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Promoting Friendships for Preschool Children with Special Needs

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Apr 21, 2014

Friendships, the bonds that children develop with important peers in their lives, bring pleasure, comfort, sometimes distress, and almost always important opportunities to learn and develop in a social world. In fact, establishing relationships with other children is one of the major developmental tasks of early childhood.1 Friends, even in the toddler stage, can help children feel good about themselves, adapt more easily to childcare settings and build self confidence. But some children endure painful experiences of being excluded, teased, or shamed. Such experiences can lead to feelings that are damaging to a child's self esteem, create anxiety, interfere with learning and contribute to loneliness.2 Some kids seem to be born with a distinct social talent that allows for friendship formation; others have to be taught how to relate, notes Dr. Mel Levine, a specialist in child development. In between are large numbers of young children who will benefit from planned opportunities to improve their ability to enjoy and play peacefully and cooperatively with age-mates.

What about kids with special needs?

Children with special needs3 (those with developmental, emotional, physical or learning difficulties) are often at risk for difficulties in social-emotional development. Many of these toddlers and preschoolers seem to lack the social and language skills needed to initiate or maintain age-mate relationships. Some have personal characteristics or personal styles that keep them isolated or contribute to rejection from peers, and have no idea that their own behavior is part of the problem. For example, children with an autistic disorder are impaired in their ability to interact with others, often preferring solitary, repetitive activities. They need support in order to participate in social games or activities. While children with a diagnosis of ADHD may be quite social and interested in peers, their low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, temper outbursts, and bossiness are qualities that often interfere with friendships. Unfortunately, children with special needs are the least preferred partners of children with more typical development, and are sometimes humiliated, harassed and deliberately excluded, or even the victims of bullies. Many of these children are clearly in need of specialized intervention if they are to have success with peer relationships.

The critical early years - Interventions make a difference

A number of studies provide evidence that an early emphasis on social competence through appropriate interventions can offset possible risks due to the child’s biology, environment, temperament, learning or emotional problems.1, 4 Since we know that early friendships for all children begin through play, providing frequent and appropriate play experiences with compatible age- mates could help youngsters with limited or poor social behaviors. With planning, early social behaviors and skills to enhance peer relationships can be promoted in all settings involving children, including:

  • inclusive childcare or preschool settings
  • center-based settings
  • therapy sessions (e.g., speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy)
  • home and community
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