How to Make Friends
“I don’t have any friends!” “No one likes me!” Have you ever heard a student say these words? Did it absolutely break your heart? It’s broken mine.
As I began researching this topic, it became evident to me that many people don’t know how to make friends, and I am not just talking about people with Autism or Social Language Disorders. I was talking to my best friend the other day about her (typically developing) son who is having a hard time finding a group of friends at school. I asked her if she has tried teaching him how to make friends and she said “I don’t know how to make friends; it is just something that happens.”
Now that got me thinking.
Is making friends something that just happens naturally? Or is there a magic formula that will bring you success?
I think it is a little bit of both. When you make friends naturally, you do follow a certain set of steps. So, I think it is reasonable to assume that if people who do not make friends naturally follow these steps, they should be able to make friends. Or at the very least, they have a better shot at it than if they went into it blindly.
After doing some research, I simplified this extremely complicated process into 8 simple steps. I feel like these steps help students with social language difficulties break down this skill into pieces that they can manage, which leads them to greater success. Each skill builds on each other, so that students start by learning a simple and concrete task and keep learning new skills until they understand the steps to making a new friend. So, what are these 8 steps you ask? Read on and find out.
Step 1: Smile and Say Hello
Do you agree that making a good first impression is the first step to making a new friend? “Surely people aren’t that shallow!”, you say.
If that is what you are thinking, I hate to break it to you, but you are wrong.
There is research that suggests we begin to make our first impressions of people in less than a second of meeting someone new. LESS THAN A SECOND, people. That is a really scary thought because I know that deep in your heart you know that your babies who struggle with social skills don’t usually make good first impressions.
It is a cruel and vicious cycle, but we can give these students a leg up by teaching them about the importance of first impressions and by teaching them how to make polite greetings. That is why the first step is practicing something as simple as smiling, and saying hello.
Step 2: Be Polite
Being polite. Are you cringing at the thought of trying to teach this? I kind of am.
I will be honest, this is not a skill that your students will learn, master, and use overnight. This will take weeks, months, probably years of you gently pointing out and explaining rude behaviors to students. They probably don’t mean to be rude. They probably don’t even realize they are being rude, but nevertheless that is how their actions come across. So how do we begin to teach this skill? We teach what it means to be polite like we would any other vocabulary word. Then, as we see or hear about specific situations, we use them as teaching moments.
Step 3: Find Common Interests
We find it easier to talk to people with whom we have things in common. I know for me, when I meet someone who is a teacher, an SLP, or anyone in the education field, I have an instant connection with them and we have lots of potential conversation topics. This is because we share the common interest of education. The more common interests we share with someone, the more likely it is that we will be that person’s friend.
When teaching your students how to find interests they share with others, first help them identify their own interests. After that, teach them how to ask other people about their interests. After they have learned how to ask others about their interests, help your students continue practicing these skills until they are proficient at finding shared interests with others.
Step 4: Listen and Ask Questions
Watch yourself the next time you have a conversation with someone.
Is your first impulse to sit back, listen, and ask questions? Or is it to find a way to relate the other person’s comments back to yourself? If you said listen and ask questions, good for you! There are good listeners out there, but many of us (myself included) have a tendency to want to primarily speak about ourselves. Our kiddos with social language deficits really have a tendency to monopolize a conversation by talking about their specific interests.
We need to clearly explain this step to our students. They need to understand why it is important to ask questions to their communication partners and they need to be made aware of the times that they are monopolizing the conversation. We need to be teaching them how to ask good, strong “wh” questions and how to sit and listen to the persons response, then ask another good “wh” question. They will also need to be frequently reminded to not ask many yes/no questions and try and not comment about themselves or bring the conversation immediately back to their interests.
Step 5: Spend Time Together
This is the step when true friendships are made.
Good friends spend time together. It has often been my experience that the more time I spend with someone, the better friends we become. In fact, this step can be someone’s saving grace if they made a bad first impression. When we spend time together, we get to know each other better and it becomes easier to talk to them.
