Making and sustaining friendships is an important social-emotional competence for all children. After all, friendships fulfill many personal needs including companionship, intimacy, self-esteem, and problem-solving. The importance of friendships is supported by a lot of research and by clinical observations. For example, children without friends are often judged to be poorly adjusted and unhappy.
Some children seem to know how to function in social situations intuitively-producing the behaviors needed to make and keep friends. They learn these skills by watching or through instruction during naturally occurring opportunities. Other children find that the ability to make friends eludes them. For children with learning disabilities, making and keeping friends is often a primary concern; it is not uncommon for them to experience difficulty. In order to understand the difficulty that children with learning disabilities experience, it's important to know the typical social skills involved in making friends.
To make friends, two conditions must be present-the opportunity to interact with others and a repertoire of social skills to use when interacting. Social skills are a group of learned behaviors that people use when interacting. These skills make interactions pleasant and reinforcing. Making and maintaining friends requires that children use these skills to share and to convey respect. These social skills involve both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Therefore, to make friends, children need to communicate effectively. But to make and keep friends, they also need many social skills
So what are these skills? They include:
introducing themselves to others
participating in group activities
inviting others to play or join in play
asking for favors
offering to help
giving and accepting compliments
smiling and laughing with peers
Practice and Reinforcement
Not surprisingly, developing and honing skills requires practice. Social skills are no different. When children who have difficulty making friends practice social skills, parents and teachers need to encourage and reinforce them. Such practice and reinforcement will help them pass through the three stages of developing friendships:
During the exploratory stage, children discover a common interest or bond. They may share an activity together such as membership on a sports team or in a school club. Because the friendship is new, children may experience anxiety due to insecurity about acceptance. However, over time and with shared experiences the trust stage emerges and children begin to understand the unique qualities of their new friend. At this stage the relationship is also fragile as jealousy of others is common. Children in this stage should be encouraged to communicate openly, honestly and respectfully with their new friend. Finally, if children manage to maintain their friendship over the first two stages, the third stage, compatibility, emerges. In this stage, the relationship matures and can develop into a mutually beneficial experience that endures over time. Although all relationships experience conflict, if the friendship makes it to the third stage, the occasional disagreement can generally be worked through and the difficulty will be addressed.
As you can see, the development of friendships requires a set of skills that children may or may not have learned. These skills enable the children to move the friendship along through the three stages in order to achieve a lasting friendship that satisfies the child's personal needs. Although as adults we tend to view children's friendships from adult perspectives, it's important to remember that children's friendships are more fragile. This is because children possess less social and problem solving skills that can help maintain the friendship in the face of difficulty.
If you suspect that your students' social skills are poor, talk to your school's psychologist or counselor. Discuss the possibility of social skills training; if the school doesn't have a program, discuss how to start one, one that is supported by the research literature. Also, ask them for suggestions on how to involve parents in ways that reinforce in-school instruction and promote generalization outside of school.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. Currently she is finishing a co-authored book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk.