Home icon

Making and Keeping Friends for Young Children with and without Disabilities

Happy children playing with bubbles

This podcast features Dr. Seon Yeong Yu, who shares tips for teachers and parents about friendship development for young children with and without disabilities.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Seon Yeong Yu is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.



Natalie Danner: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah, thank you for having me I’m so happy to be here today.

Natalie Danner: We’re glad to have you. So today we are eager to hear from you as a researcher on children’s friendships and social-emotional competence because our listeners want to know more about how children make and keep friends and other peer relationships too. So, let’s get started. First Dr. Yu, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your research?

Seon Yeong Yu: Actually, I originally came from South Korea prior to studying my doctoral program in Illinois. I was a special education teacher for young children in South Korea for many years. As a teacher, I had many opportunities to observe young children’s peer interactions in their play. So, as you know, some children are really good at making friends, but some children experience difficulties interacting with other people. So, I was always curious how young children develop social relationships with others, especially in peers with disabilities and how families and teachers can support their peer relationships and friendships. So, this has been my research agenda, and I’m also really interested in how young children come to understand disability and make friends with those peers who have disabilities.

Natalie Danner: Great well let’s begin by chatting about the overall landscape of friendships and young children, so to start us off, what does a friendship look like for a young child?

Seon Yeong Yu: To each other, we may describe our friends as someone who we like, spend time together, help each other, and trust. So young children’s friendships also share some of these similar characteristics. When researchers ask the preschool children to describe their friends, most of the children say friends are nice to me, help me, and play with me. So, I think mutual liking, helping, and spending time together are the most common characteristics of friendships for all ages. But for young children, I think, play is really important context to understand their friendships because the children define a friend as someone who they like to play with.

Natalie Danner: That makes a lot of sense. So, when we’re talking about age groups, so you’re talking about the differences between adults and children. But even within the category of young children, how do friendships and peer relationships differ as children are different ages or as they grow and develop from ages toddlers, even up to kindergarteners?

Seon Yeong Yu: So, I think some people might think the difference between peer relationships and friendships is not really clear, and playmates are the same as a friends. I think that is partially, true, but many children, even preschoolers, have clear ideas about who their friends are. So, when you ask preschool children to name their friends, their responses are pretty consistent. Some children even differentiate just a friend and best friends. So, I think young children’s friendships are characterized by playmate preference. So playmates could be friends, but are not always the same as friends. So, during all the childhood years, children begin to develop the ideas of friendships, like who their friends are and why they are friends, but as they grow, their ideas with friendships involve more abstract concept like sharing affections and having a trusting relationship.

Natalie Danner: Wow there’s so much to friendships. Let’s talk about some of the benefits of friendships and young children. So when we talk about having friends, how does that impact a child’s view of themselves in a positive way?

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah I think there are many benefits of friendships. So friendships to provide valuable contacts for children to learn and practice social, cognitive, and communication skills, and age-appropriate behaviors. Children also learn how to express their emotions, interpret their friend’s feelings, understand others’ views and needs, and solve conflicts with their friends and having friends impact the children’s sense of belonging and their views of themselves. For example, children can see some similarities and differences between themselves and their friends. And those reflections can help children better understand who they are and what they like or dislike and how they and their friends interact with other people.

Natalie Danner: Wow, so it’s almost like within a friendship, they’re developing themselves as individuals as well.

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah.

Natalie Danner: That’s great. So, let’s also talk about some recommendations for teachers and families who really want to promote these types of friendships. What are some tried and true methods for promoting friendships in the classroom?

Seon Yeong Yu: I think some teachers and families may think their friendships naturally develop without any prescribed intervention plans. I think this is partially true, as we all like to have a friend, so we expect the young children to also make friends. But I think the importance and benefits of having friends during early childhood years are sometimes overlooked. Actually, there are not many active efforts like intervention programs specifically focused on promoting friendships in early childhood settings. Usually, our friendships are included in social-emotional curriculum and combined when they’re teaching social skills. I think it’s a good idea to teach social skills so children learn how to interact and play with their peers, which you will ultimately affect their friendship formation. However, I think we need more intentional efforts to help children develop friendships. So, the efforts could include intentional and consistent planning about when to provide opportunities to play and who will be the play partners and what materials the children will use, and what games and activities will be introduced, and what’s approved will be provided for children with disabilities or challenging behaviors.

Natalie Danner: Well there’s a lot of thought to go into that process for really thinking of the precursors, or what you can do to support the children to develop those friendships in the classroom. So teachers have a lot of work to do with that. Because not every child develops friendships right away or naturally like you said.

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah.