Help your students think of ways they can spend time together using the interests they share with their friends. For example, if your student identified that a shared interest is playing video games, the time spent together could be playing video games at the other persons house.
One word of caution-not every parent will want their child spending time at other people’s houses. Not every student will feel comfortable hanging out with their friends outside of school. So, as you are thinking of ways that students can spend time with their friends, make sure that you are also helping them brainstorm ways they can spend time with their friends at school (or wherever it is that they met this friend).
Step 6: Resolve Disagreements
Disagreements are a part of human nature; we know this.
What many of our students with Autism or social language disorders don’t know, is how to resolve those disagreements in a way that benefits both parties. This is why resolving disagreements is step six in my how to make friends guide.
I explain to my students that if they don’t resolve their disagreements properly, they won’t keep the friends they have worked so hard to make. After all, no one wants to be in a friendship where they don’t feel heard. I explain to my students what a compromise is and then I give them scenarios of disagreements for them to practice resolving. In my structured speech therapy room, they usually can identify a good compromise pretty quickly. The challenging part is using these strategies in real life.
Step 7 is similar to step 6, but it takes it a little bit further. I don’t just want my students to learn how to compromise, I want them to learn how to make a sincere apology.
Many times, our students just want to say “sorry” and walk away from the person whose feelings they have hurt, but in my opinion, these apologies are not adequate.
I explain to my students that there are two important pieces of a good apology.
- Say sorry for the specific situation (preferably using the other person’s name).
- Make a plan so it won’t happen again.
So, if Johnny spills his drink on Maria’s project, he should say something along these lines. “Maria, I am sorry I spilled my water on your project. Next time, I will make sure that my drink is far away from your work.”
Step 8: Be Patient and Keep Trying
Oh, step eight. This is the hardest step of them all.
As adults, we logically know we will not be friends with everyone and this step is still excruciatingly hard. After all, if someone doesn’t want to be our friend, it feels as if you have been personally rejected.
I am pretty sure that many of our students actually expect everyone to be their friend. Actually, I think we are guilty of teaching them this when they are very young. While I DO think it is appropriate to encourage everyone to be friends, I KNOW the reality is the opposite. This harsh reality needs to be gently explained to our students. *Insert nervous emoji*
So, how do I teach this painfully difficult lesson? I explain that making friends takes time. I explain that they might need to do all of these steps many times before making a friend. I explain that the more time you spend with someone, the more likely they are to become a friend. I explain that the more shared interests you have, the easier it is to become someone’s friend. Then I explain that even if you do all these things, you still will not be everyone’s friend. I explain that that this is normal. I remind them to be patient and keep trying. Eventually they will find a friend.
After I have explained this, I give my students authentic scenarios they might encounter in the real world and we walk through ways to handle them together. This is not pleasant and should be presented carefully and with an attitude of kindness, but I do think it is necessary. Here are a couple of sample scenarios:
- You try to sit in a certain seat in the cafeteria, but the people sitting by that seat tell you it is saved. What would be the best thing to say and do?
- You ask your friend to be your partner for the group project, but he/she wants to work with another group. What would be the best thing to say and do?
- You text your friend asking about going to a movie, but he/she never responds. What would be the best thing to say and do?
As with step six, students can usually give an appropriate answer shortly after we begin these discussions. However, when they face these situations in real life, I have found my students to be deeply hurt and sad. Honestly, I feel that way too in some of these situations. It is important to keep an eye out for situations like this your student might be experiencing so that you can go back and talk about them later.
One more thing that I like my students to do is participate in a friendship self-analysis. I have created a worksheet that reviews the steps and I use it to help my students see how they are doing at following these strategies outside of the speech room.
Making Friends Social Story and Companion Activities
Friends, I know we are all insanely busy, so if you are struggling with teaching friendship skills to some of your students, I would love for you to check out this resource. It is a social story about making friends using these 8 steps. There are also companion activities that go along with the story, so that your students can practice the skills that they have learned. If you are interested in learning more, please click the picture above and it will take you to it!