Do you teach in a self-contained classroom? Do you sometimes feel like your students are isolated from the rest of the students in the school with few opportunities for making friends?
As a teacher, I have witnessed full acceptance and friendship between students with and without disabilities. I have also witnessed teasing and hurtful behavior. Caring general education teachers often help foster the most natural, and therefore meaningful, relationships between students. The teacher greets the student when they entered the classroom, promote peer collaborations and include the student specifically during their time in the general education setting. They treat the student with special needs the same way they treat students without a disability. Students who might not naturally be disability blind learn from their teacher’s example.
I have also experienced classrooms where the student with special needs was completed isolated or ignored; where their desk was separated from the group, the teacher never interacted with the individual, and and rarely if ever alerted the special ed teacher of special class activities or field trips.
I am a firm believer that the Least Restrictive Environment means that a student should be taught in the environment in which he is most likely to succeed. For many students with intellectual disabilities and autism, this can mean in a small group setting, which is appropriate for gaining mastery of life skills and academics. However, in order to succeed socially and emotionally, students also need to be given opportunities to interact and develop meaningful relationships with their peers.
Here are some suggestions on how to implement social inclusion for your self-contained classroom:
1) GET EVERYONE ONBOARD Send out an email to your school principal, social worker and the classroom teachers for the grades you teach. Tell them that you feel there is a need to provide opportunities to foster friendships between your students and those in the general education classes. You might suggest a meeting to discuss/brainstorm ideas.
2) CREATE OPPORTUNITIES Think of times during the school day when social interactions naturally occur: before and after school, lunch, recess, gym, morning meeting, study hall, music, school clubs, school store, peer reading, class chores etc.
3) FUN FOR YOU, FUN FOR ME Students who participate should be volunteers, rather than selected by their teacher. It’s important that they are getting involved because they want to. Volunteers should be given some basic information about the students they will be socializing with (likes/dislikes, habits, communication skills).
4) SEE YOU TOMORROW Friendships develop over time, after many opportunities to get to know someone. While once a week is better than nothing, two to three times a week is better, and of course daily is best!
5) CHECK THIS OUT! Some students may need to be taught how to make friends. There are many social stories available on this topic (see also my blog on writing your own social stories https://enable2learn.com/how-to-write-a-social-story/ ) and also excellent books. I like this YouTube video which shows students practicing social skills: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuukBPccAeE
6) ANYONE INTERESTED? It’s important that the social activities are both interesting and natural for everyone. A student who loves to be active might have a peer friend whose job it is to set up the gym. A student who loves to talk could participate in the morning announcements. Student initiated activities are ideal. Ask the volunteers and your own students what they would like to do with a friend, and then see if you can make it work!
7) FRIDAY FRIENDS I once organized a group called Friday Friends. My students and a group of friends from the general education classroom met together every Friday for the last half hour of the day. During that time the students got together and did an activity such as making and eating a snack, cooperatively building with legos, going to the playground, playing board games, show and tell and more. The friends decided on the activities, the teachers set it up and then stood aside. The goal was to only step in when support was really needed. It was lots of fun and true friendships were formed that went beyond the confines of the group.
For more information and ideas I recommend 101 Ways to Facilitate Making Friends by Aaron Johannes, Susan Stanfield and Jim Reynolds. Maybe you can get your principal to purchase it for the faculty library! https://spectrumpress.myshopify.com/products/101-ways-to-facilitate-making-friends-how-to-engage-and-deepen-support-networks-for-people-with-disabilities
If you have any tips or experiences about fostering friendships for students with intellectual disabilities and/or autism, please share in the comment section below. Please sign up for my free newsletter, which will let you know when new materials are uploaded to enable2learn.