Friendships in Young Students with Severe Communication Problems: Are We Providing Enough Opportunities?

“This student has no friends.”

I often hear teachers and therapists commenting that a particular student has no friends. These comments always make me wonder about how we see friendships developing in young students. What do we mean by “s/he has no friends”?

Do we mean that these students:

  • sit mostly by themselves?
  • do not seek out others in a way that we expect them to?
  • show no preference of whom to play with?

The comment “This student has no friends” generally signals the beginning of a discussion on how what we do in classrooms impacts on students’ opportunities to make friends.

“He is always by himself.”

I seldom see students in self-contained classrooms having the freedom to choose whom they sit with. Assigned seating is used for most of the school day. In addition to this, para-educators are seated next to the AAC user to assist them in what needs to be done. Are there any opportunities for young students to develop friendships if we structure their school days to focus on the priorities of the teachers and therapists rather than those of the student?

Students who show a preference to sit by themselves often do so to withdraw from the activity and/or noise in the environment. This is not necessarily a negative behavior, as many of us would identify with needing to withdraw when things become too hectic. In fact, when we withdraw, we often find that there is another person who also just wants to “opt out” for a bit.

If we allow ourselves to observe the potential for two students to be together as they withdraw from excess stimulation, can this be a basis for some level of togetherness between them? After all, it is the ability to quietly sit with another that often forms the basis for what could develop into togetherness with another.

On the other hand, if we don’t observe these behaviors, we might miss valuable opportunities in supporting students to engage with another student.

Freedom of Choice

During instruction, we often provide students with some opportunities to choose the type of rewards they want to work for, which activity they want to do first, etc. However, we are often unaware of ways in which we can help students become more aware of other students in the classroom.

Self–other awareness is a first step in supporting students in developing a sense of togetherness with another. Providing students with a choice in who they want to sit with also makes sense if sitting with that student involves doing something together. Even if a particular student cannot make a choice as to whom to sit with initially, this is an important goal to work for.

Different Ways of Being Together in Developing Friendships

The process of developing friendships includes different ways of being with another as is described in Table 1 below. This Table describes different levels of friendships and how they relate to the ability to develop meaning in interaction with others.

For example, in Level 1 (Acquittances), students can have short interactions or sit together with minimal engagement. The mere physical proximity and relaxed presence could, however, indicate potential for more closeness to develop. Also, as students develop increased self–other awareness, they move through different levels of friendship, for example, Collegial and Companion levels to become socially close (See Table 1).

Table 1: Levels of Friendship in relation to Levels of Meaning-making in Interaction

Level of Friendship Level of Meaning-making Engagement Participation Friendship Manifestations
Acquaintance Formalistic:
Structured meaning, highly predictable
Minimal, highly ritualistic Routinized, short, superficial Brief, superficial, not personal in nature
Collegial Literal Meaning:
Exchanges focused on sharing information, limited reciprocity
Short, Fleeting periods of engagement Few exchanges with limited opportunity for meaning-making Periods of engagement, topic- and situation-specific.
Companion Extended Meaning:
Exchanges reflect sensitivity to self–other, longer exchanges
More extensive interest and involvement in interaction Longer exchanges as partners adjust to each other, increase self–other awareness Show preference for specific partners, affinity and care developing
Besties BFF Versatile Meaning:
Ability to infer meaning, interpersonal sensitivity, dynamic flow between levels of meaning
Extensive involvement on different levels of meaning-making Dynamic expression and use of language with sensitivity to context Socially close, across settings, emotional investment

This table presents a continuum in the development of friendships which is associated with students’ ability to make meaning in interaction with others (please refer to Alant, 2017 for a more in-depth discussion on meaning-making). Initially there is relatively little personal engagement (level 1); however, a relaxed state of being together can provide a fertile basis for further social closeness.

As students become more interested in others and engage in meaning-making, so their ability to become socially close also develops.

Final Take Away

As we look at the levels of meaning-making and friendship development, we can provide opportunities for students to be together in different ways. This perspective provides teachers and therapists with ways in which to be more open to different ways of togetherness that students can enjoy at a specific level of friendship. However, making friends requires that students have opportunities to be with other students in a non-pressuring environment, where they can directly interact with those they want to. After all, for friendships to be real, they have to be voluntary!

Any thoughts? Don’t hesitate to let me know if I can support you to develop a friendship program for your classroom or to provide some ideas to help your child to develop friendships!

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