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.
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?
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.