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Using Children’s Literature to Teach Social Skills

Friends are people who know and like each other. All human beings need and want to share the common bond of friendship with others. Children with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, do not always make friends as effortlessly and easily as do their nondisabled peers. Through the use of children’s literature, children with learning disabilities can be taught valuable skills that will enable them to make and maintain friendships.

Friends are people who know and like each other. All human beings need and want to share the common bond of friendship with others. Traditionally, making friends is viewed as a natural and simple ongoing process. Children with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, do not always make friends as effortlessly and easily as do their nondisabled peers. Through the use of children’s literature, children with learning disabilities can be taught valuable skills that will enable them to make and maintain friendships.

Friendship is the pleasant and rewarding result of human interaction. Webster’s New American Dictionary (Morehead & Morehead, 1981) defines friendship as “the state of being on intimate and affectionate terms with another” (p.222). Traditionally, making friends is a natural result of human verbal transactions. Though making friends seems natural, children with learning disabilities may not always be able to make friends. In fact, by definition, students with learning disabilities often experience difficulties with peers. According to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (1988), people with learning disabilities may have “problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perceptions, and social interaction” (p.1).

Because making friends involves social interactions and requires the skillful use of social perception and self-regulatory behaviors, children with learning disabilities may find making friends with their non-disabled peers difficult. Their problems with expressive, receptive, verbal, and nonverbal language, as well as their inability to recognize the subtleties of interpersonal communication, make friendships a challenge. Making friends is a skill that must be taught directly to many students with learning disabilities if they are to succeed in school. Students with learning disabilities can benefit if skills are taught explicitly through systematic lessons that incorporate a variety of experiences.

Early identification of inappropriate social and communication skills is critical to success in school. Learning problems affect students academically as well as socially. Students’ social problems may in turn affect their attitudes toward school. Research has shown that students without peers are more likely to develop behavior problems that can lead to school failure and ultimately dropping out. Identifying students prior to their social difficulties and teaching them appropriate skills can prevent problems in the future.

This article (a) describes a strategy incorporating children’s literature for teaching friendship skills and (b) discusses a practice lesson using this strategy.

Using children’s literature for teaching friendship skills can be invaluable to students and to teachers. Children’s literature is a resource for instruction that also incorporates other academic skills. The skills become meaningful to students through the stories, so that they are able to use the skills outside of classroom activities.

Reader response theory provides a framework for using literature in the classroom. Gunning (1996) defined reader response theory as “a view of reading in which the reader plays a central role in constructing the meaning of a text. The meaning is not found in the text or the reader, but is found in the relationship or transaction between the two” (p. 335). This theory can be applied to the use of children’s literature as a tool for teaching friendship skills.

Strategy for teaching friendship skills

The strategy for teaching friendship skills using children’s literature has four parts: (a) the use of children’s literature, (b) direct instruction of steps to follow, (c) practice in the natural environment, and (d) evaluation of the lesson and skills.

Use of children’s literature

Using children’s literature has many benefits for teaching friendship skills to children with learning disabilities. As a tool for teaching, stories provide easy and creative introductions to a topic. Many children’s books are available on the topic of friends, socializing, conversation, and playing together. Examples of books about making friends are listed in Figure 1. A lesson can easily be anchored in the content presented in the story. The story provides examples for discussion, small-group activities, journal writing, creative writing, and models for skills practice.

Teaching and introducing skills with a book involves many benefits. First, reading to the students can increase their literacy, listening comprehension, and vocabulary. Students enjoy stories and are motivated to learn more than if direct teaching were the only aspect of the skills lesson. Second, the story provides relevant examples of how to use skills and about what to do during peer interaction. For example, students may be able to relate to the emotions of the characters. Stories can also encourage students to pay attention to their own actions and behavior. Third, because stories are fun and pleasurable for many children, being read to may not be seen as a typical lesson, but as a leisure activity during class time for many children.

Direct instruction

The direct teaching of a strategy for making friends is an important part of teaching social skills, particularly to children with nonverbal deficits. Direct instruction of a social skill lesson involves modeling and peer practice. Huggins, Moen, and Manion (1995) developed six steps for the social skill of making a new friend. These steps can be incorporated into a lesson using children’s literature and adapted to the specific needs of children with learning disabilities.

