How to Foster Friendships Between Kids With and Without Disabilities
Fostering Friendships Just in Time for National Best Friends Day – June 8th
From joyous, judgment-free days spent together to constructive opinions from our closest confidants, we know that friendship is a valuable asset to our happiness as humans. It does a lot of good for our well-being and quality of life: It opens our minds to new perspectives, gives us a sense of belonging, and can even reduce stress.
We are better together.
On June 8th every year, we get to celebrate those incredible bonds with National Best Friends Day. Though only a single day, the holiday holds year-round significance for the strength and importance of friendships.
And it gives us a forum to be intentional about how we foster inclusion for kids with disabilities, too.
What is National Best Friends Day?
Though its official origin is a little hazy, National Best Friends Day is an American invention that many people date back to the 1930s. It’s a day set aside to acknowledge our favorite people, perfect for planning summer fun with friends.
It’s also a great time to proactively encourage and empower youth to have diverse friendships.
Learning the social skills needed to gain friends throughout childhood can be tough for all of us. For children with disabilities, there are additional inherent barriers that make finding friendship hard. Separate classrooms, different play spaces, and a lack of inclusion keep kids apart.
However, the desire to interact with other children who are both like and unlike ourselves is still deeply felt. Creating opportunities for those friendships to flourish is what National Best Friends Day is all about.
So, what can we do to fulfill the deep-rooted need for friendship in students and campers with disabilities? How can we connect diverse student groups to foster potential bonds?
Let’s explore ways to celebrate on June 8th and beyond.
How to Foster Friendships Between Kids With and Without Disabilities
Kids rarely have complete control over where they go after school or who they get to be around. When they want new friends, they turn to the playmates who are around for companionship. Accordingly, the responsibility of inviting children into diverse environments that value and prioritize inclusion rests with parents, educators, and caregivers like us.
It’s a golden opportunity.
Friendships between kids with and without disabilities are not only possible but necessary and beneficial. Kids let us know that they want new friends, and as the adults in their lives, we can help them achieve that.
Here’s how we can foster friendships among all youth:
Redefine Friendship Opportunities
Youth with disabilities often have to seek out spaces that not only welcome them but allow them to interact with peers who do not share their disabilities. Specialized classes and programs that bring together kids with the same conditions are available, but ones that encourage learning and play for all children together are harder to find.
Per a writeup in Disabled World:
“Children with disabilities should have the option of receiving their specialized services in the same settings as their typically developing peers, instead of in isolated classrooms,” said co-author Pamela J. Winton, former chair of the National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute. “But teachers may feel unsupported and unprepared to serve some children adequately.”
Changing that narrative starts with us, and the initial steps are simple:
- Remove barriers to friendship: Kids with and without disabilities are often separated from each other for school and play. Change that! Bring kids together into one space with combined activities that let them all get to know each other.
- Stop viewing inclusion as an optional add-on: It’s not uncommon for group leaders to plan their programming and then try to tack on inclusive alternatives later. Consider inclusion from the very beginning to ensure all children’s needs are represented in your program.
We can create environments that allow friendships to flourish – even if they don’t already exist for our kids. Dismantling the long-standing barriers that have prevented inclusion should be a top priority if we want to encourage comfortable, organic friendships to form.
Show Up for Each Other
One of the best parts of a strong friendship is always having support, someone who is constantly there for you through thick and thin. That goes for program planners and educators, too! To encourage friendships between children with disabilities and their peers, we can be sure to always show up for one another.
- Create & enroll students in inclusive environments year-round: After-school programs, clubs, and summer camps that unite diverse youth are excellent environments for finding lifelong friendships. Developing reliable sources of inclusive support will ease the stress of finding friends for a lot of families.
- Extend & accept invitations: Be proactive and deliberate about bringing diverse youth into your programs. Likewise, extend and accept invitations to collaborate with other teachers and caregivers in planning inclusive activities. Through our collaboration, we can show students that we value their desire to connect despite any existing barriers.
As parents and educators, we play a large part in fostering inclusive friendships. Working in tandem is the best way to achieve that. It’s what best friends are for! Together, we can dispel misconceptions that keep kids apart and help them find lasting bonds with their peers.
Confront Stigma Head-On
It’s no secret that stigma stands in the way of friendship sometimes, especially for children with disabilities. However, as we know, disability is a normal part of life: About 54 million people in the United States are disabled. So, where does the stigma come from? How does it persist?
Separate classrooms and activity times draw an arbitrary line between kids with and without disabilities. When they get the chance to interact with each other, those preconceived differences often fade. That’s why we should confront stigma head-on: it’s easy to debunk.
While kids are taught bias, they can be taught inclusion as well.
- Provide honest education: Kids can – and should – learn the value of diversity and mutual respect. There are fun ways to convey these lessons without being heavy-handed, and leading by example is an excellent way to start.
- Find common ground: A big barrier to inclusive friendships is the preconceived notion that there are insurmountable differences between youth. We know that’s not the case! From a shared favorite animal, hobby, or background, kids can instantly empathize with each other. We simply need to surface those commonalities to start forging connections.
Sure, not all kids will be compatible; neither are all adults! But we can all learn a lot from each other if we open our minds to a different perspective, a valuable lesson for kids to enjoy through play and friendship early on.
Promoting Friendship Among All Students
Friendship is an incredible thing that we all have a right to. But for any of us, making friends can come with friction sometimes. We can help kids avoid that by creating opportunities for them to expand their social circles intentionally.
One of our favorite inclusion courses acknowledges the critical role friendship has for all children and focuses on how to promote friendships in your programs. It covers:
- The number one reason why parents of children with disabilities enroll them in inclusive environments
- How to identify signs that a child wants to engage with peers
- Strategies for facilitating friendships between children with and without disabilities based on different scenarios
Just in time for the best National Best Friends Day ever, we encourage you to enroll now!