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.

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Prioritizing Students’ Friendships in Pods and Classrooms

Children playing in fountain

If the Corona virus epidemic has taught us anything, it probably is the value of friends and family in negotiating our way through difficult periods. Talking to friends and catching up on Zoom allow us to share how we feel in our dark moments. Friendships empower us to face reality and to realize that we are still ok and sane!

Even though we can strengthen our existing friendships remotely, it is generally more difficult to develop new friendships online. Existing friendships are what we capitalize on in difficult times.

This Cornavirus time is, therefore, another wake-up call for us to seriously reflect on how to assist students with special needs to develop friendships. I was struck by a recent posting by a mother of a child with special needs. It vividly describes the plight of a boy who does not have friends. She wrote:

I’ve been doing this for 19 years, so I’m used to it. But really, no, not doing okay. I’m so depressed and sad for him. He is lonely and anxious and doesn’t understand why people don’t want to be with him. He’s lovable but they can only take him in doses. His sadness turns to rage, on me mostly. And I stand there with my invisible shield on and I take it. Because no one else can or will take it from him. I’m going to be there for him no matter what. And right now, during this…pandemic, I have to be here for him 24/7. Because he has nothing to do and because he’s so full of anxiety. It’s really hard. 

This mother’s cry for help is not uncommon, and it requires our attention. The posting highlights the boy’s isolation and lack of friendships. It also describes the parent’s desperation within this context. While some parents of typical students could probably identify with this mother, the extent of the challenges are different when you have a child with a significant disability.

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The Young, Not the Elderly, Are Loneliest

Lonely teenager

This is the heading of an article in USA Today (May 1, 2018) in which the writers describe outcomes of a study in which the national loneliness score was 44 on a 20–80 scale of loneliness. Social isolation of those aged 18–22 raised even more concern. According to this study, the score for loneliness for these young people was 48 in comparison with 39—the score for elderly people older than 72. In short, counter-intuitively, it is the youth among us in the United States, not old people, who are the loneliest.

In the article, the link between loneliness and physical and mental illness is also explained. Continue reading “The Young, Not the Elderly, Are Loneliest”