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Supporting Young Children’s Friendships: An Interview with Dr. Michaelene Ostrosky

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In this interview, Dr. Ostrosky and Dr. Rebecca Swartz discuss why friendships are important to young children as well as strategies for helping young children, including those with disabilities, develop the skills for making friends.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Ostrosky is the head of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



Thank you 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 Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members. Welcome. Today is October 23, [2017], and I’m speaking with Dr. Micki Ostrosky on the Illinois Early Learning podcast about children’s friendships. Welcome, Dr. Ostrosky. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Dr. Ostrosky: Sure. I am a professor and head of the Department of Special Education right now at the University of Illinois, and I would say kind of descriptors that characterize my research really have to do with inclusion in early childhood special education and supporting children with disabilities—really supporting all children—but supporting children with disabilities in inclusive settings.

Most of my research has focused on social communication, so looking at children’s social interactions as well as their peer interactions or interactions with adults in classroom environments. And right now I currently have a grant with a colleague, Paddy Favazza, in Massachusetts. We’re looking at motor, and motor intervention, and supporting children’s motor development in inclusive preschool classrooms.

Dr. Swartz: Moving around is a great time also to make friends.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: When they’re running together, throwing balls together, or swinging on swings together, those are all chances to make friends. So perhaps today, we’ll talk about some of those opportunities. So, tell me a little bit about yourself and what led you to research the friendships of young children with disabilities.

Dr. Ostrosky: So I was a practicing teacher in the mid, early to mid-’80s and taught children who were deaf and blind, and I found it fascinating. In fact, I worked in Illinois up at the what’s now called the Philip Rock Center, at the time it was called the Illinois Deaf Blind School.

I found it fascinating to watch the children and how they would push peers away and really seek out the adults in their environment. They knew that they could get access to materials, to activities, to affection, or whatever assistance they needed from the adults, but they really didn’t see their peers as being anything more than problems in the environment, per say. Sometimes they would engage in challenging behavior, even pinching peers or shoving them out of their way to find the adults in the environment.

So, it really got me interested in how can we help children, these children, interact with each other more, even if it was rolling a ball back and forth between each other, holding hands while we did some kind of group activity, passing instruments while we did musical things that they could feel vibrations on. So, it really made me interested in—or got me interested in—peer interaction, and what are kind of precursors, what, how do we get children to interact with each other and see each other more as an asset as opposed to being a problem in the environment.

Dr. Swartz: So, it seems like you felt that peers were really important teachers for children, as well as a resource for children.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely. So I think a teacher, a resource, a learning opportunity as well as peers can provide comfort to children and provide joy, provide support. So there are a lot of benefits that children—that we all get out of friendships. If we all think about our own friendships as adults, it typically brings a smile to your face when you jot down characteristics or think about what are characteristics of your own closest friends. The same is true for young children. They are excited going to school, be it that they have one really close friend or a whole group of friends that they engage with.

Dr. Swartz: So the friends are a source of joy and comfort and all of those things are things that people just generally need in order to be happy.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely. And there’s also been some research to show that, you know, having some friends can help with things—mediate things—like bullying. So, you know having close friends who you can stick together with, who can help you in times of stress or problem periods, where you can go to a friend, and they listen to you, they accept you for who you are. So, absolutely, there’s a range of things that peer relationships can help an individual in support.

Dr. Swartz: So, can you tell me more about when children start developing friendships?

Dr. Ostrosky: Sure. If we watch even infants and toddlers, we’ll see early signs of friendship development. So things like a child even taking turns with an adult, so those kinds of interactions lead to friendship interactions. A child, an infant, or a toddler who’s watching their peers in his or her environment, who’s reaching to those peers. Think about, you know, a 9-month-old or a 12-month-old who’s reaching to touch a peer, going near a peer, wanting the same materials that a peer might have. Those are early signs of friendship, those are friendship skills that we see.

Certainly children taking turns on the teeter-totter or, you know, a boat that kind of rocks back and forth where they’re watching the peer as they’re engaging in those. All of those kinds of activities are the precursors to later turn-taking, sharing, asking for assistance, some of those typical friendship skills that we see in preschoolers and older children.

Dr. Swartz: So, you mentioned children watching other peers, namely those who are older than them, so I can imagine that in their families, if they had siblings or cousins, children might begin to have friendships or emerging friendship skills in those relationships.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: And so, we can think about those as opportunities for children to learn the skills of friendship. So, why do some children seem to have a harder time making friends, while others seem to have an easy time?

Dr. Ostrosky: Right, so some children don’t have the social skills, so they don’t know how to take turns, they might not have the language skills, the social communication skills to know how to get into a play, an ongoing play interaction. They may have problems controlling their emotions, anger management, have problems with problem-solving or conflict. And those kind of, those lack of skills can really impact, then, the development of friendships and relationships with peers.

Those can be typically developing children, or children with disabilities, so it’s not just that children with disabilities might struggle with friendships relationships or the development of friendships. We see typically developing children who might be quiet or shy or stand and observe a group of children playing at a doll house, or in the pretend play area and they don’t know how to get in there. They may not have the play skills, they may not know how to start that interaction, and so then it’s up to us and parents and teachers to try to support children in those interactions so they can learn those skills.

Dr. Swartz: So, you’re really thinking about looking for the skills, the specific skills, that allow children to engage with their peers.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: So, being able to ask a question, or being able to share a toy or say “may I have a turn” or even just reach and join in …

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: … are skills that we’re looking for with children, so parents or teachers have to really support those very specific skills.

Dr. Ostrosky: Right.

Dr. Swartz: So when should parents and teachers start to become concerned if a child’s having difficulty making friends? Are there warning signs they should watch for?

Dr. Ostrosky: I think, first of all, I want to say that early childhood teachers are typically very gifted at supporting interactions between children in classrooms, in centers, out on the playground. And I think for parents, too, even though many of us might only have one child, we seek out opportunities for children to come over to our house or us to be engaged in community activities where children can play together on the playground.

I think when we see our child struggling, they, you know, we’re watching them and they don’t know how to join in a game of tag that’s happening with some 3- and 4-year-olds running around the playground. Then we can think about how can we help that child, what can we do to maybe bring one child over to our house and support our child in playing a game, playing games with other children.

I think as teachers, too, watching children and seeing, do they tend to play by themselves? Now some children want some down time, so I think we have to also appreciate that there are individual children who, going out on the playground, they just want some downtime. They’ve been in a group of 15 to 20 children, kindergarten classrooms, maybe even 25 children and they want to have some time to kind of be alone and regroup. That’s OK.

It’s a child who’s looking to join a group and is struggling, doesn’t have that kind, those skills that we need to then try to support the child. That can be teaching children skills in circle time, where we’re talking to a whole group about how do we, you know, create, how do we create accepting classrooms, how we invite friends in. It can be small groups where you’re teaching children specific skills. How to share, how to take deep breaths and control our emotions. Or it may be for some children that you need to spend individual one-on-one time working with them on how to ask to get into a group. What they might do when you’ve seen them struggle at the pretend play, the housekeeping center, you’ve seen them struggle because they don’t necessarily have the skills to join in that level of play, that you might work one-on-one with the child and help them kind of follow a script and understand how is it we play, that, in that housekeeping area when we have the stuffed animals there and the Band-Aids and the vet equipment. So we may have to teach children one-on-one small group, or as large groups talk about this.

Dr. Swartz: So we start by looking …

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: … to see what the behaviors are, observing, and maybe doing a little bit of coaching on the sidelines to give children the words that they need, or the actions that they need to do. And then if we need to, we might bump that up to creating a story that, for them to follow, and if a child still needs support we might give specific steps.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: So we move towards, from the beginning of strategies, which are just, you know real quick coach on the sidelines, all the way to being very specific.

Dr. Ostrosky: And I think the point about observing is so important. So, really paying attention to if you think your child or some students in your class are struggling. Why? What skills do they seem to be missing? I think the flipside, too, is the response of peers. So making sure that your classroom, your home environment, is a place where children are accepting of each other. Now, we don’t have to quote “be best friends” with everyone in our environment, but we need to teach each other, treat each other, with respect and include other children in the classroom and not pick on other children or treat each other unkindly. So, I think creating a classroom environment, too, where we see that we’re not all the same, we have differences, we celebrate those differences but we see some linkages and we treat each other nicely.

Dr. Swartz: Right, and so we, we spend some time explicitly making good values that we want our children to have—clear …

Dr. Ostrosky: Right.

Dr. Swartz: … but sometimes as a parent, or as a teacher, you might feel stressed when you see a child pushing or hitting or being unkind, but what do we think that a parent or teacher should try to remember in those moments?

Dr. Ostrosky: I think we need to then think about what’s our role here. So we, and we also need to think about, if we don’t do something, by not speaking up, by not intervening, we’re conveying a message that it’s OK to treat other children the way we see a child treating someone else. And that’s kind of heart breaking for a child who, if he’s being bullied, or treated unkindly, that the adults, if we put on blinders and don’t, act like we don’t see that occurring. So we need to think about our role in that, and so how can, how can we address it? You know, we address it in the moment, but then how can we address to the whole group if need be?

I wanted to point out too that I was thinking about the parents’ role, that there have been some studies out there talk about how, you know, parents create opportunities for their children. So if they say, in my case, I have one child. I created opportunities for him to have peers come over to our house, so the logistics support. But you also provide the role as a supervisor, so you’re kind of watching and paying attention to what goes on, so that the children are playing together in a positive way and then when need be, you teach the skills, you provide instruction, you coach as you …

Dr. Swartz: So you keep them from getting stuck.

Dr. Ostrosky: Yes, exactly, so if need be, and so if there’s not a conflict. Now you want, if conflict arises and they can problem solve it, absolutely, but you don’t want it to escalate. So parents tend to take on those roles as kind of the logistic person, the supervisor, and also the coach or the teacher, so that they could be doing the work at home, too, to help their children learn the social skills, and most parents do this naturally and then also the teacher then is supporting those relationships at school.

Dr. Swartz: And it’s important to remember that children will come with that range of skills, and for some this is very easy, and for some this is very challenging.

Dr. Ostrosky: And some children have never been in group care before, so we have to think about that too.

Dr. Swartz: Right.

Dr. Ostrosky: Some children they have been, or in a smaller group, they may have been in home child care or just at home with mom or dad or caregiver. So them coming to PreK classroom or even going into kindergarten, this may be a new experience for them to have so many children and so much going on. So they may even that need more support because the context is so different.

Dr. Swartz: Right, so watching a very important, being a good observer, and also then maybe talking to the child’s caregivers to get the information about what might be the challenges that a particular child is having is important for teachers.

Dr. Ostrosky: Right.

Dr. Swartz: … and for parents who are family members to tell teachers, this is my child’s first time.

Dr. Ostrosky: Right.

Dr. Swartz: They might need a little extra help, and know that that’s okay to say that.

Dr. Ostrosky: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: So, great! So, you told me a lot of things that parents and teachers can do to help children learn the skills for making friends, and so I think what we’ve talked about is that friendships are really a skill, that is something we all want as people, but we have to know how to do it, how to get there. So what happens when families or teachers or caregiver such as child care providers need extra support for their children that they’re caring for. Where can they turn to if they need extra help?

