Aboriginal [Indigenous] children and their families would alleviate their disadvantaged position in society while simultaneously restoring Aboriginal [Indigenous] identity and self-worth” (231).
Still another consideration with regard to peer groups, even in young children, is an understanding of diversity. The impact of a child’s family cultural background on both children and the educators who care for them must be acknowledged (Servos et al. 2016). In most Canadian early childhood education settings, culture impacts how children play and interact with other children, teachers, families, and even how they are treated (Servos et al. 2016). Early childhood is also a time where socialization informs gender and families need to highlight how their home gendered cultural teachings and those of the early childhood education center differ. Further, it may help the friendship and peer cultures in early childhood to “embrace children of all genders, and enhance their ability to recognize difference, to be more tolerant, and teach tolerance to other children and adults in school community” to further “aid in the promotion of safe inclusion practices for all genders in both the school environment and the community” (Servos et al. 2016: 331). Therefore, peer group formation and peer culture construction can be considered as a part of early childhood socialization in which educator and family background all play a part. As a result, continuous effort is needed to consider and apply responsive practices in early childhood settings to support children’s learning and well-being especially when working with children from different social, cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds.
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“Aboriginal peoples: Indians (more commonly referred to as First Nations), Inuit and Métis are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs” (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada 2017).
“A learned behaviour intended to cause … fear, intimidation, humiliation or other harm to an individual or a group of individuals. There is a power imbalance, real or perceived, between the persons involved that affects the relationships within the positive learning environment of the school” (PrevNet n.d.).
Those who “had the same mother tongue, were the same age, gender and education level” (Sinha 2013: 12).
“A group of people who are not necessarily friends but who are similar in age and social status and who share interests” (Little 2012: 241).