For posts on bullying, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.
All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Building empathy

One of the things I discuss with my trainee teachers is the importance of promoting empathy rather than sympathy when including a child with a disAbility. An issue that brings about the most debate in this context is, when a student with a disAbility first joins our class, whether we should talk to the class about that child's disability.

What children want

Chadsey and Gun (2005) interviewed a group of middle school children, asking them to explain the things that help them develop friendships with their peers who have a disability. Here are some of the key things they said:

  1. Segregation is unfair
  2. Teachers should come into classes to give us more information about students with disabilities
  3. Don’t let students make fun of students with disabilities
  4. Create programs where both students with and without disabilities can hang out with each other
  5. Use volunteer peer partners (eg in buddy systems)
  6. Group students with disabilities into our social networks
  7. Have students with disabilities tell us about their disabilities
  8. Clubs or after school activities should include kids with disabilities and should be of interest to everyone
  9. Let students with disabilities take the same bus as us


"the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another
person's feelings" (Collins Concise Dictionary)

Understanding and relating to each other's experiences is an important part of developing relationships and respect. However, the way we help our students understand others' experiences will influence how they perceive that person.


synonyms: compassion, pity

A relationship built on pity or compassion is an "unbalanced" relationship, a relationship where there is not an equal balance of power or status.

For example, I want to share with you the story of a little girl with Down Syndrome - lets call her Sally. Before Sally came into the class the teacher talked about Sally's difficulties. She suggested that Sally would need help doing certain things.

The intention of the teacher was great - to promote understanding and a smooth transition. And when Sally came into class, it seemed like this is what had happened. However, on closer inspection the children were treating Sally differently. They were using baby-language to her, they were shepherding her around the school without really listening to her, they were mothering and smothering her.

What is the alternative?

Avoid talking about the child when they are not in the room. To those who ask, "Why?", think about how you might act if you have just had a "lesson" on fellow student and then the student walks into the room. First, you probably have developed an expectation of how that person will look and act based on your understanding of the teacher's words. Secondly, you will probably turn and stare - not being intentionally rude, but because you want to "see for yourself" this new person. For a child who needs a sense of belonging, to "blend" with the crowd, this can be very distressing. Even if the reactions are positive or compassionate, the child is starting off being seen as different.

If you want to share, share together. Rather than talking about one child, get everyone to talk about themselves. This way you are building a sense of similarities, and fellow-feeling, rather than setting one child up to be separate. Using "ice-breaker" or "get-to-know-you" activities at the beginning of the year (or any time during the year if there are indications that students may be at risk of bullying/being bullied) can be really effective.

Here are some ideas:

  • Sit/stand in a circle. Have a bean bag/ball to be passed around. Have a theme eg. I am good at... but am not so good at .... The person who is holding the ball/bean bag has to complete the sentence, then call someone's name and pass the ball/bean bag on to them.
  • Paint and/or collage a self-portrait using words, pictures, phrases, little biographical stories, photos and so on.
  • Have each child write and share their "bio" - a short story about themselves.

This means that when you are sharing you are focusing less on the label, more on the person. You are also conveying a sense of similarity and belonging to all children, not focusing on what is making one child different to everyone else. Everyone is different - that is the value of diversity.

Talk about diversity, difference and individuality. Click here for a good article by the Children's on how to talk to children about recognising and valuing diversity. We have become very good at incorporating books that reflect diverse cultures, non-traditional gender roles and different families into early childhood, primary and secondary education. We should be increasing the range of books we use that portray people with disabilities. We should be incorporating units of work on disAbilities into our curriculum - from looking at sporting heroes, to musicians, to works of fiction aimed at promoting understanding about Aspergers, Autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD, Hearing impairments and so on. Empathy exercises can also be used - eg. we don't have to wait until we have a child with a vision impairment in our classroom before we get children to experience what it might be like by getting them to complete an obstacle course fully or partially blind-folded.

Decide what peers may need to know, and address the issue. Some children with disAbilities will be overwhelmed by emotions at times to the point that they may have a melt-down. We need to ensure that we have processes in place to ensure the safety of the child and their peers. If you are including a child who is at risk of having a melt-down in the classroom, you don't have to talk about the child, but you should talk about the behaviour. Have a discussion that is focused on helping children relate to the experience and problem-solving. For example, address:

  • How would you feel if.... (lead children to talk about what makes them frustrated, angry, scared)
  • What would you do if you couldn't say what you feel?
  • What should we do if... (lead children to design a set of steps to follow if they are afraid someone is going to hurt themselves or others)

You could use a similar process if you need to build awareness of health issues such as epilepsy.

