Helping Children Develop Friendships

Here are the lyrics from a great Toy Story song to start off this month’s JCCMatters blog post:

You’ve got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me
Yeah, you’ve got a friend in me

You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got troubles, and I’ve got ’em too
There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you
We stick together and we see it through
‘Cause you’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me

Some other folks might be a little bit smarter than I am
Bigger and stronger too, maybe
But none of them will ever love you the way I do

It’s me and you, boy

And as the years go by
Our friendship will never die
You’re gonna see, it’s our destiny
You’ve got a friend in me

Research supports what parents have always known – friendships are beneficial to children.  Making and having friends can be one of the most important and rewarding aspects of a child’s life. However, it can also be some of the most challenging times in a child’s life, most especially for children with special needs.  All parents want their children to be loved and accepted, feel a sense of belonging, and have common shared experiences with their peers and siblings, including those who are differently-abled.

The benefits of social success can be enormous, providing a lifelong impact on children that can help them build self-esteem and confidence, as well as support social, emotional and intellectual growth and development.  Being a good friend means sharing the fun and good times as well as the difficult challenging times. Good friends comfort and connect to each other through actions, words, gestures, and sometimes, even silence.  Having a group of friends provides the opportunity for a child to “fit in” and all children need to play and interact with other children to develop awareness, appreciation and acceptance of each other.

For many, friendship may seem to develop naturally, but children who are differently-abled may need some extra help and support from adults and family members when it comes to playing and making friends.  Parents, siblings, teachers and family members can all play a key, important role in teaching children who are differently-abled how to make friends with their peers.  They can begin by teaching some specific social skills and then provide a wide range of social experiences and opportunities for friendships to develop.

Here are some tips to help your child “make friends”:

  1. Get Involved – have your child participate in community sports teams, art programs, and special events.
  2. Join a Social Skills Group – join a group that focuses on direct and indirect instruction on age appropriate social skills. This is a great way for children to develop social skills in a fun yet structured environment.
  3. Look for activities your child enjoys – if children participate in activities they enjoy, they are more like to “stick with it” and also join other programs.
  4. Role Play Situations – practicing social skills is an effective way to teach children to initiate conversation. Through role playing, children can learn to improve their social and conversational skills and apply them in their neighborhood and school.
  5. Provide Examples – reading children’s books on friendship or watching movies with messages about friendship can be a great way to learn and practice social skills.

Our Top 10 Friendship Making Social Skills

  • Taking Turns – playing board games is an effective and simple way to practice turn taking.
  • Following Rules and Directions – learning to understand and follow rules and directions is key to maintaining positive relationships
  • Listening and Responding – practice listening and responding through role play situations
  • Respecting Personal Space – practice the 12-inch rule or keep each other at arm’s length – don’t be a “space invader!”
  • Waiting and Patience – deep breathing, counting to five, using a squeeze ball, or setting a timer on an iPhone are all good tools that will help children learn to wait and be patient
  • Problem Solving – give children an opportunity to “try things on their own”, figure things out without adult supervision, then provide assistance as needed
  • Conflict Resolution – learning how to “agree to disagree” is a really invaluable social skill. Teach children how to take a deep breath, request a break, listen to each other, role play the opposite side, review the rules in advance, establish the order and structure of the game or play date.
  • Cooperation – plan activities that require teamwork and working together – these will reinforce all 10 friendship-making social skills
  • Compromising – reinforce the valuable message that no one can always get their way. This will help prevent disappointments.
  • Being Fair – Help explain how everyone gets to contribute or get a turn, how everyone is responsible to the group, how everyone needs to be treated equally and fairly, and most importantly, how everyone should get what they need to help be a good friend.

We here at the JCC are able to provide an environment and range of programs and activities across many departments that support children making friends and building positive relationships with their peers. From our Sunday Social Skills groups to our athletic teams to our after school programs and camps, there is something worthwhile for every child here and ongoing daily opportunities for every child to make friends and lasting relationships.  Check out our website www.jccotp.org and “surf” the many offerings.

A final word: “Besides the simple enjoyment kids get out of friendship, social inclusion for children with disabilities is critical in order for them to be able to become valued and contributing members of society.”  Patricia Tomasi

This is our mandate and our responsibility.

shelleyWritten by Shelley Levy, Director, Guttenberg Center for Special Services. Shelly has over thirty years of professional experience working with children, teens and adults with special needs. Bringing a wealth of innovation and expertise to the JCC, she has designed unique curriculum design and developed a wide range of programming for people in our community with “special abilities.”