Miriam Cohen’s (1996) Will I Have a Friend? is about a kindergarten student named Jim whose anxieties about the first day of school are alleviated when he makes a new friend. This story is used in the following adapted steps for students. A sample lesson using Will I Have a Friend? is presented in Figure 2. Examples of how the characters in the story follow the steps are detailed in the sample lesson.

Step 1: Identify someone to whom you can introduce yourself. Students should examine their surroundings and find someone with whom they would like to play with or talk. Students should be given examples of how people look when they want to play or talk. Teachers can use pictures of students engaging in a variety of activities. For example, a student finishing a homework assignment, a student coloring alone, a student with a sad face, a student with a happy face, and so forth.

Step 2: Smile and approach the person. The teacher should model walking up to someone with a smile on his or her face. Students should practice this while approaching a peer.

Step 3: Introduce yourself. Say your name and ask the other person his or her name. Look at the person and smile. The teacher should continue modeling.

Step 4: Ask open-ended questions to get and give information. Students can ask another student what they are playing with, what they like to play, and so forth. Student need to know what an open-ended question is. Open-ended questions have answers that have more than two or three words. Remember to look at the person and smile. The teacher can now ask two students to model for the class, or the teacher can continue modeling. A list of questions can be provided for the students if they are able to read or the teacher can provide questioning prompts. This step will depend on the level of the students.

Step 5: Suggest something to play or do together. Find some activity or game to play on the playground, during free time, and so forth. The teacher can prompt the pairs to engage in an activity and provide ideas for the students so that the interaction will continue.


Besides practicing these steps in the classroom during a lesson, students need the opportunity to practice these skills in the natural environment. There are only five steps, so children can easily remember them. These steps are also broken down to include and identify nonverbal behaviors that children with learning disabilities may forget.

The story used in the lesson can provide many generalization examples for students. Students can see how the characters in the story act and can model the behavior in their own personal interactions. Students will see that there are many opportunities to practice these skills on the playground, at home, in the neighborhood, and during free time in the classroom. Referring back to the book also increases memory skills and problem-solving skills. A variety of reading education techniques can be employed to increase comprehension of the story and the skills. Teachers can pause while reading and let the students fill in what the main character does. Students can also put themselves in the character’s shoes, thus taking on the perspective of another person.


Evaluating the strategy and its usefulness for individuals will determine its effectiveness and what modifications need to be made for the class and for individual differences. Pretests and post-tests can be administered to the students to determine how they felt before the lesson and how they felt about their abilities after the lesson. The goal of the lesson is for children to generalize prosocial friend-making skills. Children should be able to take these skills and use them outside of the classroom. The following sample pre-post-test can be used for evaluating the lesson. Students can either write the answers to the test before the lesson and after the lesson, or, for students who do not read or write well enough to independently answer questions, the teacher can interview the students individually, in small groups, or as a class (see Figure 3 for a sample pre-/ post-test).

Other books about making friends

Practice lesson

The lesson presented in Figure 2 was taught to a group of 5 students in a public elementary school. There were 3 boys, 2 in first grade and 1 in second grade. One first grader had the label of other health impaired (OHI), another had the label of mildly mentally retarded (MR), and the third had the labels learning disabled (LD) and speech impaired (SI). All 3 boys were African American. Of the 2 female students, 1 was labeled emotionally disturbed (ED), and the other was labeled OHI. Both girls were Caucasian and in the second grade.

These students spent no more than 3 hours per day in the resource classroom. They received individual instruction- in math and language arts and were in their appropriate general education classroom the rest of the day. The pretest was administered orally to students individually (see Figure 4).

The lesson was taught according to the plan in Figure 2. The students listened to the book and the steps were modeled by the author. The students were allowed to pick partners with whom they could practice the skills. One student was partners with the author. Students were guided as a whole group through the steps with their partners and then were able to pick another partner to practice independently. Each student was also given the option of practicing individually with the teacher or the author. All students chose this option for independent practice. Students orally completed the post-test with the author after the lesson (see Figure 5).