Let the child and parent control the information sharing process, or use rules. In some cases it will be important for the child to share specific things about themselves. For example, a classroom including a child with low vision will need to keep things in the same place and keep the floor clear of obstacles. In this case, you could have rules to this effect in your classroom. You could talk to the child prior to designing the rules to see if they want to share a little of why they need these measures in place. Some children may not want to share information with their whole class, but may want to have the opportunity to share it with a smaller supportive group of peers. For young children, it is the family (parents/caregivers) who should decide what, when and how information about the child is shared.

Be prepared. Especially with younger children, and if a child has a disability that makes them visibly different, you might get questions such as "What's wrong with Johnny?" Brushing off these questions, or treating them as inappropriate behaviour, can make children feel like there is something "bad", "wrong" or "secret" about the child with a disability. Instead, we should answer them as openly and honestly as possible. Teachers should discuss possible answers with the family and/or child before these questions come up. Families have often had much practice in answering these questions.

In the case of the question, "What's wrong with Johnny?" you might say, "There is nothing wrong with Johnny. It is just that his legs don't work the same way as yours so he has to use crutches to help him walk."

The aim should be:

Helping children relate to each others' experiences. We all have things in common, but we are also all unique.


Chadsey, J., Gun Han, K. (2005). Friendship-Facilitation Strategies: What Do Students In Middle School Tell Us? Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(2), p52.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Friendship or Interest Groups

Connecting children with other children who are interested in the same activities is a great way to increase the changes of lasting friendships developing. Using friendship or interests groups is one way to do this.

In the Classroom

- Seating arrangements: Seating children in groups rather than rows is a good start in helping to connect children. Grouping students using your understanding of their personalities and interests can further increase the chances of friendships developing. For example, you might get students to make suggestions about names for teams. Once they have names, get children to nominate which group they would like to be in. This could tap into interests such as sports, animals and colours.

- Social skills lessons: Using the PDHPE curriculum to teach children social skills in the context of games, sports and other "bonding" activities can promote friendships. For example, get children to nominate their favourite games and/or sports. Take turns using these as part of your lessons.

At school

Interests groups: Schools (especially high schools) often have drama, music, chess, computer and sporting clubs or activities that occur during break times. These structured and supervised groups are a good way to connect children with their peers if they struggle to do this due to the lack of structure in the playground. If you can find a club/interest group that matches the student's particular interest this will help them gain a sense of belonging. If there is no established group that taps into the child's interests, look into organising one.

Shaddock, Giorcelli and Smith (2007) tell of a mother who organised what she called a "Friendship Building Group" for her son with Down Syndrome. She was actively involved in promoting awareness about her child's strengths and difficulties, and meeting with her son's buddies to discuss any social issues. You might want to speak to your school about the possibility of setting up a "friendship group" where you send invitations home with students to participate in a once-per-week activity you organise on the playground based on your child's interest.

At home

Extending on what was done at school, the mother mentioned above organised activities such as a once a month BBQ for the children who connected with her son and their parents. She stated that "it was at these get-togethers that the parents would learn about James and feel more confident in inviting him over to play." (Shaddock, Giorcelli and Smith, 2007 p22).
"Playdates" are also a good way to connect children. If your young child does not have any specific friends at school, it is best to start with buddy systems and interest groups. But once these have connected your child to peers, you can increase the chances of these connections developing into friendships by establishing "playdates" that revolve around their common interest (like watching a footy match, or playing chess, or playing Nintendo etc).
Helping other parents understand your child's strengths and difficulties could also help extend the friendships, and increase the chance that your child may be able to visit their friends' homes. Sharing information can help deal with the fears or misunderstandings other parents might have about your child. The mother mentioned above wrote a note for other parents about her son's strengths and difficulties as well as having the monthly BBQs.
A great resource:
If you are looking for easy-to-access information about inclusion, whether you are a teacher or parent, the booklet "Students with Disabilities in Mainstream Classrooms: A resource for teachers" by Shaddock, Giorcelli and Smith (2007) is a great place to start. It has information relevant to both primary and high school teachers, both academic learning and social inclusion.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Using buddies effectively

"buddy: a pal, one's most constant companion"
(The Wordsworth Concise English Dictionary)

Buddies can be used to protect children from bullying. They can be used to help model positive social skills or support academic learning. They can also be used to promote connections and possible friendships between same-age peers of varying abilities.

