5 Factors That Promote Friendships in Inclusive Classrooms

Children sitting on the ground, engrossed in reading books and magazines.

How do we ensure our students get the help they need without harming them socially? 

In my last blog, I introduced Dr. Michael Giangreco and what his research has shown us about how supporting our neurodivergent students and those with disabilities can affect their development of social skills and relationships with their peers. We know that even the most well-meaning teachers and Teaching Assistants (TAs) can inadvertently hinder their students' opportunities for natural peer interaction with their support. 

Thankfully, there are proven ways to help students of all abilities build and maintain friendships in the classroom. In fact, I weave social considerations throughout nearly every strategy suggested in my training courses and consultations. In this blog post, I’ve assembled five factors that provide a solid foundation for promoting friendships in inclusive classrooms:

#1: Relationships Built on Trust

One of the first concepts learned in any teacher education program is the importance of building relationships with your students. This holds true for our neurotypical students as well as neurodivergent. Just like any academic ability, helping our students develop their social skills and form friendships begins with our relationship with them. 

There are many ways to build relationships with students. Here are three that I've found particularly helpful with students who have disabilities:

Practice active listening & balanced conversations

Reassure your students that you're interested in what they have to say by practicing active listening. This typically involves making eye contact, but if you're working with a student who feels uncomfortable with this, simply sit next to them, facing the same direction. Be sure to stay present when they speak, ask for clarification when needed, and respond appropriately and naturally. Keep in mind that there shouldn't be one person who talks more than the other. Refrain from interrupting or changing the subject; just speak as you would with a friend or coworker. 

Use age-appropriate physical interactions

When interacting with your student, consider what's age-appropriate and take cues from what the rest of their peers are doing. If the other students use fist bumps or high fives to say hi in the morning, you should do the same with your student.

Pick your battles

Try to let the little things go if they aren't interfering with anyone's learning or escalating into a larger issue. Continuously correcting your students throughout the day could cause them to feel resentful and be a roadblock in your relationship. 

I recently observed a music class where a first-grade boy was waving his arms around because he enjoyed the music the class was singing. His assistant sat directly behind him and physically stopped his arms from moving to the music. This is a good example of when the child's behavior was not bothering anyone else in the room — and it actually seemed to enhance his experience during the music class. The assistant should have allowed his arms to continue moving to the music.

#2: A Sense of Belonging 

For our students to be part of the classroom community, they first have to be physically present in the classroom, and then they need to feel like they belong there. 

I firmly believe that classrooms should be inclusive and accommodating for all students, regardless of their academic or behavioral abilities. The more we segregate students and withdraw them from the regular classroom environment, the more we reinforce the notion that they don't truly belong.

When students require a space to decompress or take sensory breaks, exploring ways to give these accommodations within the classroom is important. By doing so, we not only create an inclusive environment for the students in need but also normalize the concept of sensory support. In all likelihood, other students could benefit from similar sensory interventions to regulate their bodies and emotions.

By incorporating sensory diets or strategies to support students' sensory needs, we promote a classroom culture of understanding and acceptance. This approach acknowledges that every student has unique requirements for optimal learning and well-being. It also encourages other students to engage in self-care practices, fostering a sense of empathy and teaching them valuable skills for self-regulation.

Ultimately, by prioritizing a sense of belonging and inclusivity and addressing students' diverse needs within the regular classroom setting, we create an environment where every student feels valued, supported, and empowered to reach their full potential.

#3: Proximity of the TA to a Student

Authors and inclusive education advocates Julie Causton and Kate MacLeod emphasize the importance of "burning the chair" or being mindful of where the TA is in relation to the student they are supporting. If a TA sits directly next to one specific student for the entire school day, it singles that student out, creates dependency on adults, and interferes with peer relationships.

While there are a few instances where it's necessary for a TA to sit directly next to a student, such as when they're scribing, providing medical care, or offering physical support, it is best to avoid a dedicated chair next to the student needing assistance. Instead, with every student you're assigned to, you should ask yourself and your team: 

  • When is it that they need the most support? 

  • What will that support look like, and how does that support make the student as independent as possible? 

By pinpointing the moments when the student needs the most assistance, you can tailor seamless and silent support accordingly. This might involve providing additional guidance during complex tasks, offering organizational strategies, or facilitating communication with teachers and peers. In the end, limiting your proximity to your assigned student to only what's necessary will promote independence — our ultimate goal as teachers — and make it easier for that student to build and maintain friendships with peers. 

#4: Encouragement of Peer Support

Encouraging students to seek help from and support each other is a great way to ensure they aren't becoming overly reliant on adults and also sets up opportunities to build friendships. By creating intentional scenarios where students engage with one another, share their experiences, and offer help to each other, they will learn to collaborate, empathize, and develop strong social skills. 

To encourage peer support in the classroom, consider implementing strategies like:

Three before me

Make a classroom rule that students must ask a specific number of peers for help before coming to a teacher. This builds natural relationships between the students without adult interference. Best of all, the rule can apply to all students and help with classroom management.

Buddy system

Building buddies or partners into the daily routine is important in nurturing peer interactions. For example, you could have students choose silent reading partners who sit next to each other when reading, transition partners who move from place to place together, or lunch partners who sit next to each other in the cafeteria.

It's most effective for these partners or buddies to change regularly and to make sure a specific student isn't always called on to support the neurodivergent student or the student with a disability. These practices are good for all students involved.

#5: Fading of Support 

The last factor to keep in mind for promoting friendships in inclusive classrooms is gradually and strategically fading support over time. The more we fade support, the more room there is for peer interaction. Of course, this is a balancing act that requires careful observation and the understanding that transitioning from constant adult support to solely depending on peers is not an immediate or straightforward process.

Strategies such as the prompting ladder are great ways to assist educators in providing the "just right" level of support our students need — enough for them to participate and progress in classroom activities without being overly intrusive or creating dependence on adults.

By gradually fading our support, we allow students to actively participate in their own learning and social experiences. Peers can step in and offer assistance when needed, creating opportunities for collaboration and building meaningful relationships. This process promotes independence and instills a sense of responsibility and empathy in the peer helpers.

Inclusive classrooms thrive on the foundation of supportive relationships and a sense of belonging for all students. By implementing the five factors discussed — building trust, creating a sense of belonging, managing proximity, encouraging peer support, and gradually fading support — TAs can play a pivotal role in promoting friendships and developing social skills.

Stay tuned for my next blog, which will explore strategies for facilitating social skills and friendships in unstructured settings, such as during transitions, in the lunchroom, or while choosing partners. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with any questions or to set up a consultation.