When our kids move up to middle school or high school, we all worry about their social relationships — sometimes even as much as we worry about their academics.

Will she continue to hang out with the same nice kids? Will he meet some new friends who will broaden his horizons a bit? How will all those new faces affect the dynamics of current friendships?

Even good friends separate after elementary school or middle school because of changing activities and interests.

Now imagine if your child has a physical or cognitive disability that might impact his ease in making friends. So many other questions arise. How will he fit in? Will she ever be able to form deep friendships? What types of activities can he go to, and with what social circle? Will the school help?

Accepting differences

If your child has been with the same classmates since 4K, he might have been somewhat protected from these issues. Four-year-olds are often very accepting of each other’s differences. They might ask questions, but they rarely judge.

Fortunately, lots of kids seems to be carrying those good qualities on to middle and high school.

“Students are very nice to each other and very cordial,” says special education teacher Jenny Sprague. In her experience at Wauwatosa East High School, “Kids with special needs are not picked on in school,” but she admits that it is harder for them to develop genuine friendships. “I don’t think kids ever mean to be mean. They just connect with people who have similar interests and who they spend time with.”

Spending time together is less of a problem these days, as Sprague reports that many kids are benefitting from increased inclusion. “Now there aren’t as many separate classes” (for kids with special needs). Kids of all abilities are grouped together in English, social studies, band and even science classes.

“The amount of inclusion we have in our schools has helped with how students with disabilities are viewed. People can see what they are capable of doing, and the focus is on everybody’s strengths.”

Making real friends

Being in class together means that interactions occur more naturally, and students of all abilities are more likely to hang out together at after-school activities. Sprague encourages her special education students to get involved in as many activities as possible.

“Community involvement, clubs and sporting events are great ways get connected and create those bonds,” she said. Encourage your students to sign up for clubs that might interest him or go to sporting events and cheer on the teams, she suggests. “That’s what fosters those relationships and connections.”

Not every friendship is going to last, and there are ways parents can soften the blow when their tweens and teens with special needs face rejection. Sprague suggests communicating what a positive relationship looks like and explaining that everybody is different and likes to do different things.

To parents of regular education students: remind your kids to keep an open mind and be open to all types of relationships with students of all abilities. Teen friendships are hard enough without limiting your pool of potential friends.

Maureen Connors Badding is a Wauwatosa freelance writer and mom.


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