Using buddies on the playground:

The first question we need to ask when using buddies on the playground is whether we are using them to protect a child or to promote friendships. It is important to understand the difference as the purpose of the buddy system will influence how you select and train buddies.

For protection:

If we are focusing on setting up buddy systems to protect children with disabilities from bullying, usually we ask older children, siblings, other relatives or family friends to "keep an eye on" the child. The buddy may meet the child at the school gate, check in with them on the playground, and walk them to the bus lines in the afternoon.

What this type of buddy system will not do is to promote a connection between the child with a disability and their peers. It will help them feel safe, but will not necessarily help them feel a sense of belonging or connectedness with their peer group.

For connecting with peers:

Buddy systems that promote connectedness and empathy between peers are systems that use same-age buddies. In this case buddies can be used both in an academic context and during play.

Buddies in the classroom may work together, help each other with academic tasks, share equipment and participate together in cooperative group work with other children. Buddies on the playground could participate in games, share equipment and even begin interacting in extra-curricular activities together (like sport and inviting each other to birthday parties).

Selecting buddies to promote connections

Jackson and Campbell (2009) looked at the selection of buddies for children with Autism. One of the things they noted was that children who were not familiar with each other were more likely to interact and actively be "buddies" in academic or classroom learning activities than in recreational or play activities.

This suggests that if we want children to interact on the playground, we first have to give them the opportunity to get to know each other in the classroom. Using peer tutoring, group work and work buddies in the classroom can increase the chances that a same-age buddy system on the playground will work.

Training buddies to promote connections

Copeland et al (2002) reported on a study of a high school peer buddy system where children in the general education classroom buddied children with disabilities. This was mainly in the context of academic tasks, but it had social benefits as well.

When using buddy systems we have to keep in mind the risks, some of which Copeland et al reported on:
  1. The risk of "smothering": buddies should be adequately trained so that they don't try and do everything for their buddy. It is important that they see each other as competent human beings, and the relationship is about interdependence (helping each other) rather than dependence (one caring for or looking after another).
  2. Unpreparedness: buddies should be trained in whatever task it is that they are to complete. This training should include both children, not just the child who may be seen as a buddy. This could include social skills training as well as training in a particular academic procedure or task.
Avoiding compassion fatigue

With same-age buddies it is important that you consider the issue of "compassion fatigue". If you set up the buddy system in a way that promotes dependence rather than interdependence, or if you don't change buddies regularly, then it is possible that you will have children who start resenting the fact that they "have to" work with one particular child.

It is important for many children with disabilities to have consistency. They may become very reliant or attached to one child. To help avoid this issue, try and set up "buddy groups". For example, in the classroom start by seating four children together. Promote interaction outside of the classroom by having daily or weekly challenges eg. find out the favourite games of your buddies and play each game at least once together.

With buddy groups, avoid grouping mostly children who know each other together. This may mean that you have incidents where one child becomes the "outsider" and is likely to be excluded or avoided.

Next, rotate and change buddies regularly - maybe four times a year. Or have different buddies for different activities. For a child who needs consistency, use buddy groups and keep at least one familiar child in the buddy group.

Avoiding dependence and a perception of weakness

The other way to avoid compassion fatigue is to ensure that you have not promoted a perception that a particular child is "weaker" than others and thus in need of support. In their discussion of peer tutoring, Fulk and King (2001) state that it is important to use the strengths of children and give all children an opportunity to be the "tutor" rather than always the "tutee".

Children with disabilities can be put in responsible positions if these are based around their strengths. For example, a child with autism who might be really good at maths or following procedures could support their buddy in maths activities or in activities where they have to follow a set procedure. In turn, their buddy could support them during English or less structured activities.

On the playground, it is important that all children get the opportunity to "shine" - for example, a child with a disability playing their favourite game can be as much of a support to their buddy as their buddy may be in other contexts.

Will my child learn bad habits?

One of the concerns parents and some teachers have expressed is that their child may "learn bad habits" from a child who has difficult behaviour or less developed social skills. There is little evidence that this is the case if we carefully select our buddies.

For example, Hektner, August & Realmuto (2003) looked at the use of buddies for children who displayed aggressive behaviour. They found that if two children with aggressive tendencies were grouped together, especially if they were friends, then the aggression in playground games would increase. However, if the child with aggressive tendencies and a child who did not use aggression were grouped together, there was no increase in aggression.

