Social Cue Clueless? How to Help Your Child with Special Needs on the Playground

It can take time for children to learn the ins and outs of one of the most important social settings in a child’s life — the playground. Children with special needs may need a little help from you to guide them.

Rick Lavoie, a special needs educator and author of the book It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success (Touchstone, 2005), says between 80 and 90 percent of children with special needs have problems communicating with other children on the playground. And, according to Lavoie, we shouldn’t be surprised that a child who has problems with memory, perception and comprehension in the classroom has those same problems on the playground or on the weekend when he goes to Grandma’s house. It’s these neurological-based problems, after all, that also can affect a child’s ability to socially interact.

Make a Date

Lavoie’s recommendation for combating this difficulty is for parents to get involved with their children’s friendships. Start by helping your child choose his or her friends. Next, help your child set up play dates. But, Lavoie warns, they have to be effective play dates.

“Today, play dates are the coin of the realm,” Lavoie says. “In my day, you just hung around in the neighborhood, but today kids have to have play dates. For special needs kids, they can be a disaster if the parents don’t set them up to work.” His tips for a successful play date include:

  1. Invite only one friend at a time. If you invite two, the two guests may hang around together and ignore the child with special needs.
  2. Send the child’s siblings away. The guest may find the sibling more appealing than the child with special needs, and the sibling and guest may pair off and ignore the child with special needs.
  3. Make the last 15 minutes of the play date memorable. Children tend to remember the last 15 minutes of any event. If you make it a good experience, for example by giving the kids a great snack, the guest will remember the play date as a positive experience and will be more likely to come back another time.


Show Them How to Play

Dr. Mary Ann Swiatek, a psychologist at KidsPeace, a national children’s crisis charity that works with children with special needs, says in addition to providing appropriate opportunities for kids with special needs to interact with other kids, parents should educate teachers and other children about their child’s disability. She also says modeling, or showing a child how to behave by having them observe your behavior, is a good way for parents to help their child with special needs learn social interaction.

Dr. Swiatek also suggests parents try empathy training. “Even if you’re just watching television you can have conversations about a character’s behavior in a situation, what the child thinks the character is feeling and what she or he thinks the character should do,” she says.

Both experts agree that when trying any of these techniques to help your child on the playground, you should expect it to take some time before seeing improvement. It all depends on each child’s unique circumstances. But one thing is certain: With the help of your love and support, it won’t be too long until your child is comfortable at play on the playground.

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