Will I have a friend? by Miriam Cohen sample lesson

  1. Anticipatory Set
    1. Administer Pretest
    2. Introduce Topic
      1. What and who are friends? (Ask the class open-ended questions about making friends.)
      2. The story (Tell them about the book and explain its use in making friends.)
      3. Friend-making skills (Explain that after reading and discussing the book that they will have an opportunity to practice the skills.)
  2. Presentation of material
    1. Read Will I Have a Friend?
      1. During the story, ask guided and open-ended questions for the students to answer or think about.
        1. What does Jim want or who does he want to meet?
        2. Who are some of the people in his class?
        3. What does Jim enjoy doing?
        4. Who does Jim talk to?
        5. What did he say?
      2. After the story, question the students about Jim’s feelings:
        1. How did Jim feel before he entered his class?
        2. When was Jim happy during the story?
        3. When was Jim nervous during the story?
        4. Who is Paul? How do you know?
    2. Present steps for making a new friend.
      1. Identify someone to whom you can introduce yourself. a. From Will I Have a Friend? “Jim looks around the kindergarten classroom and sees Bill, Anna-Marie, Danny, and Paul.”
      2. Smile and approach the person. b. From Will I Have a Friend? “Jim sees the other students, but does not smile and approach them. Paul smiles at Jim and shows him a tiny truck.”
      3. Introduce yourself. c. From Will I Have a Friend? “Jim and Paul already know each other’s names, so they move to the next step.”
      4. Ask open-ended questions to get and give information. d. From Will I Have a Friend? “When rest time was over, everyone got up. ‘Look what I have,’ said Paul. He showed Jim a truck. Jim reached out and put it in his hand.”
      5. Suggest something to play or do together. e. From Will I Have a Friend?” ‘I have a gas pump,’ said Jim. ‘I’ll bring it tomorrow.’ Jim and Paul then went to play with Anna-Marie.” NOTE: For each step (1) provide an example from the story and (2) model, demonstrate, and describe each step using the book example or a partner
  3. Guided practice
    1. Pair up students with others they may not know very well.
    2. As a class, go through the steps for making a new friend (the teacher leads the activity).
    3. Allow the pairs to practice alone.
      1. Teacher can guide those in need of assistance.
      2. Teacher monitors students’ progress.
  4. Independent practice (follow-up activities or practice outside of class).
    1. Have students talk about where they can use these steps outside of the classroom.
    2. Do a writing activity that summarizes story or student’s thoughts about friendship.
    3. Use role playing. D. Read a second story and have students identify each of the steps.
  5. Closure
    1. Summarize story and steps.
    2. Administer post-test.


The lesson was successful in many ways. First, students maintained attention to the book and enjoyed hearing the story. The story motivated students to participate actively: Almost all of them were willing to practice skills in pairs and with the author. Only 1 student was unwilling to participate and preferred not to work with a partner. Second, the students were able to relate to feelings of fear and nervousness (like the character Jim in the story) and readily conveyed these feelings during the lesson and in the pre- and post-tests. Third, the activities used in the lesson – modeling, guided practice, and use of literature – were effective tools for teaching skills for this group of students.

The teacher should also consider several other factors when using a lesson that incorporates reading, active participation, and work with a partner. First, the students in this setting were not able to read the steps for making friends as they were written out on the overhead projector. The steps had to be repeated for the students and modeled a number of times in order for students to recall what to do next. Pictures would be one way to circumvent student literacy levels.

Second, follow-up activities to the story may be used to further reinforce skills. The lesson shown in Figure 2 was taught as it is listed. The only activity used for practice and evaluation was practicing of skills with partners. A written activity, a second story, or perhaps instruction of the students’ entire general education classroom would be helpful for those students who have a learning disability. It might be easier to teach these skills to a larger group of students so that there is more opportunity for practice with peers who may or may not need additional help with friendship skills.

Third, students may need to be taught the meaning and use of an open-ended question. Relevant examples and modeling by the teacher proved effective during the practice of this lesson. Open-ended questions can be taught prior to the entire lesson or after the pretest, depending on needs of the students.