Dr. Ostrosky: Right. So, I would think talking to your team, so if you have other people who are also observing, because sometimes, what’s before us, just another set of eyes, will help us realize, wow, what’s going on. I think the partnerships between families and teachers are incredibly important, so talking to a parent if you’re concerned about your child, or the parent feeling comfortable talking to the teacher saying “I’m really worried. Here’s what I’m seeing when we go out the community or in the playground in the afternoon.”

I think if it’s come to the extreme, where you’re worried about say, for example, depression, or a child who is really engaging in a lot of challenging behavior and peer interactions, then you might need to go above that and seek out more support through Head Start, a mental health consultant, or behavior specialist. So if it’s really extreme, you may need to go outside what your skill set is.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, and I just think that, we talked about there’s school and child care is one context where children spend a lot of time, and in their families, but maybe there’s other opportunities to practice friendship skills, such as classes in the community or their faith groups, where there are opportunities to play and have opportunities to interact that might be extra practice …

Dr. Ostrosky: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: … for families.

Dr. Ostrosky: I think you bring up a good point, too, that I wanted to mention, is building children’s strengths. So, your child really likes drama and acting kind of things, or is very physically developed in a strong way and likes motor activities. Signing up for the T-ball or the gymnastics class or art classes where your child might find others who have mutual interests and shared interests—that can really support friendship, the development of friendship skills, too, because you have shared activities you’re doing together that are fun, that are of interest to you.

Dr. Swartz: Sure. And even just going to the park with a child who’s very physical, that’s a great place to support friendship, and maybe for a child who’s a little quieter, maybe your local library is a chance where you’ll sit down and read a book and someone else will join and that’s the beginning of a new friendship.

Dr. Ostrosky: Absolutely. One thing, too, that I wanted to bring up that I didn’t mention earlier is, especially in home, home care environments, or classroom environments, it is the importance of the environment itself. So, sometimes you will talk to teachers and they’ll talk about children playing independently in center time and not engaging with other peers, and when the teachers really critically step back and look at their centers, don’t realize, wow, I have eight centers open and I have 15 or 20 children in my class so there are so many centers open, it’s not unusual the children might go by themselves and play where your goal might really be to support interaction.

So if you want to close a couple centers each day so that, because of the way the environment is set up, it supports peer interaction. The same as we think about toddlers. Toddlers developmentally all, may want the same thing. So having eight different color balls may not be as important as having four or five balls that are all the same color so children aren’t fighting over the ball, but they’re engaging with each other around the ball, but it’s not because we all want to red ball or the purple ball. We’re playing together. So, thinking about children’s development, thinking about the materials you have in the environment, the way the environment is set up, so that it really supports interaction.

Dr. Swartz: Right, so that’s that strategy that I often used is the glue bottles strategy. If everybody has their own glue, there’s no reason to talk to each other, but if we have to ask each other for things, then we have an opportunity to make friends.

Dr. Ostrosky: Right, so limiting the materials you have out and encouraging children to engage with each other to take turns.

Dr. Swartz: So, it seems counterintuitive …

Dr. Ostrosky: Right.

Dr. Swartz: … it seems like that, well that will just make more conflict, but actually those conflicts are an opportunity to practice those problem-solving skills you know that are important for friendship.

Dr. Ostrosky: Well and it’s always a balance, I think, between independence. Like some, I’ll talk to some teachers where you want to support children communicating, so asking adults or peers for help, but also being independent. So it’s the same kind of thing. Where is that balance? That we want to encourage children to engage with each other, say, around Play-Doh at the table. but we can have a whole bunch of cutters and rolling materials and cans of Play-Doh where they’re all playing independently, or we could have limited material so that in fact peer interaction is occurring around those materials.

Dr. Swartz: Well, thank you so much for talking with us about children’s friendships, and we’ll look forward to having you back on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast to talk about a different topic.

Dr. Ostrosky: Thank you.

Dr. Swartz (as narrator): The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.IllinoisEarlyLearning.org is the source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, 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.

IEL Resources

About this resource

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

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

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2024