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From the Mouths of Babes: What Kids Tell Us About Friendships

By: Rick Lavoie (2007)

An LD OnLine Exclusive!

The field of Learning Disabilities has – at long last – begun investing significant time, energy and resources into studying and improving the social skills of students. We have finally caught up with the parents who have been asking us for assistance in this arena for decades.

I served as a Special Education administrator for over thirty years and, during that time, there have been approximately fifty incidents wherein parents have sat across from my desk and sobbed about their learning disabled child. In every one of those incidents, the parents were upset over the social isolation and rejection that their children suffer everyday. Parent care more about acceptance, friendships and relations than they do about Algebra, French or reading. Believe me.

The average child spends 1000 hours per year in the classroom. That represents less than 5% of his waking hours. The overwhelming majority of his time is spent in the school hallways, the daily bus ride, the cafeteria, at home and in the community. These are the social battlegrounds…and kids with learning problems are seldom victorious.

The intense interest in social development for children with special needs is due, in part, to the field's attention to children with Asperger's Syndrome. These children often have minimal academic difficulties and can actually have significant academic strengths. The majority of their challenges occur in the "other sixteen hours"… the time that they are outside of the classroom.

Much of the research conducted in the area of social competence has studied children with poor social skills and the impact of these difficulties on their daily activities and relationships. Of course, this research is valuable for parents and professionals.

However, many researchers are now conducting some interesting studies with a unique format. Rather than observing children with poor social skills and asking "Why" they are examining children with good social relationships and asking "How?". These studies provide caregivers with valuable information and insights about the social lives of children.

When reviewing these studies, it becomes obvious that there are significant differences in the friendships of boys and girls. The two genders converse, play, joke, argue and fight differently.

An oft-quoted study that demonstrates this concept is the Fox/Weaver California study which surveyed hundreds of school aged children to inquire about their social interactions with children of their own gender as opposed to their interactions with age mates of the opposite gender. The results were intriguing.

For example, boys seldom discuss school issues or classes during non-school hours. They tend to talk about sports, common interests, sex and girls. Further, boys avoid topics that are of a highly personal nature. Conversely, when girls get together they greatly enjoy talking about school and willingly share intimate details of their personal life and home life. Girls also discuss topics of similar interests, absent friends and boys.

When asked about the traits or behaviors that girls admire or like about other girls, the responders stated that they enjoyed the company of girls who are friendly, welcoming and amiable. They also expect girls to be fashionable and attentive to personal hygiene.

Boys, however, are not particularly interested in the social niceties of other boys. Boys admire the traits of loyalty and courage. The primary source of attraction between and among boys is "similar interests". Football players hang out with football players; skateboarders hang out with skateboarders; mouse potatoes hang out with mouse potatoes.

One of the more intriguing studies was conducted by Janis Chadsey and Kyoung Gun Han and reported by the Council for Exceptional Children. In this study, middle school students who did not have special education needs (but had befriended classmates who were special education students) were asked how these relationships could be promoted and facilitated on a school wide basis. The results of the study challenged the wisdom and effectiveness of traditional peer support programs that are initiated, mediated and implemented by teachers. These programs seldom sought or utilized the input of students. This "student eye view" contributed greatly to the effectiveness and viability of such projects.

The interviews and surveys resulted in several suggestions of how teachers can successfully facilitate relationships between disabled and non-disabled students. These relationships are critical to the success of special needs children in the regular classroom. There is a proven correlation between a child's social acceptance in the classroom setting and his academic performance and progress.

Among the student- generated suggestions and observations were:

  • Segregating special needs children into separate classes is inherently unfair and this placement makes it very difficult to establish and maintain relationships with disabled peers. Many interviews reflected a degree of student resentment regarding teachers who were unwilling or unable to make classroom modifications that would enable disabled children to enjoy academic success in the regular classroom.
  • Students wanted information about the nature and needs of their handicapped classmates. They suggested that teachers explain to them why and how their classmates are "different from us" and – interestingly – how they are "the same as us". Teachers should emphasize the commonalities among the students.
  • Students felt strongly that teachers should not tolerate or allow bullying or teasing of the disabled student and that the teacher should give special needs children encouragement and praise.
  • The interviews indicated that students wanted to have time to simply "hang out" with their disabled classmates in an unstructured setting. They reported that most of the time that they spent together was in peer tutoring settings where the non disabled child was teaching or assisting the student with special needs. They felt that these activities were enjoyable, but were not conducive to relationship building or friendship.
  • The students cautioned teachers to take care when selecting and assigning students to work with disabled classmates. They felt that only willing and "nice" students should be used as "buddies" or peer tutors. They seemed to recognize that these activities could make the disabled child vulnerable to bullying or mistreatment.
  • Although the students seemed to recognize the effectiveness of "pairing" they recommended that the disabled peers also be involved in group activities.
  • They felt that it would be valuable for their disabled classmates to explain and discuss their disabilities with the class. This would also give the special needs child a valuable experience in self-advocacy.
  • Students with disabilities should be allowed and encouraged to participate in extracurricular and after school activities.
  • Interestingly, many students commented on the fact that special needs students often travel on separate busses and recommended that they be allowed to ride the "regular bus" because a significant amount of social interaction occurs there.
  • One of the most encouraging and positive results of these surveys were the students' comments on the ability of students to assist non-disabled peers to understand and accept disabled children.

