Social skills & friendships

Some children living with disability, particularly those with learning difficulties, do not find it easy making and keeping friends. This page provides information about making and keeping friends.

The importance of friendships

The most important people in children’s lives are usually parents, siblings, other adults and other children with whom they have lots of contact. While the relationships with adults and siblings are very important, friendships with other children often have a big effect on the child’s social development. Friendships with other children can meet a lot of your child’s needs including:

  • companionship and recreation
  • feeling comfortable and safe emotionally
  • a sense of belonging and feeling included
  • learning different ways of acting and getting along with others, for example, learning to give and take, how to deal with disagreement, how to respect others and how to respond to feelings
  • feeling good about themselves.


Stages of friendship

Preschool children

For children of preschool age, it is commonly seen that:

  • rather than play with each other directly, young children simply play alongside each other
  • friends are chosen on the basis of who they see regularly
  • friends are those that share toys and play games with them
  • friendship ends if there is a fight or the friend moves away.

School-aged children

For children of school age, it is commonly found that:

  • friends are those who help them, have similar interests, and enjoy doing the same activities
  • your child understands that friends share thoughts and feelings
  • sometimes school-aged children understand that friendships are strong enough to survive a fight or separation
  • between the ages of about five and nine, children begin to understand that others may think about situations differently than the way they do themselves
  • around ten years of age comes the understanding that a real friend is someone with whom they can tell their inner thoughts and who respects them.


By the time a person becomes an adult they have usually learned that a friend can be trusted, he or she listens to you, notices when you need help, and offers help to you.


How children make friends

Making friends is often thought of as a natural and ongoing process. However being able to form friendships depends on:

  • your child’s self-image
  • how well your child communicates
  • whether they behave in a way that encourages friendship
  • being able to recognise and use a range of social skills.


Disability and making friends

Children living with disability, particularly learning difficulties, may not make friends as easily as others. Development of their communication and social skills make friendships a challenge. Research (Slee, 1996) indicates that children with learning disabilities are:

  • less likely to choose behaviours that will help them get along with others in social situations
  • less able to solve social problems, such as sorting out disagreements
  • less likely to work out what will happen as a result of their behaviour
  • less likely to make allowances for their listeners in conversations
  • less able to manage the more complicated ways for getting along with others, for example, persuasion, negotiation, not giving in to pressure from the other person, giving and being able to accept criticism
  • less able to adjust to new social situations
  • more likely to be rejected or left alone by their classmates and peers
  • less able to adjust to new social situations.


Friendship difficulties

Children living with disability who don’t have friendships may be at risk of developing problems with how they cope with their feelings and with their schoolwork. These issues can last through their adolescence and into adulthood (Kemple, 1991). They may include:

  • strong feelings of loneliness
  • lower self-image than other children
  • a lack of motivation and willingness to learn
  • being unable to concentrate on tasks.


How parents, carers and others can help

You can help children to make friends and keep them by:

  • involving your child in activities with other children, for example, take them to playgroups, early intervention groups, the playground, recreation programs, such as boy scouts, girl guides and the YMCA
  • inviting other children home to play
  • teaching your child how to get along with other children when they are playing
  • teaching other children about your child’s disability, for example, if the disability involves a communication problem, telling playmates the best ways that they can communicate with your child
  • preparing your child to answer questions that others often ask, such as ‘why do you use a walking frame?’
  • listening to children who have had bad experiences with other children and using ‘feeling words’ to show that you understand (for example, “You must have felt angry when John made fun of you”).


How teachers can help

If you’re a teacher, you can:

  • pair your child with a disability to a similar-aged child who is good at forming friendships, for example, someone who is friendly and communicates well
  • provide some information about disabilities to all of the other children in the class
  • teach social skills in the classroom using packages such as the ‘Stop, Think, Do’ program
  • encourage children to get along with each other in the classroom. Use resources such as the ‘Friendly Kids, Friendly Classroom’ books
  • use children’s books to teach social skills – many are available on the topic of friends, socialising, conversation, and playing together.


How Novita can help

Novita psychologists provide:

  • social skills groups which often develop into friendship groups
  • counselling  for individuals or the whole family to help with things that are hard for the family to deal with
  • the option of discussions with teachers or other school staff to provide resources and ideas.

If you would like information or free advice, speak to someone in our friendly team on 1300 NOVITA (1300 668 482) or visit our Contact Us page for more ways to get in touch.