Benefits for all

Using buddies, peer tutors and other collaborative group work in and out of classrooms can benefit children with and without disabilities. If a child without a disability buddies a child with a disability they are likely to:
  • Interact with children who they may have not interacted with before
  • Develop an awareness and respect for diversity, thus developing socially and emotionally
  • Develop a deeper understanding of the task or activity as they help clarify ideas and rules for their buddy
  • Learn positive skills from their buddy, learn to see things from a different perspective, or learn the value of some things they take for granted
Children who have disabilities can benefit from well-planned, well-implemented buddy systems through:
  • Seeing social and academic skills modelled
  • Hearing things explained in "child" language
  • Getting more one-on-one support than adults can provide in a busy school environment
  • Becoming more independent, connected and confident
(Conway, 2008; Copeland et al., 2002; Jackson & Campbell, 2009)

More than just buddies

Helping children with disabilities make connections with their peers cannot be solved by just using buddies. We also need to teach social skills, create an accepting/inclusive classroom environment, teach coping strategies and build a child's self esteem through praise, encouragement and giving them responsibilities (Conway, 2008).


Conway, R. (2008). Encouraging Positive Interactions. In Forman, P (Ed), Inclusion in Action, p128-244. Thomson: Australia.

Copeland, S.R, McCall, J, Williams, C.R., Guth, C., Carter, E.W., Fowler, S.E., Presley, J.A. and Hughes, C. (2009). High School Peer Buddies: A Win-Win Situation. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(1), p16.

Fulk, B, and King, K. (2001). Classwide peer tutoring at work. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(2), p49.

Hektner, J.M., August, G.J. and Realmuto, G.M. (2003). Effects of Pairing Aggressive and Nonaggressive Children in Strategic Peer Affiliation. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31(4), pg. 399.

Jackson, J.N., and Campbell, J.M. (2009). Teachers’ Peer Buddy Selections for Children with Autism: Social Characteristics and Relationship with Peer Nominations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, pp269–277

Copyright Amanda Gray 2010


Friday, March 19, 2010

Chasing friendship

This is part of the title of an article I read about the nature of developing friendships in the early years of school. While it doesn't specifically addressing the issue of friendship for children with disabilities, it provides some insight into what type of things we may be able to do to help all children develop friendships.

The article is by Wohlwend (2005) and is called Chasing Friendship: Acceptance, Rejection, and Recess Play.

Challenging our focus

When a child is struggling to form friendships we often focus solely on the child. We look at training them in social skills, setting them up with buddies, teaching them playground games and so on. These are all great strategies, but Wohlwend suggests that we should be looking beyond the individual child.

Training the individual is only half the story. We need to look at the full picture, which includes how the peers interact with, accept and include the child.

Analysing the peer and play culture

There are many unspoken rules and subtle patterns in playgrounds. Each playground, and each social grouping, has different expectations, rules and patterns of interaction.

For children with special needs, recognising and following these rules and patterns can be difficult. A child with a hearing impairment may miss the subtle way language is used. A child with Autism may not "fit in" with the interests and games that are part of the playground pattern. The child with a developmental delay may not pick up all the subtleties of language and social rules.

Teachers and parents need to have a good understanding of the rules and patterns of social interaction on a playground in order to fully support a child's development of friendships.

A checklist

Wohlwend suggest that we devise an observational checklist to help us "discover the local peer culture on the playground" (p79) based on a number of "dimensions" she lists on p81. Here is my version of such a checklist:

  • How do the children group themselves on the playground?
  • Who a) belongs to a large peer group, b) belongs to a small peer group, c) plays alone or in pairs? Describe the main characteristics of each group (eg. age, quiet/chatty/active etc.)
  • How do children join a friendship group?
  • Was anyone excluded from a group (momentarily or long-term)? How did this happen?
  • List the types of activities and games children play on the playground. Create a tally chart to represent how many children are playing each of the games.
  • Which groups participate in which activities or games?
  • How do children join in the games or activities?
  • Were there any children who tried but were unsuccessful in joining in? What happened?
  • Where do children play? What is the most popular area?
  • What equipment/toys do they play with? What are the most popular toys?
  • How do children get access to the play spaces and equipment or toys?
  • Is there anyone who wasn't able to access what they wanted? What happened?
  • What happens when there is any conflict during play? How do the children deal with it? How quickly do adults become involved? What do the adults do?
  • How often did an adult help initiate play or interaction between children? What happened?
What this tells us

Asking these questions will help us understand what activities are popular, what rules the children expect each other to follow, and what strategies they use to solve any social difficulties. It will also help to tell us if there are some children who are being excluded from social groups and why.

