Helping students to develop social closeness with others is less about who does it, but more an approach to teaching and intervention. An approach sensitive to encourage closer relationships between students should center on facilitating the development of self–other awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of one’s inner life, which includes one’s emotions, thoughts, behaviors, values, preferences, goals, strengths, challenges, and attitudes—and how these factors impact one’s choices. One becomes aware of oneself as one’s awareness of others become more distinct
Promoting self-awareness is, therefore, a process that allows students the freedom to choose who they want to sit with, who they want to work with, and who they want to play with. For example, instead of always having assigned seating in the classroom, students need opportunities to choose who they want to sit with. And though this could be difficult for some students to do initially, being exposed to these opportunities provides the impetus for self-growth.
A comment like: “I have tried self-seating for two weeks, but it is not working for this student” is often seen as a reason to go back to assigned seating rather than thinking of different ways to allow the student to discover his/her own preferences in relation to peers. However, the development of self–other awareness is a long-term process and an important predictor of learning and emotional stability. We need to help students to listen to their own inner voice and act on their own preferences in the classroom.
A simple activity like choosing an object to play with can be a meaningful starting point for developing self–other awareness. After all, it is not the activity we choose that matters, but what we want to achieve through the activity.
Step 1: Ask two students to identify a toy they want to play with.
Teacher: Peter wants to play with the ball. Why do you like to play ball, Peter? If Peter does not respond, suggest some ideas for him to respond to: e.g., I like to kick the ball, roll it, or throw it.
Teacher: Sam, you chose the train to play with. Why do you like the train?
Sam: You can put people in it, it runs on tracks….
Allow children to play while you observe from a distance.
Step 2: Let’s change around now.… We want to play with each other’s toy….
Peter, now it is Sam’s turn to play with the ball. Sam, now it is Peter’s turn to play with the train. Teacher/Therapist observes what the children do with the respective toys.
Teacher comments on how the children play with the toys, e.g., I see Peter likes to hide the train under the box. Sam also enjoys kicking the ball, he fetches it and then he throws it to Kelley. Sam also likes the ball, or I see that Peter does not want to play with the train today. That is fine. Peter likes the ball.
Core Vocabulary in Interaction
These interactions provide great opportunities for using core words in interactions. For example:
Activity concepts: Play, go, under, stop, throw, fast, not fast
Self–other: You, Me (I), like, don’t like, have fun, no fun. Why? I want to… play more, stop
The idea here is not to “get the students to do a specific task,” but rather for them to develop awareness of what they choose, and why they like the activity. They might not be able to indicate why they like the activity which is fine. Over time, however, they might grow into the understanding that there is an intention behind their own choices. After selecting an activity, they will experience what the other chose and why they like that activity. There can be many iterations of this basic interaction, all focused on ways to encourage the two students to develop some awareness of self and other.
The important principle here is to provide students with the ongoing experience to state their preferences in interaction with others and explore their actions and inactions with others by sitting close and observing the students in play. Video recordings of their play can also provide valuable guidance for further exploration in how to use core vocabulary in a more authentic way during their play and interactions.