Helping Complex Learners Foster Friendships
In the movie Toy Story, cowboy doll Woody and action figure Buzz Lightyear started their relationship with plenty of misunderstandings and conflicts. But by the end of the movie, they are BFFs, having fun and being there for each other in the good times and bad. We could all use a friend like Buzz or Woody, but as the movie shows us, friendships can take a lot of work!
This is especially true for children who have multiple learning disabilities or suffer from social anxiety. It can be hard for kids with learning disabilities to make and keep friends. Complex Learners don’t always recognize social cues or know the right thing to say at the right time. This can make playdates and social gatherings feel like a nightmare!
As a parent, it can be heartbreaking to see that your child is being excluded or plays alone. You want to help your child learn how to find friends to play with and be part of a group of peers, but how? Here are some helpful ways to support your child in negotiating the tricky terrain of friendship.
Act It Out
For students with learning disabilities or social anxiety, interacting with their peers can be both confusing and scary. But a little bit of practice can make all the difference! At home, try acting out different scenarios with your child.
Go over the basics of a play date like taking turns, eye-contact, body language, and practicing polite conversation. If your child suggests a game that their peer doesn’t want to play – how should he react? If you know specifics that your child struggles with, like how to start a conversation at the lunch table, practice that! What can she say to get a conversation going? What should he do to show his peer that he’s listening?
Just as you want to encourage positive behavior, you also want to acknowledge mistakes. If you see your child acting bossy during a play date, on the drive home, talk about how that might have made her friend feel and how she can handle the situation differently the next time.
Ask For Input
If your child is struggling to make friends, the best resource could be the classroom teacher! Having an outside perspective from someone who knows your child’s strengths and weaknesses could make all the difference.
Reach out and ask your child’s teacher about a potential social match in the classroom. In some cases, they might even recommend a younger student. For students with ADHD, who are often less mature than their peers, having a younger student could be the perfect solution. Cluing your child’s teacher in can also have benefits in the classroom. If she realizes your child is struggling maybe she can pair him up with a potential social match for the next group project, giving them an excuse to get to know each other and spend time together? Maybe his teacher can introduce a conversation game at snack time to help your child develop communication skills or make the introduction between two students if your child is too anxious to do it herself.
Your child’s teacher understands the importance of social connection and cares for your child. Having a teacher on your side can only help!
Pursue Shared Interests
The best way to encourage friendship with children is helping them find someone with similar interests. If your child has no interest in basketball, signing him up for the local basketball team won’t help him connect with other children. With Complex Learners, it’s a combination of opportunity and connection that will have the best results. Your child probably has a “high-interest nervous system” and will respond well to others who share similar interests.
As a parent, you can help find opportunities where connections can be made through similar interests. Do they love working with computers? Check to see if there is a children’s coding club in your city or at your local library. Does she love animals? Maybe a summer camp at the Zoo would be the perfect place! Check out the after-school activities at her school or the group/club offerings at your local YMCA or Boys & Girls Club. You’d be surprised at how many options there are! Knowing he already shares a common interest with other kids can take a lot of stress out of social situations because it provides a built-in conversation starter!
It can be disheartening to worry about your child making friends, but don’t be discouraged! Go at his pace and encourage and support where you can! Sometimes finding a good friend takes some trial and error, and there can be bumps along the way. Just ask Buzz and Woody!
What strategies have you found successful in encouraging your child to make friends?