Changing the culture

To change a playground culture where there is a lot of tattling, exclusion and/or exclusive social groups (cliques), here are some suggestions based on Wohlwend's suggestions.

Modelling - Making sure that, on the playground, teachers model value for diversity. Wohlwend suggests that teachers should "self-critically ask themselves: 'Do I restrict activities for some children or allow more freedom for others? Do I follow up on tattling by certain children while ignoring others?'" (p79)

Building on specific strengths and interests - We can help bring diversity to the playground, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to participate in games and activities that reflect their specific interests and strengths. This is especially important in playgrounds that include children with conditions such as Autism who may have a very strong interest in one particular activity or theme. To do this we could bring new and relevant equipment onto the playground. Another strategy is to set up a structured play-time or play area based on a theme - like toy trains or dramatic play. Alternately, lunchtime "clubs" can be set up - such as music, drama, chess clubs - to bring children with common interests together.

Teaching play entry skills - Once we know why and how children are included or excluded from games, we can teach and talk about these skills in our classrooms. This usually involves key phrases, which can be taught through scripts and role play to ensure all children have the skills to communicate that they want to join in.

Teach empathy and value for diversity - you can't force children to be friends, or to like each other. But you can help to create an environment that increases the chances that they will play positively together. Understanding why children exclude others from games will help teachers to reinforce the importance of thinking about how your actions affect others. In the role plays above children should also be encouraged to explore responses to others requesting to join their games, and what constitutes an "acceptable" response.

Empower children and promote social problem-solving - having a daily or weekly sharing circle or circle time in the classroom where children can talk safely about their playground concerns is a good way to empower children to solve their own social dilemmas. These times need to be carefully run so that everyone gets to have their say, no-one is humiliated or ridiculed for their input and all children feel safe to contribute. Getting children to solve their own problems rather than jumping in to do it for them will help promote resilience, emotional intelligence and social independence and respect.


Helping children of all abilities develop friendships, then, is not just about teaching an individual social skills. It is about making sure all children are ready and able to include each other, interact with a wide range of children, problem-solve together and discover others who share their interests.



Wohlwend, K. (2005). Chasing Friendship: Acceptance, Rejection, and Recess Play. Childhood Education, 81(2), p77.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Demystifying playground games

The playground can be a very confusing and lonely place if you don't "fit" anywhere.

Imagine you see the world in a very literal way.

You have just run out onto the playground and you see a bunch of kids from your class running around, chasing and hitting each other. You know that hitting is against the rules. But these kids seem to be laughing. And the teacher is watching and seems to be happy about it, too.

So you dash in and join in. You start running around madly and hitting anyone who comes close.

Suddenly everyone stops. A child pushes you back with a very unhappy look on their face. The teacher charges up and sends you to sit by yourself for "cool-down" time.

You are confused. What did you do wrong?

No-one really explains it in a way you understand. So next recess time you run out on the playground. The kids are all chasing and hitting each other. Again you join in. Again you find yourself on the "cool-down" bench. You also find that other children are avoiding you.

And your mum is told that you are not doing the right thing on the playground.

What's going on?

What you haven't realised is that what you were seeing was a game of tips. There are rules to this game. Rules about who chases who, how hard you tip, where you can go to be "safe", what you have to say when you are "safe". But you have missed all these finer points because you are seeing the world through different eyes.

Learning the rules

The first thing you need to do is learn the rules. Just having someone tell you the rules will probably not make much sense. You need to learn by explicit modelling and playing.

A bit of role play

Your teacher or another adult might need to sit your down with your friends, explaining that not everyone understands the game of tips. Your teacher can then get your friends to talk about and demonstrate what playing tips is all about.

You need a clear guide as to who is "in". So you and your classmates might have a special card to hold if you are "in". You pass this on to the next person when they are "in".

You will need to practice "tipping" to make sure you don't hit. Everyone could have fun practicing the difference between a hit and a "tip" by hitting a big bouncy ball then "tipping" a buddy. At first you might need a little extra, hand-on-hand help from an adult.

A supervised game

Then you need an adult to direct a game of tips with you and your friends - maybe during physical education class. You can practice your tipping, and passing the "in" card. You might also need to start with only three or four people.

You may also need a "cheer squad" - a teacher, teachers' aide or buddy to call out things like "Run, Johnny, run! Billy's in!" It would be most fun if a teacher plays with you.

And you need to play all this in the same place you would if you were playing with your classmates at lunch time.

A social story

Once you have learnt the game in physical education class, then your teacher and family could help remind you about the rules using a social story. In the social story it would mention who you want to play with, when you might play with them, and what to do if they don't want to play tips today.

