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You’ve Got a Friend in Me

7 Tips for Helping Complex Learners Make and Keep Friends

One of the hardest things for parents of Complex Learners is watching their child get left out. She doesn’t’ have any friends. He’s never been invited to a birthday party. These admissions can be heart-wrenching because regardless of the academic and educational concerns parents have for their child with learning differences, they may be deeply worried that their child will be rejected and lonely.

When children struggle with making friends, it may be connected to their learning and attention issues. Difficulties with listening and interpreting social cues make conversation problematic. Complex Learners have trouble understanding the rules of games and the concepts of sharing, accepting other viewpoints, taking turns and following directions. Problems with regulating emotions, understanding body language and interpreting tone of voice can create situations where children overreact because they misinterpret humor or sarcasm.

For children who don’t feel like they fit in at school or at outside activities, there can be negative effects. They can lose confidence and not want to try new things. It can damage self-esteem, and emotions like sadness, anger, and hopelessness can occur regularly and feel overwhelming.

The good news is there are ways to help. Parents and teachers can provide supports and strategies for successful social interactions and many of the skills we take for granted when making friends can be taught. Here are some ideas:

1) Find a good social match. Ask teachers about students who might have similar interests or who are more accepting. Watch for kind and caring kids on the playground or in the neighborhood. Sometimes Complex Learners do not mature as quickly as their peers, so someone who is a year or two younger might be a good social match.

2) Structure play dates & hanging out. Set a short amount of time when you bring new kids together – an hour and a half to two hours should be fine. Plan a beginning, middle and end so kids understand the flow of their time together and go over this with your child (e.g., first you’ll play a board game, then have a snack, then you can choose between drawing or making things with clay). Depending on the age of the kids, you may want to have the other child’s parent there for all or part of the first get-together.

3) Find common areas of interest. Choose something to do that both children will enjoy. Activities that are movement-based (e.g., mini-golf) or hands-on (e.g., a cooking project) are good for kids with sensory and attention issues. Be sure to add in some downtime like stopping for a snack or looking at picture books or comics together. This gives kids a break from being “on” the whole time.

4) Level the playing field. Avoid activities that one child excels in and another does not. Remove the element of competition as much as possible. If there are particular toys or things that are especially hard for your child to share, put them away temporarily.

5) Review the ground rules. Are there areas of the house that are off-limits? What behaviors are expected (e.g., using good manners, sharing) and what behaviors are not okay (e.g., ignoring your guest)? Go over these things ahead of time so your child understands expectations.

6) Anticipate hiccups. Things don’t always go as planned. Talk to your child about being flexible and have a plan B in case something doesn’t work out. Encourage your child to think of strategies to use if he/she gets angry or frustrated, like taking a five-minute quiet break. If things start to get difficult, have a few activities kids could choose from and do independently while still hanging out together.

7) Practice. You can role-play with your child or read them stories about friendship to reinforce concepts like perspective taking. This could be as simple as asking a guest what they want to do or making sure there is give and take in conversation. Creating a Friendship File can also help spark conversation and social interaction. Developed by Michelle Garcia Winner, this is a tool for gathering and remembering information about friends. It can be a mental or written list, or it can be made with pictures and include interests, things to talk about, favorite singer or TV show, number of siblings, pets, and anything else that helps your child get to know their friend.

Friends are important. They give us a sense of acceptance and belonging. But for Complex Learners, the experience of making friends is a little like Buzz Lightyears from the Disney/Pixar movie Toy Story. Buzz lands in a situation where he doesn’t understand the social rules of being a toy. This creates a host of complexities with another toy, Woody, that ultimately get resolved when they’re both on the same page and working together. Like Buzz and Woody show us, friendship takes some work, but ultimately it’s worth it.

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