When a teacher is attempting to design a program to promote friendships between special needs students and their typical peers, it is important to remain mindful of the nature of childhood friendship.

In early childhood, friendships are based on proximity. Younger children establish relationships with one another simply because they live in the same neighborhood. They determine the attractiveness of a potential friend based on the quality of his toys. The young child with a backyard sandbox and swing set is likely to be very popular with his peers.

However, as kids age and mature they begin to make greater demands of the friend relationship and the quality of the friendship is judged by a number of factors. Among these are:

Intimacy
sharing secrets, feelings and opinions
Loyalty
development of trust and consistent support and commitment; disloyalty is a chief cause for the dissolution of the friendship
Affection
warmth, comfort, mutual generosity and kindness
Similarity
sharing common interests and hobbies; commonality in gender, IQ, socioeconomic status, age. As students mature, these visible similarities become less important and similarities in interests and attitudes become increasingly important
Reciprocity
as children mature, equity, mutuality and support become increasingly important. They are willing to help and support their friends, but they insist that this support be returned. "One-sided" friendships tend to be short lived

Teachers should use all of this information to assist children with special needs to develop relationships with their non-disabled peers. It is important that teachers recognize the significant role they can play in this process.

I recently had an enlightening conversation with a young New Jersey teacher who approached me following a speaking engagement.

Mr. Lavoie, can I ask you for some advice? I am a third grade teacher and I get a lot of criticism from my colleagues because I spend a good deal of class time teaching social skills to my students. The other teachers tell me that social skill development is the parent's job…not mine. I should spend all my class time focusing on academics.

Well, I have a little boy, Franklin, in my class who had great difficulty during the first weeks of school. He was totally unreceptive to my instruction. His daily bus ride to school was very difficult because he was often teased by other kids. He would arrive in my class very stressed and upset. It generally took him an hour to recover from the bus ride ritual…then he would begin to worry about recess because he was concerned that nobody would play with him…recess was generally a disaster and he would return to my classroom very anxious and distraught…soon after he arrived, he would begin to obsess on upcoming lunch period…would anyone sit with him?…would one of his bus tormentors sit at his table?…lunch seldom went well and he would be upset and agitated for the first hour when he returned to class….once he recovered a bit, he would begin to worry about the bus ride home…would the other kids make fun of his new coat that Grandma bought him or take away his ball cap? He found it impossible to pay attention for the final hour of class…I don't believe that he learned a thing all month.

But I realized that there was another boy, James, in my class who had a lot of the same interests as Franklin and they seemed to enjoy each other's company in class. I began pairing them together for classroom activities and encouraged them to play together at recess. I even called their Moms and suggested that they might want to arrange a playdate for the boys and the parents did so. Both boys told me that they had a great time together.

Franklin now has a friend to ride the bus with, sit together at lunch and play with at recess. He is much happier in class and far more responsive to my instructions.

Did I do the right thing?

You bet you did! This teacher's innovative strategy reflected her commitment of dealing with "the whole child". It also shows that social acceptance can foster academic progress and success.

My recent book, It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, received a very generous review from New York Times. At the conclusion of the review the reviewer made this insightful comment:

To a parent, this torrent of good advice can feel daunting. Which, in a way, is proof of Lavoie's contention that schools should do more to address these deficits; it's a lot for parents to do on their own.

Parents desperately need the assistance of teachers in order to promote, foster and enhance these social skills of children with learning disabilities.

In the words of the oft-used African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child".

Lavoie, R. (2007). From the Mouth of Babes: What Kids Tell Us About Friendships. LD OnLine