Before you go onto the playground a recess, your teacher can help you look at your social story and remind you what to do. If you get too rough, or forget the rules, the playground duty teacher can help remind you what to do using your social story.

Play, play, play!

The more you practice, the better you will get at playing. But you will need extra supervision at first. And you will need just a few buddies to play with for starters.

When you get better at it, you can start playing with more and more people.

A reward

Getting to play with your friends will be a great reward. But sometimes you might need to be reminded how good it is to play tips by following your social story. So you might get to write a short sentence about your game of tips in your communication book with you teacher, so you get to talk about it with your family when you get home. If you need extra help to remember the rules of tips, you might get an award and/or points towards a favourite toy every time you follow the rules.

Practice in different places, with different people

After you are good at playing tips at school with teacher help, it is time to be more independent.

The best way to be good at playing tips without help is to start playing it with different people in different places. You can play it at home, at play-dates, at the park or on holidays. But make sure everyone knows the rules first. Adults might need to help you start games at first. But eventually you will be able to do this for yourself.

For a while you will need to keep using the "in" card. But, when you get really good at playing the game without help from any adults, you and your teacher might need to change the social story and try playing the game without the special "in" card.


Playing tips: A social story

My name is Johnny. I love playing tips. I like playing tips with Billy, Matt and Susie.

When the recess bell goes, I can say to Billy, Matt or Susie, "Do you want to play tips?"

If Billy, Matt or Susie say, "No." then I will try to go and play in the sandpit. It is OK if they don't want to play tips.

If Billy, Matt or Susie say, "Yes." then I will go to the grassy play area with them.

I like to be "in" first, but sometimes it is Billy, Matt or Susie's turn to be "in" first. I wait for my turn. It is OK if I don't get to be "in" first.

I run away very fast from Billy, Matt or Susie when they are "in". I stay on the grass. But sometimes they "tip" me. It is OK if they "tip" me.

I run very fast to try and "tip" Billy, Matt or Susie. I "tip" them very softly.

Sometimes it takes me a long time to catch them. It is OK if it takes a long time. It is fun.

If Billy, Matt, Susie or I don't want to play any more, we say, "I want to do something else now."

I like playing tips with my friends. It is fun.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Playground Priorities: Safety or Socialisation?

In the news recently has been a Sydney school whose response to parent concerns about the safety of children with Autism was to fence in a portion of the playground for these children. This took care of the safety issue.

However, it seems very little consideration was given to the social impact of this decision. Firstly, there are no toilets or drinking facilities available in the area. Secondly, the area is barren and grass-less. And there are indications that this segregation is having an impact on the children's friendships with their peers who are not in this playground.

The issue

As discussed in a previous post, the playground presents some unique difficulties for children with disabilities such as Autism. Learning to stay within a certain area where there are no physical boundaries can be very difficult. There may also be times when a child with Autism becomes so distressed by a change, noise or event on the playground that their primary need is to escape. Children in great distress can be at risk of hurting themselves or others as well.

For more information about Autism Spectrum Disorders, click here to visit the Autism Spectrum Australia website. You can also find a description of characteristics on the Autism Victoria website.

The claims

In Martin's article, Outrage over Seven Hills West Public School putting autistic children in cage, the Department of Education responded to public outrage by making the following claims:

  • It was developed for safety reasons: "The school is located on a busy road. Without this area, the students may leave the school grounds and could potentially be injured."
  • It was established as a transition tool: "Once the school is satisfied a student will listen to directions from staff members and is also aware of playground boundaries, the child can use the playground."
  • It is a good solution: "Students are actively engaged in play and can leave the area to use other school facilities like the library."
In another report it was stated that the barren ground and fenced off area was all the school could afford, though there are plans to lay artificial turf.

Can we have both Safety and Socialisation?

Addressing risk and maintaining safety does not have to be at the expense of socialisation. The Disability Standards for Education 2005 clearly state that any adjustment must be designed in the context of an analysis of its costs and benefits. It states that adjustments are "reasonable" if made with reference to the views of family and the child. And it states that the education provider must:
"assess whether there is any other reasonable adjustment that would be less disruptive and intrusive and no less beneficial for the student." (p15)
One parent shared with me on Facebook that her son was at a school who also had a fenced-off playground area. However, she described that area as having "a slide, a climbing frame, bikes, footballs, waterplay tables, access to drinking and toilet facilities and many staff supervising." The parent was also happy with these facilities.

