School based friendships are relationships that contribute to both the academic and social-emotional development of children. A body of research that spans many years has documented the numerous contributions that friendships make to an individual’s well being. One finding that has been repeatedly documented is that friendships can reduce the negative impact of social marginalization and peer rejection (Laursen, Bukowski, Aunola, & Nurmi, 2007). Knowing that social skills deficits are one of the constellations of difficulties experienced by individuals with Learning Disabilities (LD), finding ways to promote, reinforce and maintain friendships among classmates can ward off future difficulties.
To this end, a recent research study has examined the characteristics of friendship in an inclusive elementary school setting by comparing LD and non-LD classmates over a two-year time period (Estell, Jones, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2009). Friendships in the two groups were compared on the dimensions of presence or absence of a best friendship, characteristics of the friendship and stability of the friendship over time. Results of this investigation are reviewed below.
Presence of Friendships
A concern of all parents, teachers and the children themselves is whether or not the child has a friend. The well-documented social skills deficits of children with LD indicate that this group of children would tend to have more difficulty initiating and sustaining friendships. Thus, one of the guiding questions in this investigation was whether or not students with LD have reciprocated best friendships. To determine whether an individual was engaged in a reciprocal friendship, researchers asked the participating students first if they had a best friend and second whom that best friend was from a provided class list. From the best friend nominations obtained, a statistical analysis was performed to determine reciprocated status.
Findings of the analysis were encouraging. In contrast to previous research that indicated students with LD had higher rates of social isolation, this investigation found that both students with and without LD had at least one reciprocated friendship. Furthermore, it was found that the quantities of best friendships in the two groups were approximately equal.
Characteristics of Friends
In elementary school, many students’ friendships are constrained by proximity. These children do not wander far from home or the homeroom, so friendships formed during this time period tend to occur with other individuals in their classroom or in their neighborhood. However, even within their own classroom, students have a range of individuals with whom to engage. Therefore, another means by which friendships are entered into is on the similarity of the individuals. Similarity of individuals on qualities such as aggression, academic achievement and prosocial behaviors has been shown to be important characteristics of friendships among most individuals.
Estell and colleagues (2009) found that results from their investigation supported previous research in this area. Specifically, students with LD had more friends who also had LD. Moreover, this finding did not change over the two-years that were examined in this study. These results indicate a similarity of friends in regard to academic achievement and can be attributed to either proximity and/or the possibility that students with LD seek out similarly achieving students.
Stability of Friendships
Social performance and the development of intimacy are important in the ability to maintain friendships over time. As previously stated, many students with LD display difficulties in the area of social cognition. This study indicates that students with LD had more difficulties maintaining friendships throughout the course of the study. The researchers (Estell et al., 2009) put forth several plausible reasons for this finding, although none of these possibilities had been tested in this investigation. Possible explanations include higher levels of conflict reported in the friendships of students with LD, and less developed problem-solving skills.
Implications for Classroom Teachers
Findings from Estell and colleagues’ (2009) new investigation of friendship have implications for teachers in classroom settings.
Children with LD do have reciprocated friendships
Children with LD are engaged in friendships with students similar to themselves
The friendships of children with LD tend to be less stable over time
These findings were for a group of children in grades three through six in a school that engaged in an inclusive model of education. In this particular school, the children classified with LD spent the majority of the day in the general education classroom and were pulled out for resource room support on academic issues only.
The results of this study indicate good news for people who are engaged in inclusive educational practices for students with LD. Students with LD in inclusive settings are engaging in reciprocated friendships. However, the results also point to areas in which improvement is needed such as ongoing social skills training for students with LD combined with education for all students in inclusive settings on topics such as acceptance and respect.
The gift of inclusive practices, social skills training and education for all students may translate into more diverse, enduring friendships for students with and without LD.
As always, if there are concerns about the academic or social-emotional development of children with whom you work, consult the professionals within your school setting for advice on how to proceed.
Estell, D. B., Jones, M. H., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2009). Best friendships of students with and without learning disabilities across late elementary school. Exceptional Children, 76(1), 110-124.
Laursen, B., Bukowski, W. M., Aunola, K., & Nurmi, J-E. (2007). Friendship moderates prospective associations between social isolation and adjustment problems in young children. Child Development, 78, 1395-1404.
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, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).