Natalie Danner: So when we’re talking about parents, what can they do to promote friendships for their child?

Seon Yeong Yu: Parents play an important role in children’s peer relationships and friendships because parents often decide when and under what circumstances their young children can interact with other children. Actually, my daughter became best friends with the daughter of my friend because we live in the same town and often schedule the playdates for our children.

My daughter is now a college student, but she is still good friends with my friend’s daughter.

So, I think it’s helpful for parents to provide many different opportunities for their children to interact with other peers like going to a park, community event, and other activities outside of school. And children always talk about their friends at home, so if parents notice a friendship that their child has just decided to form with their peer, I recommend contacting the peer’s parents and schedule a time for a playdate.

Also during play dates, parents can monitor how their child plays and help them solve some conflicts and suggest ideas for play if needed. Research shows that not many parents take these active roles during playdates. I’m not suggesting parents interrupt children’s play, but play dates also provide insight for parents to see how their children interact with other peers, so they can have a better idea about how to support their children’s friendships.

Natalie Danner: Well, those are really some great ideas of how parents can support the friendships on a playdate. I haven’t even really thought of like making the playdate as one thing, but then supporting them during the playdate is another thing to consider too. Is there anything unique to consider when we’re talking about promoting friendships for children with disabilities and/or delays?

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah, so I think the parents of the children with disabilities also can use the same strategies like the ones I just mentioned. But maybe they can also check with their child’s teacher, if there is any program or activity that their child’s school or class could implement to support their children’s friendship development and see if there is anything that they can do to help to increase their child’s participation in the programs.

Also, during playdates parents can suggest some ideas and materials for their child’s play and actually young children recognize different abilities and behaviors in their peers even though they do not have the correct vocabulary to describe what they are observing. So, if a parent’s very comfortable, they can share with those peers what kind of a play their child with a disability likes and what they are trying to do independently or with support.

So young children’s ideas about disability are pretty flexible, so it’s a good time to talk about human diversity, including disability, with those children to help them understand and develop friendships with children with disabilities.

Natalie Danner: Great answer. I love to hear about strategies that both parents have and teachers can have with children with disabilities and delays that may be playing with typically developing peers and that’s a pretty typical activity in an early childhood classroom, but also can be a typical activity in a home or at a playground too just in the community. So it’s good to hear some of the flexible thinking that children have about disability because they’re new to it so they’re very open to lots of diversity in ways of human development.

Is there anything, now we’re talking about maybe more of the pandemic, we always have to have a question about the pandemic in one of these podcasts. Is there anything that you’ve noticed that really helps children maintains friendships during the pandemic. So, for example, when we’re talking about video conferencing, and children, is that helpful? Or is it harmful? Can children have a playdate over video? What about outdoor playdates? There’s so many questions that parents have. What is helpful for maintaining those friendships.

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah, as we all know this pandemic is really challenging for children’s development in many ways. In many schools, the children are required to wear a mask and asked to maintain social distancing. So children are not able to fully understand peers’ facial expressions, and they have limited opportunities to interact with their peers.

Actually, I don’t think online interactions could be a replacement for in-person interactions. The parents can utilize the Internet-based formats, like a Zoom or Facetime, for their children to stay connected with peers and friends, and use some children’s books that talk about different emotions and social behaviors and parents also could schedule playdates outdoors like at local parks or playgrounds and organized play dates with one or two other peers in their house or a backyard, so children can continue to have opportunities to play and connect with their friends.

Natalie Danner: That’s like a good compromise, especially the outdoor playdates, although I do have to say in Illinois and probably in Massachusetts right about now, it’s a little bit cold. But, you know, if you’re dressed properly, you could probably have a good time in the snow too. So, as we wrap things up, what is the most important message that you want to give to families and teachers about friendships?

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah, I think we all know the importance of peer relationships and friendships for young children. […] everyone has friends and it’s a hard to imagine our lives without friends. However, in school, I think children spend more time in teacher-led academic areas like reading and math than child-initiated play activities. And children’s friendships are open and considered as something that naturally develops without support or just a type of peer relationships. But friendships provide lots of benefits for children’s development and some children really need to suffer for developing friendships, which is essential to everyone alive.

So, families and teachers can share how they view friendships for young children and work together to provide opportunities for children to develop and maintain friendships through play and support children with disabilities or challenging behaviors to learn and practice social skills to engage in play and build positive peer relationships and friendships.

Natalie Danner: Great ending statement. I want to thank you Dr. Yu for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning podcast.

Seon Yeong Yu: Yeah, you’re welcome! Thank you so much for having me.

Natalie Danner: So until next time, thank you and keep early learning at the forefront.

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents and caregivers and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022