Facilitating friendship development in inclusion classrooms.
Friendship development is even more difficult for children with mild, moderate or severe disabilities. Problems have been documented at both preschool and elementary school levels by numerous researchers (Guralnick & Weinhouse, 1984; Roberts & Zubrick, 1992). According to Debra Kendrick, author of the newspaper column Alive and Well, it is especially unfortunate when children with disabilities have difficulty forming friendships because friends are crucially important for such children. Kendrick, a visually impaired person, writes that although she cannot remember her algebra teacher, she will never forget her best friend who, at age 10, taught her how to climb a tree (Kendrick, 1991).
For any child to have a sense of growth and genuine self-esteem, there has to be at least one truly caring, accepting friend. One ordinary garden variety kid-friend can achieve all sorts of miracles in learning that a classroom of special educators, speech therapists, and social workers cannot seem to manage. (Kendrick, 1991, p. E7)
Kendrick encourages parents of children with disabilities to make special efforts to help their children develop friends.
Most teachers agree that they are responsible for helping children learn interpersonal skills (i.e., sharing, being polite, not fighting, being helpful). Not all teachers, however, feel that they should help children to make in-depth friendships. In fact, blossoming friendships can be disruptive in the classroom and some teachers try to discourage too much interaction by "best pals." Although they may be generally concerned about children without friends, they rarely plan activities that encourage in-depth friendship development.
As teachers become more involved in incorporating special needs children into their regular classroom settings, however, they may need to rethink their role in helping children develop friendships as well as general interpersonal skills. Some advocates of inclusion programs, including Robert Perske (1988), encourage teachers to help both nondisabled and special needs children develop friendships within the inclusion classroom. He cites many examples of severely disabled children making friends within inclusion classrooms that promote friendship and notes the positive effects on these children.
Although inclusion classrooms have a number of advantages over self-contained ones, the evidence is unclear about their benefits in terms of friendship development. Earlier research studies on integrated preschool settings indicated that children with disabilities interacted more with adults than peers, spent more time in solitary activity and observation, and were less socially involved. These tendencies increased when the disability was severe (Brophy & Stone-Zukowski, 1984; Crawley & Chan, 1982; Guralnick, 1981). Unless teachers make special efforts to encourage peer interaction within the wide range of classroom members, disabled children may not often be sought after as playmates.
Friendships usually develop when people see similarities among themselves. Children who have obvious differences, therefore, may find it harder to see their common interests and needs. On the other hand, some teachers report that children with severe disabilities are more accepted by classmates than more typical children who have even a few unusual behaviors. Severely disabled children, however, sometimes run the risk of being treated as classroom "pets." Such treatment focuses on their dependency needs, rather than encouraging independence. Socially competent girls, in particular, are sometimes encouraged to engage in out-of-balance "overnurturing" relationships with physically challenged children.
Given the complexity of the friendship development process, what can teachers do to encourage friendships in their inclusion classroom? In addition to the suggestions of Bullock and Ramsey, a few general strategies might be especially useful.
* Teachers can establish a climate in the classroom that encourages frequent peer interaction and general social skill development. While some children may already be socially adept, all can benefit by being in a classroom where children are encouraged to work and play together, learn cooperatively and value everyone's contributions. Socially competent children can serve as models and their contributions in facilitating positive interaction can be specifically noted. Less socially competent children can often be paired with more socially competent ones, including those who are disabled. These children's social abilities can be matter-of-factly supported and extended by teachers and by socially competent peers.
* Development of deeper friendships with diverse children can be valued and encouraged by teachers within the classroom and they can share this valuing with parents. Teachers who have an eye for potential friendship combinations can give those potentially compatible children the opportunity to be activity or play partners. Although Oden, Herzberger, Mangione and Wheeler (1984) found that these dyads have slightly different qualities, children usually consider play friends and work friends to be very similar (Cooper & Edwards, 1985). If a combination seems to have potential, the teacher can inform the parents that the children would benefit by being able to spend some time together at home or in other nonschool settings. One thing adults often forget is that it takes time and frequent contact for a true friendship to develop. Opportunities to be with the potential friend outside of school are as important as in-school interaction.
* Specific social skills training may be useful for children who have disabilities that result in behavioral problems or lack of interaction skills. The basic skill development may have to be in an out-of-classroom setting, but it can be reinforced within the classroom by recruiting socially competent children as coaches. Sometimes nondisabled children who have difficulty interacting with their peers are particularly empathetic to children with disabilities. Because their self-esteem may be enhanced by being a helper for a special needs child, they may also gain in social competence. Of course, teachers need to make sure that the rejected or neglected child has the potential to give friendship.
* The meaning of quality friendship and the characteristics of good friendships can be discussed as a classroom topic. Often children interpret being friends with some persons as meaning they should obviously exclude or devalue others. Children need to learn that having a deep friendship with one or two persons does not mean that different levels of friendship cannot also exist with
others. Teachers can stress the inclusiveness of friendship and the value of having many friends, including cross-gender friendships. All children can be made aware of the importance of extending friendship to disabled children. Perske believes that children should be made specifically conscious of their ability to provide "circles of friends" within the inclusion classroom.
Even if teachers do not choose to plan specific strategies to encourage in-depth friendship development in their classrooms, just by being more aware of the importance of friendship development they can subtly change the inclusion classroom climate. That alone may make the world seem like a friendlier place for all children.
Brophy, K., & Stone-Zukowski, D. (1984). Social and play behaviors of special needs and non-special needs toddlers. Early Child Development and Care, 13(2), 137-154.
Bullock, J. R. (1992). Children without friends: Who are they and how can teachers help? Childhood Education, 69, 92-96.
Cooper, C., & Edwards, D. (1985). Playfriends and workfriends: Developmental patterns in the meaning and function of children's friendships. In J. L. Frost & S. Sunderlin (Eds.), When children play. Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.
Crawley, S. B., & Chan, K. S. (1982). Developmental changes in free-play behavior of mildly and moderately retarded preschool-age children. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 17(3), 234-238.
Guralnick, M. J. (1981). The social behavior of preschool children at different developmental levels: Effects of group composition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 31, 115-130.
Guralnick, M. J., & Weinhouse, E. (1984). Peer-related social interactions of developmentally delayed young children: Development and characteristics. Developmental Psychology, 20(5), 815-827.
Kendrick, D. (1991, March 8). Special children need friends most. Alive and well. The Cincinnati Enquirer, p. E7.
Oden, S., Herzberger, S. D., Mangione, P. L., & Wheeler, V. A. (1984). Children's peer relationships: An examination of social processes. In J. C. Masters & K. Yarkin-Levin (Eds.), Boundary areas in social and developmental psychology. New York: Academic Press.
Perske, R. (1988). Circles of friends. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Ramsey, P. (1991). Making friends in school. New York: Teachers College Press.
Roberts, C., & Zubrick, S. (1992). Factors influencing the social status of children with mild academic disabilities in regular classrooms. Exceptional Children, 59(3), 192-202.
Doris Bergen is Professor and Chair, Department of Educational Psychology, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.