Promoting Friendships for Preschool Children with Special Needs (page 3)

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Apr 21, 2014

Increasing Social Inclusion: Case example

Following is the story of Joseph, which illustrates the way concepts of social inclusion were applied to help a classified child in an inclusionary program receiving Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT)8 services and speech therapy. Joseph, diagnosed with a disorder on the spectrum of autism and pervasive developmental disorder, had no apparent interest in his classmates and a great deal of interest in small cars and trains which he chose to play with in a limited and repetitive pattern whenever he could. He also had strong visual skills but limited and delayed language skills. It was obvious that Joseph could not yet reach out to approach another child and would not be responsive to the usual approach by a classmate. On the other hand, Joseph was a compliant child with a readiness to accept the proximity of a classmate and a capacity to learn. A plan was developed by the two teachers (regular nursery and SEIT) and speech therapist to use his play interest to begin the friend-making process. Since Joseph was not the only boy who loved trains, his preoccupation attracted Anthony, who was not a child with special needs, and created an opportunity for peer interaction during free play. The teacher built upon the boys' shared interest in small trains by preparing a train station for them, adding dolls (conductors and passengers), and expanding on the materials and equipment. At first, Joseph simply tolerated Anthony's proximity. He became attentive to Anthony when he brought equipment that the staff knew (from mom) that Joseph had at home or that was new and selected to stir interest. A reading program using sight picture words of high interest, e.g., train, caboose, etc., and stories on the same theme supplemented the play. Fortunately, Anthony also shared Joseph's interest in pictures and words. Icons and pictures that were used to help Joseph were of value to Anthony, promoting his pre-emerging literacy skills. As a more related child, with more appropriate social behavior, he could be relied upon to respond to the teacher's introduction of new materials, suggestions for interactions, and a more stimulating use of the play environment. At the same time, the children's relationship was additionally supported by the staff's non-intrusive verbal or non-verbal assistance.

In order to prepare both children for the daily routines at school, speech therapy sessions together, and their play time, photos and then icons (picture symbols) were paired with words (which they recognized) to show the schedule; i.e., first, we arrive by bus, enter our class; then you will play with the trains and later see the speech therapist. Cards and pictures clarified the sequence of events and served to remind and prepare them for transitions. And, most importantly, both children were helped through the use of pictures (always with words underneath) to understand expectations. The team's use of photos, icons, and pictorial representations increased the children's understanding of the daily school schedule and helped them anticipate and respond to each other during interactive play periods which took place in class as well as in the speech therapy.

Both Joseph's and Anthony's mothers supported their efforts. At home, they:

  • used pictures to identify feelings and moods
  • read and discussed appropriate friendship stories
  • helped find suitable playmates (choosing others, with or without disabilities, who seem compatible)
  • encouraged twosomes and play dates (noticing common interests and potential matches)


The approach to building friendship skills in preschoolers with special needs proposed in this article emphasizes three inter-related ideas. One, the classroom as the main therapeutic milieu, and, consequently, the teacher or teachers are responsible for creating a beneficial environment. Two, the related services therapist (in this instance, the speech therapist) has dual tasks. The therapist should use his/her specialized knowledge and skill to assess, establish goals and interventions to help the child achieve domain-specific speech IEP objectives. Additionally, therapists can promote the transfer of this learning into more effective classroom performance in two areas: language and social competence. Integrating both aspects is the challenge. Three, this beneficial classroom ecology requires that the teacher(s), the related therapist(s), and parent(s) continuously inform each other and collaborate, e.g., the teacher incorporating strategies and promoting dyads developed through observations and team planning, the related therapist incorporating peer relationships and inter-personal work into her specialty as she observes the teacher carrying out classroom activities, and the parent incorporating ideas and interventions at home and in the community whenever possible.

Facilities that serve preschool children with disabilities, either in inclusionary or self- contained settings, have an obligation to provide experiences that promote the social- emotional competencies needed for children to have successful peer relationships and to facilitate the children's inclusion in as many settings as possible. An approach that provides frequent and appropriate play experiences in settings that include children with disabilities increases the likelihood that they will learn, generalize new behaviors, maintain skills, and hopefully, make new and lasting friends.

About the Author

Judith S. Bloch, ACSW, is the Founder and CEO of Variety Child Learning Center (VCLC), in Syosset, NY, which provides training, evaluations, early intervention and special education for infants and children to age 7.


1. Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.) (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

2. Bullock, J. R. (1998). Loneliness in young children. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois. ERIC, Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Digest. EDO-PS-98-1).

3. "The term 'child with a disability' for a child aged 3 through 9 may, at the discretion of the State and the local educational agency, include a child - experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development" (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] Amendments of 1997, Section 602 (3) (B) (i)).

4. Turnbull, A. P., Pereira, L., & Blue-Banning, M. J. (2000). Teachers as friendship facilitators. Teaching Exceptional Children, 32(5), 66-70.

5. McWilliam, R. A. (2000). Recommended practices in interdisciplinary models (p. 48). In S. Sandall, M. E. McLean, & B. J. Smith (Eds.), DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education (pp. 47-54). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

6. Guralnick, M. J. (2000). An agenda for change in early childhood inclusion (p.221). Journal of Early Intervention, 23(4), 213-222.

7. Odom, S. L. (2000). Preschool inclusion: What we know and where we go from here. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20(1), 20-27.

8. SEIT means "an approved program provided by a certified special education teacher on an itinerant basis in accordance with the regulations of the [State Education Department] commissioner, at a site determined by the board, including but not limited to an approved licensed pre-kindergarten or Head Start program; the child's home; a hospital; a state facility; or a child care location..." (New York State Consolidated Laws-Education, Article 89, Students with Disabilities, September 2000, Policy 00-11, p. 36.)

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at

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