The pretest results showed that only 1 student felt comfortable about making friends. The majority responded that they were not comfortable around new people, that they were afraid to talk to new people, and that they enjoyed using stories when learning to do something. All but 1 of the students said that they were confident about making friends. This statement may reflect the fact that the students did not understand the question.

The post-test showed a change in feelings and opinions about the students’ own friendship skills. Only 1 student reported that he was uncomfortable about his skills after the lesson and skills practice. More students (than in the pretest) reported that they felt more comfortable with their skills after the lesson.

Figure 3. Pre- and post-test to be used with students
1. Do you like using stories as part of learning a new way to do something?yes/no
2. Are you confident about making friends?yes/no
3. Do you know how to make friends?yes/no
4. Do you like talking to new people in your class/on the playground/ in your neighborhood?yes/no
5. Are you afraid to talk to new people?yes/no
Figure 4. Pretest. Indicates how five students responded to each yes/no question
1. Do you like using stories as part of learning a new way to do something?32
2. Are you confident about making friends?41
3. Do you know how to make friends?32
4. Do you like talking to new people in your class/on the playground/ in your neighborhood?23
5. Are you afraid to talk to new people?33
Figure 5. Post-test. Indicates how five students responded to each yes/no question
1. Do you like using stories as part of learning a new way to do something?41
2. Are you confident about making friends?41
3. Do you know how to make friends?50
4. Do you like talking to new people in your class/on the playground/ in your neighborhood?41
5. Are you afraid to talk to new people?41


Teaching friendship skills directly to students with learning disabilities may be beneficial to them both in school and outside of school. Using children’s literature can be an effective tool to increase motivation and generalization of the skills taught. Children’s literature also provides an opportunity to increase student language skills through the follow-up activities of writing, additional reading, and practicing skills taught in class.

About the author

Katherine L. DeGeorge, MEd, holds undergraduate degrees in Spanish and secondary education and a master’s degree in special education. Her interest is in teaching students with mild to moderate disabilities, and her research interests include effective social skills and ways to promote generalization of skills. Address: Katherine L. DeGeorge, 3727 Farber, Houston, TX 77005.

Appendix: Relevant research

A variety of research studies have been done that examine social skills, peer status, nonverbal communication deficits, and self-esteem of students with learning disabilities. The following is a list of these empirically based articles.

Asher, S. R., & Renshaw, P. D. (1981). Children without friends: Social knowledge and social training. In S. R. Asher & J. M. Gottman, (Eds.), The development of children’s friendships (pp. 273-296). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bear, G. G., Clever, A., & Proctor, W. A. (1991). Self-perceptions of nonhandicapped children and children with learning disabilities in integrated classes. The Journal of Special Education, 24, 409-426.

Bear, G. G., & Minke, K. M. (1996). Positive bias in maintenance of self-worth among children with LD. Learning Disability Quarterly, 19, 23-32.

Cooper, C. S., & McEvoy, M. A. (1996). Group friendship activities: An easy way to develop social skills of young children. Teaching Exceptional Children, 28(3), 67-69.

English, K., Goldstein, H., Kaczmarek, L., & Shafer, K. (1996). “Buddy Skills” for preschoolers. Teaching Exceptional Children, 28(3), 62-66.

Kaufmann, J. M. (1993). Characteristics of emotional and behavioral disorders of children and youth. New York: Merrill.

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1996). Social skills deficits and learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 226-237.

Nowicki, S., & Duke, M. P. (1992). Helping the child who doesn’t fit in. Atlanta: Peachtree.

Rosenthal, A. L. (1997). Using metacognitive strategies to teach students social skills. Teaching Exceptional Children, 29(3), 29-31.

Sale, P., & Carey, D. M. (1995). The sociometric status of students with disabilities in a full inclusion school. Exceptional Children, 62, 6-19.

Selman, R. L. (1981). The child as a friendship philosopher. In S. R. Asher & J. M. Gottman (Eds.), The development of children’s friendships (pp. 242-272). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, D. S., & Nagle, R. J. (1995). Self-perceptions and social comparisons among children with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 364 371.

Katherine L. DeGeorge Intervention in School and Clinic Vol. 33, No. 3, January 1998 (pp. 157-162) by PRO-ED, Inc.

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