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This document has been archived because some of the information it contains may be out of date. (Effective June 2009)

Strategies for Supporting Friendship for All Students

By Carol Tashie and Zach Rossetti

Most of us agree that friendships are important for all people. So then, why do so many students with disabilities still not have the meaningful relationships they deserve? When we ask adults this question, we often hear concerns about students’ lack of social skills (or language skills, or personal care skills…), discrepancies between students’ interests, and/or information about labels and developmental ages. However, when we ask students, we hear a very different story. From them we hear of classmates being pulled out of classes, taken to rooms where “no one knows what really goes on.” Of students being over-supported by paraprofessionals who sometimes make it difficult for “kids to just be kids.” And of classmates going to the back of the room when the “real work” begins. In short, we hear of barriers embedded in the very systems set up to support students with disabilities.

We have discovered a great deal about friendships by listening to students. We have learned to pay close attention to the ways students with disabilities are educated and treated in schools. We have learned how important it is to avoid and overcome the barriers to friendship these practices erect. And by far the most important thing we have learned is that friendships are much more likely to occur when all of the people in a student’s life truly believe that he or she is someone who is valued and valuable and would make a wonderful friend. For when you believe that the world is a better place because this student is in it, you can begin to help others see and believe the same thing.

What follows are some strategies that students, teachers, and families in New Hampshire have found useful to value and support all students to have the rich and enviable social lives they deserve.

Difference not Deficiency

We often hear how friendships between students with and without disabilities happen more easily when children are young, but become more difficult as students age. A commonly accepted explanation is the growing discrepancy between students’ interests, abilities, needs, and desires. We believe a different interpretation is in order. Inherently, young children see disability as a difference – just as any other difference within and among people. Thus they respond to classmates with interest, honesty, and curiosity. Friendships result based on shared interests, playthings, location, and respect. As children grow older, they begin to realize that much of the adult world views disability not as a difference, but as a deficiency. They see their classmates with disabilities being pulled out of classes, given different materials and lessons, talked to in ways more appropriate for younger children, and being over-supported by paraprofessionals. From these actions, they learn that the student with disabilities does not simply have unique ways to move, dance, talk, and learn, but that those ways are less valued by the world around them. Thus, the discrepancy that grows as children age has less to do with student personalities and interests, and more to do with society’s beliefs and conventions.

Person-First Language

Through respectful language (“Trey, who loves Led Zeppelin, soccer, and has cerebral palsy”), you can model for others that the student with disabilities is a “person first.” By talking to and with the student in ways respectful to his or her age, you will show the world that all students must have age-appropriate expectations. You can model your belief that the student with disabilities is not deficient but simply moves through the world in different ways.

True Inclusion

It certainly goes without saying that students need to be together in order to develop respect, mutual interests, and real friendships. However, for too many students with disabilities, even those who are in general education classes, school days still consist of pull-outs and separate lessons. Reject the notion that some students must leave the classroom in order to learn. Object to inclusion in name only by exposing the hypocrisy of “inclusion rooms,” “inclusion teachers,” and “inclusion students.”

Support Communication

All students have the ability to develop effective ways to communicate their thoughts and knowledge. For students who do not speak or do not speak easily, advocate for augmentative or alternative means of communication. Make it clear that you presume competence in all people, and never assume a student who is not able to speak is unable to understand and learn. Learn to listen to all of the ways a student communicates and recognize that some students use “behavior” as their only way to get their points across.

Ask the Most Important Question: Who Is This Person?

An essential step to facilitating social relationships is to get to know the student. What is her story? What are her interests and dreams? What does he like? What does he dislike? What are her gifts and strengths? Most importantly, what does he want? Let the student’s dreams and desires fuel the process. How you gain this information is almost as important as the information itself. While many educators are accustomed to looking into student’s educational records for information, the answers to these questions are better obtained by asking the people who know the student best: the student, family, classmates, teachers.

Talk and Listen to Kids

As adults it is impossible for us to truly know what it is like to be a student. However, the solution to this dilemma is close at hand. Schools and classes are filled with students, all brimming with ideas, suggestions, and unique perspectives on our questions. Therefore, when working to improve the social life of a particular student, it is extremely valuable to ask classmates to tell you what you need to know. A student’s classmates can give you information about what friendship is like for students their age. They can tell you how they meet, where they go, why they like to hang out together. They can inform you about opportunities for social connections and let you know what students with particular interests do to get together. Students can advise you on who a student may want to spend time with and can serve as inside connectors to introduce one student to another or to a group.

Pay Attention

One of the greatest barriers to the formation of relationships is missed opportunities. Too often, the adults in a student’s life have difficulty paying attention to the natural relationships that are forming or the natural opportunities for these relationships to develop. A valuable strategy involves the commitment to spending the time to observe the natural opportunities for friendship, and then stepping in and supporting those to happen. When paying attention to what is really going on, the process becomes easier and common sense can fuel decisions.

Regular Communication with Families

Families know their children best and are invaluable resources when trying to understand a student’s interests and gifts. Families can provide information about the things their children do at home, which may translate into how a student can get involved in school. Families can also provide a historical perspective, such as which classmates a student has known for years and ways in which relationships were developed in earlier grades. Likewise, teachers can let families know which classmates have budding friendships with their children as well as inform them about extracurricular activities and potential social outings. Teachers can also offer families ideas on how to support friendship at home.


The search for the perfect strategy to facilitate relationships between people with and without disabilities is an impossible quest. There is no perfect strategy; there is simply the one (or two or five) that works for a particular student. Accordingly, we have offered a handful of approaches people have found to be most successful in enhancing reciprocal relationships. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is diverse and designed to provoke thinking outside of the box. As you think about strategies, it is crucial to keep in mind that unless a student is truly valued, fully included, and consistently treated with the highest of expectations, well-meaning strategies can easily result in relationships based on benevolence and pity, not mutual respect and appreciation.

Carol Tashie is an Inclusion Consultant based in Concord, New Hampshire. She may be reached at Zach Rossetti is a doctoral student in the Special Education and Disabilities Study Programs at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. He may be reached at


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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