In the playground under discussion it is evident that there are not fixed playground facilities. And the provision of "books and puzzles" somehow does not seem adequate. Especially since there is little in the way of colour or sensory stimulation in the environment.

The school's response to this was reported to be about their inability to afford anything different - to which parents pointed out the new building works at the school. While these two things come out of different budgets, it is evident from other schools' arrangements, that funding may be found, even if it is necessary to involve the local community in fundraising.

The parents were also not entirely satisfied with the playground arrangement. Nine News reported parents suggesting that it was "distressing" and "humiliating" for themselves and their children. As one parent stated, they would leave the school crying and think, "my son deserves better than that."

One parent also reported the social impact of this arrangement, indicating that friendships with peers without disabilities were "dropping off" simply because they were segregated.

Weighing the costs and benefits

So if, as required by the Disability Standards for Education, we analysed the costs vs the benefits we might come up with something that looks a little like this:

Reduction of friendships with peers
A change in social status and social belonging within the school environment
Parental distress
Lack of stimulation

Protection from road accidents

So is there a better way?

From the positive stories of other parents, it seems there must be. The point is that, in order to meet the standards set by the Commonwealth Anti-discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education 2005, we need to:
  • provide protection
  • listen to parents
  • consider the social impact of what we are doing
  • look at a range of options, and find the one where the benefits out-weigh the cost

In an ideal world ....

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders will need extra support to develop social skills, establish friendships and play with their peers. I was reading Yuill et al's (2007) article on designing a playground to promote social interaction for children with Autism. They found that the elements of a playground that promoted interaction and the development of friendships as including:
  • Equipment suitable to children's physical skills to encourage object-related play rather than solitary play. That is, having slides, climbing frames and so on that must be shared with other children will help children develop physically as well as socially.
  • Interest-related objects to promote imaginative play. Children with Autism often have very specific interests, such as trains. Providing a permanent set of object that can tap into a child with Autism's strengths (their specific interest and repetitive play) will lead to increased interaction and development of social skills through role play.
  • Playground structure that promotes common patterns of movement. For example, a circular pathway or "obstacle course" can lead children to move and play with other children.
  • A quiet space that children can retreat to, but still be able to observe and be part of what is going on. For example, a little tunnel in the playground obstacle course. Or a little picnic table and chairs close-by but set slightly apart from the hustle and bustle of the playground equipment.
  • A smaller area that will promote interaction.
  • A higher teacher to child ratio to help with prompting positive interaction.
  • A playground surface that is safe, soft but does not present a trip hazard.
I wonder....

If we need to have a segregated playground, can we practice reverse integration to ensure children have ample opportunity to interact with their peers who don't have a disability?

What if we had fun equipment and organised games that were attractive to all children? Wouldn't all then children want to come and join in the "segregated" playground? Wouldn't it mean that the "special" playground would no longer be seen as being for children with special needs (that way changing the status of any child who plays there), but mean that it is seen as a "special" place to play? A place where it is a privilege to go?

Could we have a system where the children with Autism could invite their peers to come and play? Could all children be given an option of playing in that fenced-off area - with limitations on numbers, of course?

I wonder what difference this would make to the social impact a segregated playground has....

What do you think?


Yuill, N., Strieth, S., Roake, C., Aspden, R. and Todd, B. (2007). Brief Report: Designing a Playground for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders - Effects on Playful Peer Interactions. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 37, p1192-1196.

You can hear more at:
Check out this great MSN Video: Sydney school defends segregation

Check out this great MSN Video: Primary school allegedly cages the disabled


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Pitfalls and Promise of the Playground

"...opportunities for playful peer interaction can foster the development of social cognitive skills, peer acceptance, and the many social and intellectual benefits associated with acceptance. It is not surprising, then, that the playground time is valued in education as a means of fostering social interaction." (Yuill, Strieth, Roake, Aspden & Todd, 2007).

The Promise

Looking back on my own years at school, and on my years as a teacher, I can see just how much is learnt on the playground. The experiences and skills learnt on the playground are just as valuable as the lessons learnt in classrooms.

On the playground you learn about the give and take of relationships. You learn communication, empathy, turn-taking and sportsmanship skills. You learn about all the hidden, or unspoken rules that are part of the dynamics of interaction.

On the playground you interact with less structure, less routine, more self-determination than in the classroom. You learn independence, resilience....

The Pitfalls

The physical setting:
The organisation, accessibility and equipment on a playground can significantly influence a child's opportunity to be part of the interactions on the playground. This means that while a playground can be a place of social learning and acceptance, without due consideration it can be a place of exclusion and social deprivation.

