For years, education research focused on time-on-task as a measure of effective instruction, says Scott Gest, a professor at the University of Virginia. Through that lens, friends in elementary school appeared to be a negative, an impediment to focus and a catalyst for disruption. Even when the value of strong social ties gained recognition, friendships stood to the side conceptually, as developmentally important but not germane to academics. Yet recent research has confirmed two things many teachers have long believed to be true. First, social-emotional benefits and academic ones don’t operate in isolation. Second, friendships in elementary school can be harnessed to drive academic growth.
Students with no friends “receive lower grades and are less academically engaged compared to those with even just one friend,” reported Jaana Juvonen, a psychology professor at UCLA, and her colleagues in a 2019 issue of the journal Educational Psychologist. This is a point that bears repeating, says Florida Atlantic University’s Brett Laursen, editor in chief of the International Journal of Behavioral Development: “There is a massive gap between being friended and friendless,” he says, and “studies that are as close to causation as you can get” show that becoming friendless produces a meaningful decline in mental health. Research has also tied friendlessness and exclusion to truancy, susceptibility to peer pressure, inability to focus, deficits in working memory, and lack of classroom participation.
On the flip side, friends can make mundane tasks more fun, reports Lydia Denworth in Friendship. Her 2020 book catalogues research on the many benefits of “life’s fundamental bond.” For example, when they smell familiar fish, zebrafish show reduced levels of fear, a fact that seems cool but irrelevant until you learn that a 2011 study of humans showed that “having a best friend present during an experience significantly buffered any negative feelings, lowering cortisol and boosting a sense of self-worth.” Another found that talking to supportive friends after a stressful incident increases the speed with which cortisol levels revert to normal. This buffering effect appears to insulate kids from both social and academic missteps by shifting their inner narrative in the face of failure from “there’s something wrong with me” to a more resilient response.