Promoting Friendships for Preschool Children with Special Needs (page 2)

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Apr 21, 2014

Some questions about incorporating social-emotional goals in preschool

Unfortunately, the placement of children with special needs in self-contained or inclusionary settings, or individual therapies, is usually not designed to help children deal with the important developmental task of establishing peer relationships.

Given the importance of promoting social-emotional competence as early as possible, it is important to recognize when friendship difficulties are not only a part of growing up or a temperamental variable, but a sign that basic feelings and skills that are required to make friends are missing or not developing appropriately. The following questions should be considered in the planning successful interventions:

  • What social goals can be expected of preschool programs offering services to children with special needs?
  • When should difficulties with age-mates, disinterest, or fighting become a concern?
  • When and how should concerns about social development and skills be identified and addressed?
  • What is the best way to balance traditional assumptions about the priority of cognition or language?
  • Should interventions to address important social-emotional competencies be delayed?
  • Can social-emotional competence and a specific skill such as language be addressed simultaneously?
  • Can the nature and quality of peer relationships be nurtured and strengthened?
  • Do the staff, teachers, and related therapists understand the value of social-emotional attributes and have the skills to use their knowledge to accomplish multiple goals?
  • How can the environment in the general school setting and the approach during therapy time be coordinated to include the goal of enhancing the child's social relationships?

Some possible answers

An integrated approach is ideal for promoting social-emotional development in children with special needs at the preschool level. Many established models of intervention in which "different team members perform largely independently is antithetical to recommended practices in EI/ECSE"[Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education].5In addition, it has been argued that efforts should be intensified to develop ways of "enhancing the peer competence of children with disabilities with special emphasis on unstructured situations in which exclusion occurs most frequently".6 Following are possible ways to pursue this goal:

Creating a Pro-Social Environment

Interventions in small group settings can be exceptionally potent. It is within a small group that teachers and related therapists can observe and provide experiences in which the child works out problems and feelings that interfere with relationships as they occur or immediately after the event. A group experience is often a child's main social experience in life, after home. The child's responses to this world - adults, peers, specific activities, and materials - provide significant data which enable teachers and related therapists to understand him/her better. The child's temperament, learning, coping style, as well as relationship patterns, are all demonstrated in the interactions with adults and age-mates.

Adult responses that are not verbalizations about past behavior or even anticipated behavior but are immediate on-the-spot interactions may result in alternative responses and solutions that are useful to the children involved. The selection of activities and curriculum, the use of materials and space, and most importantly, the adult's approach and reactions to behavior are major considerations. And, interventions that promote peer interaction are even more effective when coordinated and implemented across settings; in related services by therapists and at home by families.

Designing curriculums with two goals

The traditional preschool programs for children with special needs usually recommend individual therapies; a one-to-one relationship with an adult and a specific focus on one domain of development, e.g., speech, motor, sensory. Such an approach misses an important opportunity to promote and reinforce social competencies, neglecting the fact that these children are less likely to have experiences which foster peer interaction. It is, however, possible to achieve both objectives - improved skill development and positive social development - if we re-visit the early intervention and preschool systems and their untapped potential to promote social-emotional competence and early friendships.7 Since social competence and language are closely related, curriculums that will achieve two goals may be designed so the children can interact, prompt, and motivate each other to participate in the activity and, at the same time, achieve their therapy goal. A comprehensive program that would utilize the best of individualized targeted intervention and interactive peer intervention would include the following aspects:

1. Initiation of individual language therapy to give the therapist time to assess the child and draw upon the discipline's specialized knowledge to set instructional objectives.

2. Observation of the child in the group setting provides an opportunity for the therapist to get to know the child and later conference with the teacher so that "match-making" with an appropriate peer can begin.

3. Creation of pairs and small groups in which activities are designed that will prompt reciprocity through the use of the children's spontaneous interests and responses to each other and their therapist.

4. Identification of learning objectives in order to plan strategies and anticipate behaviors that address both the relationship priority and the domain-specific developmental goal.

5. At the same time, the teacher in the classroom, through curriculum and play, offers "social skills lessons" designed to promote successful peer exchanges and reinforce relationships developed during therapies.

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