Consider this playground .....

The nature of the physical setting is not just important for children with physical disabilities, it is also important for children with other disorders such as Autism (Egilson & Traustadottir, 2009; Yuill et al., 2007) . Making a playground accessible does not just mean making sure that we have pathways for wheelchair access. It means that we have considered the impact the physical environment has on the safety, social inclusion and emotional well-being of a child.

The playground participants:
Warash, Curtis, Hursh and Tucci (2008) suggest that key skills required for the playground are the ability to "listen, observe, participate, talk and problem-solve" (p441). Difficulties with any of these skills can make the playground an isolating, or even a scary, place.

And then there is the issue of misunderstandings, stereotyping, lack of acceptance and bullying.

Positive interaction on the playground doesn't just "happen" for all children. It is something that needs to be carefully planned, taught, reinforced and monitored.

Planning for Promise

This month I want to talk about some of the things we can do to help children with diverse needs experience the promise of the playground. If you have any questions, comments or resources to share, feel free to join the discussion here, on facebook or on Twitter.


Egilson, S.T. and Traustadottir, R. (2009). Participation of Students With Physical Disabilities
in the School Environment. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(3), 264-272

Warash, B., Curtis, R., Hursh, D. and Tucci, V. (2008). Skinner Meets Piaget on the
Reggio Playground: Practical Synthesis of Applied Behaviour Analysis and Developmentally Approrpriate Practice Orientations. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 22(4), pg. 441

Yuill, N., Strieth, S., Roake, C., Aspden, R. and Todd, B. (2007). Brief Report: Designing a Playground for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders - Effects on Playful Peer Interactions. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 37, p1192-1196.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ask Amanda: Writing a Social Story

My son ..., who has Aspergers, is now 5 years old. He started full time school in September and is making pretty good progress in most areas. There have been a couple of incidents though that have been cause for concern. When the other children play rough and tumble he doesn't really understand how to do it back without hurting them or he even gets upset by it and acts out. He has scratched a boy on two occasions and really left a mark which is upsetting for all parties. I was wondering if you would be able to advise me on how to go about constructing a social story for [him]. ...


Here are some key things to consider when writing a social story:

Social stories:

    • "Can't teach a new skill

    • "Can remind a child where to apply an existing skill" (Smith, 2003)
In other words, make sure you child knows how to act on the things you are writing about in your story. Role play, prompting, rewards, supervision and repetition should be used to teach the skill with a social story being the "script" to remind your child what it is they should try to do.

Have a beginning, middle and end
Like any story, you need to set the scene, develop a theme, hit a climax and find a resolution. It should sound like a story, not a list of instructions or directions.

Cover where, what and who
Your story will need to describe where the behaviour is to occur, what may happen and who is involved. If you address these questions in your story, you are telling your child about the context for the desired behaviour so they know exactly when they are to use it, who they are to use it with and what is expected to happen.

Whose perspective?
The story must be written from your child's perspective. So try and see the event from your child's perspective, and when you are writing what you want your child to do make sure you write it in the first person. Just a note here that Gray (2000) does suggest that for older children/youth a social story should be written from a third person perspective - "Like a newspaper article" (appendix 13.10).

A different perspective
If you are stating a negative (what you want your child to avoid), then you should use a third person perspective.

Being literal and logical
Read through your story like a director, imagining each step of what your child would do if they followed the story literally step-by-step. This means that there should be no figurative language or phrases that assume knowledge.

Directing vs. demanding
Children with Autism and Aspergers can become distressed if they are told they "must" do something - and they don't succeed in to doing exactly what it is they have been told to do. However, we do need to have at least one "directive" sentence in our social stories. The way to make sure it is directive rather than demanding is simply by starting the sentence with "I will try..." rather than "I must..." or "I have to..."

The words you use
Make sure that you are using language that matches the language development of your child. Use words that he knows, understands and uses every day. Use picture sequences for young children with language difficulties, or reinforce your story with pictures. You will also need to make sure that your story matches your child's concentration span. The younger and more easily distracted your child, the shorter your story should be.

For some good examples of how to put these elements into a social story, visit


Early Childhood Services Team (nd) Tip Sheet: Creating Social Stories. Retrieved 6th March from

Gray, C. (2000). The New Social Story Book: Illustrated Edition. Future Horizons: Texas

Smith, C. (2003). Writing and Developing Social Stories: Practical Interventions in Autism. Speechmark: UK.


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