Peer Interactions and Social Closeness in Self-contained Classrooms

Much of life can pass us by when we are too hurried to pay attention to it. This is not only true for us, but also for the children we work with. Realizing that small moments of interactions can add to our toolkit to enhance meaning-making and social closeness between children can be a major game-changer!

document (Promoting Positive Social Interactions in an Inclusion Setting for Students with Learning Disabilities) by the National Association of Special Education Teachers focuses on the importance of promoting positive peer interactions: ”None of these (referring to positive and challenging experiences) will be more rewarding than helping children with special needs developing positive interaction with their peers.” Even though the same sentiment is frequently repeated in schools, I am often surprised at the gap that exists between intervention practices with students with severe communication difficulties and the idea that we need to promote interactions and friendships between peers. This gap is particularly evident in self-contained classrooms where students tend to have assigned seats and are engaged in one-on-one instruction for up to 95% of the school day.

When we address promoting peer interactions, the focus often lies on the type of behaviors (e.g., getting a friend’s attention, sharing objects, saying something nice to a friend ) that can promote peer interactions. Although these behaviors are important, it is equally important for us to be able to assist two children who show some affinity for each other to become friends. Teaching and promoting positive behaviors can facilitate the development of a culture of acceptance and tolerance in school; however, they do not necessarily promote the development of friendships between children. Becoming friends requires sustained interest between peers and the openness to become socially close to another. Hence, the development of friendships requires targeted observation and ideas that can be infused to enhance meaning-making between two children.

What is Meaning-making?

Meaning-making is the process whereby we listen, observe and interpret what the other is saying or doing as well as share our thoughts and ideas to develop a meaningful association with the person we interact with. We therefore need to be curious about the other to engage in meaning-making. This process is not only a cognitive process, but also requires emotional resonance. Being with another (i.e., being resonant with another) is an essential basis for developing social closeness.

What Are Meaning-making Events?

Meaning-making events can be short, often fleeting exchanges between two individuals that show some awareness or affinity between them. Even though these interactions could be brief, they often have potential for further elaboration. These fleeting interactions—particularly between peers—can provide teachers and therapists with a basis for building or extending interactions between two students.

For example, a teacher became aware that two of the students in her self-contained class show an affinity towards each other. She observed that the day before, Chris bumped his toe against the cupboard while Danny looked on in concern; and today, Danny smiled as he was watching Chris coming into the classroom and sat down next to him to play with some toys. From both these observations it is evident that the two boys are positively inclined toward each other and could potentially enjoy further interactions with each other. How can the teacher use this information to encourage further interaction between these two children?

How to Support the Development of Friendships Between Children in a Self-contained Classroom

Perhaps the most important starting point is to reflect on ways that one can promote these interactions without being too obvious or forceful. As teachers and therapists, we need to infuse rather than impose opportunities for interaction between two peers. The more stilted and forced our suggestions are, the less likely they would work. We can be effective only if we are close enough to our students to make meaningful suggestions—and even then, these suggestions don’t always work! However, that we try by observing and learning from the way our students respond is the way to become better at promoting peer friendships in the classroom.

Some Practical Hints

  • Ensure that students do not have assigned seats for all activities in the classroom. Allow students to seat themselves for some activities. Closely observe where they sit and who are in the vicinity.
  • Observe whom the student looks at or shows some interest in, and the other student’s behavior toward that student.
  • Ensure that the two students who show some affinity toward each other have multiple opportunities to sit or be together. Sitting at the same table is a start but not sufficient. The idea is to observe and infuse more interest by providing activities or games to expand their being together. Multiple opportunities for being together is an essential basis for the development of any potential friendship. That students are content in being together is a very significant starting point.
  • Provide opportunities for short interactions during free play, lunch, and circle time. For example, What do the two of you want to play with today? (Implying both playing with the same toys); or Do you know what Danny has for lunch today?; or Do you want to go outside, and do you want to ask X if he wants to go too…?
  • Writing down short interactions in the form of narratives could also be helpful. For example: Today Chris bumped his toe against the door. Danny was sad and wanted to help. What could he do? Chris’s toe was a bit sore, but it felt better soon—so they could both go to lunch together. During circle time the next day, one of the two students could also retell the short narrative while providing opportunities for other students in the class to comment on it. This approach can not only enhance friendships but, importantly, can begin to provide a better balance between teacher–child and child–child interactions in the self-contained classroom.
  • Sharing ideas with parents to make them aware of how they can help to facilitate friendships between their child and another is important. For example, parents can invite friends over to play at home or have some joint outings during weekends.

And Finally…

Rome was not built in a day—and developing friendships takes time. In the beginning, interest between peers might be sustained for short periods of time only. That is fine. Any short period of social closeness is a meaningful experience. That students have these experiences is much more important than how long they last. Of great importance, however, is our awareness and vigilance in observing how students interact with peers to allow us to be supportive in promoting social closeness between students who have shown some natural affinity for each other. We cannot assign friendships; rather, we need to cultivate friendships between our students.

Any ideas? Do not hesitate to share them!

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