Building Friendships at School

By Adelle Purdham

Reprinted from 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #16: Back to School). Click here to download the full magazine.

One of the things I worried about most when my family of five moved cities was the friendships, connections, and community we’d be leaving behind – especially for ten-year-old Elyse, who has Down syndrome and for whom verbal communication is more difficult.

Elyse had attended school with the same group of kids from the time she was three and a half years old, and those kids knew her, understood her, and loved her. Elyse’s classmates included her; she was invited to their birthday parties and had friends on the playground at recess time, and kids who I knew looked out for her. I spent time in her school most years talking to the students about Down syndrome (with the help of Special Olympian Emily Boycott), and the school community embraced not only Elyse, but celebrating World Down Syndrome Day, too.

In regular meetings scheduled with her teachers, I asked about Elyse’s playmates. I requested to receive notes in her daily communication book when she connected with peers. Over the years, I developed a rapport with Elyse’s educational assistants, and they sent me videos and photos of her playing authentically with the other kids at recess, and participating in group activities during class time. Elyse didn’t often tell me about her friends while at home, but through the parents of those kids, I knew she was forming strong connections. When Elyse’s big sister Ariel was invited to a birthday party, Elyse, who is a year younger, was invited too. As a party favour, the girls received matching t-shirts, which they coordinated wearing to school the next day. Elyse belonged.

What would happen when we moved?

Challenges and Preconceived Notions

I don’t want to paint a perfect picture of how things were before our move, because Elyse faced real challenges in developing friendships that could be fostered outside of the school environment. On one occasion, I invited her enthusiastic school friend over to play, and Elyse didn’t show the slightest bit of interest in reciprocating or engaging with this friend once she arrived. The experience of hosting seemed too overwhelming.

This is where siblings, or other friends, can be helpers. Ariel got involved and stepped in to ‘host’ Elyse’s friend and make her feel welcome. In the end, I took all the girls to the park, and they had a great time each doing their own thing and occasionally playing together. From that experience, I realized I had to adjust my own expectations about what Elyse could manage as a friend, and also what friendship and a playdate ‘should’ look like. Elyse didn’t yet possess hosting skills, and so having her sister as a buffer was helpful.

Later, the parents told me the friend had a great time. Even though the play date was more side-by-side parallel play than direct interaction, or playing together, this friend knew Elyse and what she was signing up for.

Inclusion Begins at Home

When I say friendship, what I’m really talking about is building relationships and inclusion. I attended a session on inclusion as a delegate at the World Down Syndrome Congress in Chennai, India in 2014, and the speaker, a professor of psychology, stated plainly that inclusion begins in the home and moves outward. The ability to build friendships works this way, too.

Early on, I began thinking about the ways we as a family include Elyse. How do we play in a way that brings us all together? What activities include our youngest and most reticent family members? What draws each of us in, and holds us there?

For our family, it’s kicking around a soccer ball, or going swimming, or for a hike or dog walk, or to the park, or telling campfire stories in summertime, or reading a book. We play card games like Uno, Hungry Hippo, Jenga, and Candy Land. As the adults, we model social interactions such as turn taking and communicating effectively when playing these games, to teach and reinforce social skills in a fun way. These social skills are necessary to be a good friend. We extend that play into our wider family circle by going to cottages with cousins, spending time together over family meals, and enjoying outings with grandparents.

Elyse naturally has a wonderful sense of humour, and oftentimes it is other kids who see that on their own. We encourage this gift with our laughter at every opportunity.

Create Opportunities

When we moved, Elyse had to build new friendships. A few weeks after beginning at the new school, I looked across the dinner table at my girls and nervously asked, “So… how’s it going? Who do you talk to you at school, Elyse?”

Elyse wasn’t giving me much in the way of a response, and Ariel, who happened to be in a split-class with Elyse, could see through my thinly-veiled questions. “Mom, don’t worry!” she said, “Elyse is a star. Everybody wants to be her friend and knows who she is.”

A month later, in an attempt to get to know the new school community, we invited her entire grade four class to the park behind our house for Elyse’s birthday. I created a homemade flyer with a picture of Elyse, with her help, and she handed one out to each classmate. My heart filled to bursting when nearly every kid in her class showed up with their families.

The party was simple: a playground for the kids to access and a table set up with pizza, cake, juice boxes, and a few snacks. The kids had a blast. I got to see Elyse’s budding friendships with her peers firsthand, as they chased each other around the playground. In this case, I had the caregivers to thank who made the effort to show up with their families for our daughter. Sometimes, all that people need to get involved, to be a friend, is the opportunity to do so.

Tips for Building Friendships at School

  • Get to know the school community. The adults in your child’s school, including teachers, educational assistants, and support staff, can provide insights into your child’s peer relationships, and are essential when it comes to creating an inclusive school environment conducive to friendship. Maintain good communication between school and home with regular meetings, a communication book, and a sharing app, such as Padlet.
  • Build social skills through family activities that involve turn taking and communication.
  • Educate. When students have an understanding of Down syndrome and how it impacts a child (e.g. that the muscles in Elyse’s mouth are weaker, and that’s why it’s harder for her to talk clearly), they are more like to show empathy, and less likely to act out of fear or apathy.
  • Focus on inclusion. Meaningful inclusion isn’t simply about being in the same space, it’s about engaging in activities with others where each person’s needs are able to be met. If a child is constantly spending time outside of the classroom away from their peers, how are they supposed to build friendships?
  • Lean into your child’s strengths. What are they naturally interested in or good at? Sign them up for extracurricular activities that give them the opportunity to practice social skills and build friendships outside of the classroom as well.
  • Follow the child’s lead and think outside the box. Set up playdates outside the school with classmates you know your child has a connection with, and choose an activity that your child loves (e.g. swimming, playing at the park or playground, going to a movie, making art).
  • Trust your child and your community. Give others the information, and then let them rise to the occasion of meeting your child where they are at, and create opportunities for them to do so.

When you look back at your own school days, what do you remember most? Chances are, it’s not the lessons learned in the classroom but the friends you made along the way. With a little help, the same will be true for your child with Down syndrome.