Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

Promising Practices to Support Friendships in Inclusive Classrooms


Barbara Davis Goldman is a Research Scientist with the FPG Child Development Institute, and a Research Associate Professor in Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The promise of inclusion is that children with disabilities will actually learn alongside, play with, and be friends with children without disabilities. While the first of these may be fairly easy to achieve, helping children, especially those with significant disabilities, to play with children with and without disabilities and become friends with them takes some effort. This article presents a brief listing of ways that professionals and parents can help support friendships. For additional information about rationales and research behind these strategies, please consult the four publications in the Conclusion section of this article.

Signs of Friendship, or "Friendship Potential"

To learn how to encourage friendships inside and outside the inclusive early childhood classroom, it helps to know what young friendships might look like. Then, you can start to look for ones that are emergent, or just developing, because these may need some encouraging support. While observing, you can also be scouting for "hot prospects" or potential friends for children who appear to need them by looking for just a few of the signs, since they may show promise of a friendship in the future. Friendships may not have all these signs, but the following list is a good place to start. Watch for two children who:

  • Play together frequently, or just "hang out" together as a pair, and are often together even when they are part of a larger group.
  • Do the same thing at the same time, either because they have common interests or because they just want to be together, or both of these reasons.
  • Copy each other's actions or words.
  • Use language to create similarity, such as "we-talk" (e.g., "we're making a train" or "we're silly" or "we're friends") or use "tag questions" to establish joint agreement (e.g., "This is our fort, right?").
  • Share smiles, "jokes" and laughter, especially at silly things that no one else would find so funny.
  • Either one or both help, share, protect, and/or comfort the other.

It is possible that you will not need to do anything special for established friendships, but for children who have had only a few friends, or are young, or have special needs, it is likely that you will still want to encourage the development and continuation of these friendships using some of the strategies listed below. To encourage the development of new friendships, think of yourself as a "matchmaker" and look for children who show glimmers of interest in each other, or in similar activities, and try different ways to bring them together and support their interactions.

Supporting Friendships: General Strategies

General techniques for facilitating peer interaction, supporting "old" friendships, and encouraging new ones to develop in the early childhood classroom include the following:

  • Provide plenty of free choice/free play time so children can choose who they want to be with and what they want to do together.
  • Provide multiples of toys or sets of toys so it is easy for them to copy each other, or do the same thing together, or extend and coordinate their play as they mature.
  • Provide adaptive equipment so children with mobility challenges can join the group and play together.
  • Allow vigorous, noisy, or silly play at least occasionally because of its potential for shared positive affect such as laughter, which can help create and then reinforce friendship.
  • Present interesting objects or activities that children are likely to flock to you to see, and then you may be able to get something going between the children.
  • Be available yourself, at child level, which will attract children to you as the "interesting object" and then you are available to get an interaction going between the children.
  • Be on the lookout for the times when an action that you do with a child attracts the attention of a peer, so you can either fade out or support a joint activity.
  • Play turn-taking games (like rolling a ball) and imitation games, or take back-and-forth turns in play with children who are developmentally very young to provide the critical foundation for future interactions and friendships with other children.

Supporting Specific Friendships

Techniques for supporting specific friendship pairs, both established and new, and for individual children or pairs who need more support, include:

  • Include small, cozy spaces just big enough for two, or playground equipment that needs two, to help them focus just on each other – interactions are much easier with just two.
  • Allow a pair some interpersonal "privacy" so they can concentrate on their relationship – even if it means that they need to exclude others occasionally.
  • Make special materials or activities available during free choice time that both members of the pair especially enjoy in order to encourage them to play together.
  • Arrange for children to be close to each other, and/or actively bring children together, especially those who may have trouble moving around independently.
  • Help children join ongoing group activities like dramatic play by finding appropriate roles for them.
  • Join children in their play so you can help keep the interaction going, and interpret, or speak for, or explain the actions of children for those whose social and communication skills are just developing.
  • Teachers should share with parents information about the established, and especially emergent, friendships observed in the classroom so the parents might be able to arrange "play dates" for the two outside of class, where they can focus on each other.
  • Parents should ask teachers about friends and "hot prospects" and, if possible, arrange "play dates" with these children or with others who may be a good match for their child.
  • Parents can support the interactions as necessary, but also need to let the pair play independently, being available only as needed, as above.


With a little help, young children can find playmates. With help and a little luck, many will also find friends. To learn more about the strategies described above for supporting friendships, see the following resources:

  • Goldman, B. D. and Buysse, V. (2008). Making friends: Assisting children's early relationships.FPG Snapshot, 55.
  • Goldman, B. D. (2007, Spring/Summer). What early educators and parents can do to support friendships in early childhood.Children and Families: The Magazine of the National Head Start Association, 12-15.
  • Goldman, B. D. and Buysse, V. (2007). Friendships in very young children. In O.N. Saracho & B. Spodek (Eds.),Contemporary perspectives on socialization and social development in early childhood education(pp. 165-192). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
  • Goldman, B. D. and Buysse, V. (2005).The Playmates & Friends Questionnaire for Teachers, Revised. Chapel Hill, NC: Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.