Keeping friends during transition helps behaviour and classroom success

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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I'm not sure we should take a sample of 600 as being statistically speaking, externally valid. ...

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Students who are able to keep a best friend during their transition from primary to secondary school are likely do better in the classroom and display better behaviour.

The findings come from a study which followed almost 600 children during and after their transition to 10 secondary schools in England.

It found “substantial instability” in children’s friendships as they moved from primary to secondary school, with only 27 per cent keeping the same best friend until the end of the first year of secondary school.

However, those children who did maintain the same friends tended to do better academically and showed lower levels of behavioural problems – even after taking into account the children’s earlier levels of academic attainment and any behaviour problems at primary school.

The research has been led by Dr Terry Ng-Knight from the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey and was published last week in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Elsewhere, the study found that keeping the same best friend was not associated with benefits to emotional mental health. However, maintaining other lower-quality friendships was linked to worsening emotional health during the transition.

The findings also show that children with pre-existing emotional and behavioural problems and lower academic attainment were at higher risk of losing their best friends during the transition. The study concludes: “There may, therefore, be value in supporting friendships among these children.”

Dr Ng-Knight said: “We found that children who kept the same best friend over the transition tend to do better. Children’s best friends change for all sorts of reasons, but the transition is likely a big factor disrupting friendships.

“If we can find ways to support friendships during this time this may help us to improve attainment and behaviour.

“Secondary schools vary in the extent to which they actively support pupil friendships during transition. Some schools encourage children and parents to nominate friends they would like to remain with and some schools do not allow any input from children and parents.

“Allowing children to choose which friends they would like to be with appears to help children maintain their friendships, but little is known about the knock-on effects of such policies so it deserves more research attention.”

The article will be free to view online until the end of October. Visit

I'm not sure we should take a sample of 600 as being statistically speaking, externally valid. Common sense and our own experience would tell us this. It is as generally true for adults as it is for children. We are more productive and perform better when we have solid friendships and relationships with other.
However, headlining research of this nature, with a small population is likely to put significant pressure on schools by parent who read the article to have their child in the same school, the same form group and the same teaching group as their child's best friend (or best friend at that particular time). Many children can not attend the same school as their primary school best friend and the differences in delivery of the curriculum at secondary, as a result of setting or banding also makes it educationally questionable to organise by friendship. If this were to be the case then some children, who could not have this option might feel even more isolated as a result of being discriminated by 'the school'.
Maintaining friendships, if indeed it is a friendship, requires maintenance, not proximity. There is also an argument that reliance on a best friend can lead to dependence, especially in a friendship which relies on a submissive/dominance relationship. And what does the research show with regard to children who do not agree with who the other would define as their best friend and are then 'forced' to maintain a friendship one may want to grow out from?
If we are to make children more resilient, we as a society (not just schools), need to ensure children have confidence in themselves that is not solely reliant on a 'besty' but a good social network, where individuals can be enriched by the different experiences share with them by others in their friendship group.
As interesting as this research is transition, maturation and the dynamics of friendships is complex and implying that a child will be disadvantaged or emotionally harmed by not being with their best friend is not helpful.

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