How Special Needs Children Can Make Friends With Peers

Smiling, Greeting Others and Asking Questions Can Help

young boys playing outside

AE Pictures Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Students with learning disabilities often feel socially isolated and have difficulty making friends with peers. But special needs children should not have to feel hopeless about making friends. By developing key social skills, these children can acquire just as many friends as their typical classmates.

Why Special Needs Kids Struggle to Make Friends

Children with learning disabilities often find it challenging to make friends because they:

  • Have low self-esteem
  • Worry about how (they think) others see them
  • Have difficulty with nonverbal reasoning and picking up on social cues such as body language or subtle meanings in everyday speech
  • May have limited interaction with typical peers if most of their classes are resource room classes
  • Shy away from extracurricular activities where socializing is involved

Students with learning disabilities may feel overwhelmed by the possibility of making friends. Parents can help children overcome fears and make friends using manageable steps.

Overcoming the Friendship Challenge

Parents can expose children to several strategies to help them make friends. They can take turns role-playing with the strategies before school or before social events. When possible, parents should be close by so children can consult them for reminders. Alternatively, parents can make plans to talk with children afterward to discuss how things went. Above all else, parents should stay positive and teach children that making friends is a skill that anyone can learn with practice.

Offering a Friendly Smile

Teach your child to smile in a friendly way to at least one new person every day. They don't have to say anything or do anything else other than smile, even in passing. If the other students do not smile back, tell your child they can simply keep moving on or look away. At the end of the day, ask them what they remember about the students they saw.

Do they know their names? Does they remember what the students were wearing? The purpose of this activity is to encourage your child to recognize others, smile, and observe characteristics about them. Once your child feels comfortable with smiling at new people, it is time to move to the next step.

Greeting Peers

Teach your child to smile and greet others. Assure your child that they don't need to talk beyond saying hello unless they feel comfortable doing so. At the end of the day, have them tell you about the people they greeted. Who spoke back? Again, if others don't say hello back, your child need not do anything other than move on to another activity. When they feel comfortable, have them move onto the next step.

Starting a Conversation

Teach your child to smile, greet others and comment. Have them smile, say hello and make a comment to at least one new person each day.

Practice comments ahead of time so your child will be ready to speak appropriately.

They can ask students how their day is going, comment on the weather or classroom activities, compliment their work in class, or make other positive statements. When your child feels comfortable with this, move on to the next step.

Asking Polite Questions

Teach your child the art of polite questioning. Asking others polite questions about themselves is a great way for your child to learn about them and look for common interests for building friendships.

Teach your child how having others talk about themselves is a good way for your child to help others feel important and valued. It also removes pressure from your child because they do not have to carry the conversation. In time, they will begin to feel more comfortable around these students as they start interacting with others.

As always, continue talking with your child in a casual way about the new friends they are meeting and what they have learned about them.

Wrapping Up

Before long, your child's conversations with other students should begin to grow on their own. Consider having your child pick one or two friends to invite over for a playdate. Check out some additional ways to further develop their friendships or to encourage shy children to participate in groups.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mafra H. Development of Learning and Social Skills in Children with Learning Disabilities: An Educational Intervention Program. Procedia Soc Behav Sci. 2015;209:221-228. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.11.220

  2. Ehmke R. The Child Mind Institute. Supporting the Emotional Needs of Kids With Learning Disabilities.

  3. Ogundele MO. Behavioural and emotional disorders in childhood: A brief overview for paediatricians. World J Clin Pediatr. 2018;7(1):9-26. doi:10.5409/wjcp.v7.i1.9

  4. Brooks BA, Floyd F, Robins DL, Chan WY. Extracurricular activities and the development of social skills in children with intellectual and specific learning disabilitiesJ Intellect Disabil Res. 2015;59:678-687. doi:10.1111/jir.12171

  5. Sel A, Calvo-Merino B, Tuettenberg S, Forster B. When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015;10(10):1316-1322. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv009