Expert Tips for Helping Children with SEND Build Relationships

Building relationships are a key part of our lives. These moments shape us into who we are today and create unforgettable memories. 

However, throughout our lives, we have all sometimes felt uncomfortable in social situations. Those who have conditions or special educational needs that may make socialising more difficult may need some extra support in developing positive meaningful relationships with their peers.


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What I Want In A Friend Activity

What I Want In A Friend Activity



Those with such conditions can sometimes face disadvantages in many areas of society. Mencap reports that over 50% of people with disabilities feel lonely, with this number rising to 77% for 18-34-year-olds. This can have a negative impact on our quality of life, as well as mental health. 

To tackle this issue, we’ve spoken to numerous SEND bloggers, many of whom hold experience as practitioners in the field. We’ve asked them for their advice and guidance on helping all children form relationships.




SEND Older Learners - Being a Good Friend Social Situation

SEND Older Learners - Being a Good Friend Social Situation




1. Focus on your child's peers, not them!


Being able to build emotional connections with others can sometimes prove a struggle. The desire to converse doesn’t always come naturally, so finding things in common can be a way to help children to take the first steps in developing a new friendship.


Ann Hickman - Rainbows Are Too Beautiful


Speaking to Ann Hickman, she discussed the impact of an alternative approach. Rather than focusing on their son’s interests, they turned to the interests of his peers. By knowing these interests, Ann encouraged Anthony to engage and converse over common ground. This ended up leading to a flourishing friendship!


“Suddenly he was saying things like, "I want someone to talk to who is my own age", but it’s not that simple in a school with loads of kids with social communication difficulties and live, in some cases, several miles apart from each other.

The key for him was in finding topics that his peers liked that he could also be interested in.  Armed with information of interest to himself and others, Anthony was able to talk to his peers and start to create friendships." - Ann Hickman, founder of Rainbows Are Too Beautiful



2. Use imagination to bring a story to life!


Communication, especially verbal communication, can be difficult for children with SEND. So, why not look to communicate in a multi-sensory way?


Gina Bale - Littlemagictrain


Gina Bale understands the issue of exclusion, having experienced it throughout her career in dance and creative arts. Today, she uses her platform to get children to take part in storytelling, music and movement sessions nationwide! 


“Don’t forget to adapt as appropriate for your child’s needs. There are so many ways of weaving fun, imagination and a little “Twinkl” into your day, and this creates so many learning and movement opportunities.  So, the Littlemagictrain is asking, “what are you waiting for?” - Gina Bale, founder of Littlemagictrain



3. Storytime is key!


It is natural to feel reluctant to engage in a conversation when stressed and anxious. Sadly, City, University of London found that 40% of autistic children, adolescents and adults suffer from one or more forms of anxiety. Of these, social anxiety was a common trait. As a result, conversing becomes even more of a challenge.


Joanna Grace - The Sensory Projects


Joanna Grace uses the power of storytelling to bring together children with SEND and neurotypical children. On her website, you can view conferences she’s spoken about the topic, as well as the online college. Here, resources that were made publicly available during the lockdowns are still available! 


Stories are a wonderful form of play, and when we share a story with someone we automatically feel connected to them. Sensory stories combine concise text and engaging sensory experience, meaning you can access the story through language, sensation, or both. Children who can use language enjoy the fun of having sensory experiences as a part of the story sharing experience, and for children who do not use language, the sensations give them access to the fun of the story.” - Joanna Grace, founder of The Sensory Projects



4. Promote other forms of communication, not just verbal!


Expressing yourself doesn’t only come verbally. Body language, in particular, is a proven method of conveying information to your peers and is non-verbal. Additionally, it is an unconscious action, so it doesn’t need as much thought as words coming out of your mouth.


Ben Clements - Tutor House


Ben Clements is very aware of the stigma of communication having to be primarily verbal. He discussed the need to enable confidence and encourage your child's own desire to build relationships. Their chosen methods of communicating aren't what's important. Communication in itself is a very positive step!  


“Think about how pupils without disabilities play. Essentially, look past the disability to encourage inclusion, introduce the peer to the situation the child with SEND is already in, and communication will start to come more naturally. Don’t forget that communication isn't always verbal, they might use gestures, expressions etc. This will guide the relationship-building process more naturally." - Ben Clements, SEND expert at Tutor House



5. Create a Friendship File!


As a speech-language pathologist, Allie Gallinger is familiar with speech and communication difficulties. She’s kindly provided us with a list of ways to teach children with SEND to have better conversations, which can you see below: 


Allie Gallinger - Express Yourself Speec


However, Allie’s top tip is to encourage your child to keep and update a “friendship file”. Keeping a record of their peers’ likes, dislikes, interests and hobbies will help build a deeper understanding of their peers before a conversation. Hopefully, this can transpire into some wonderful friendships!


“This allows them to show their peers that they are good listeners and also gives them an opportunity to show their peers that they care about them. For example, if Jimmy has “Jojo Siwa” in his friendship file for Sally, Jimmy can ask Sally if she has tickets to the Jojo Siwa concert” - Allie Gallinger, founder of Express Yourself Speech


Check out Allie’s blog, where she has more helpful content regarding helping children to build positive relationships



6. You can't build a great relationship on a weak foundation!


As we know, there are a lot of elements to consider when it comes to conversing. Having communication and interaction needs can result in a loss of confidence for your child long-term.

Keeping to the theme of a bulleted list, Dana Sciullo of OT On The Spot shares some quick tips to promote relationship building outside of the house:


  1. Make use of the wide amount of resources available online
  2. Visit the local playground and allow for your child to interact with the other children in their own time
  3. Extra-curricular activities are very beneficial e.g. scouts, sports clubs etc.
  4. Teach your children the importance of “personal space” using a hula hoop as a tool. Replace hugs and touching with high fives and fist bumps for those who are more affectionate
  5. Practice sharing toys and sportsmanship to build positive relationships throughout their childhood
  6. Set up small playdates to encourage a more intimate conversation (a perfect time to bring the toy sharing training into practice!)


Dana Sciullo - OT On The Spot



7. It's their conversation, let them go at their own pace!


It can be easy to get too involved in your child’s lives, especially when you can see that they may need help. There’s nothing wrong with offering a helping hand, but it’s your child’s choice to live life in the way they want.  


Victoria Sanderson - Essex Family Forum


The most important thing to consider is that children with SEND may think differently to neurotypical children. Therefore, typical methods to encourage inclusion and conversation might not be as effective. I spoke to Victoria Sanderson of Essex Family Forum about this. She mentions the importance of being educated on the subject. By having as much insight into your child’s situation as possible, it will help you be there for them throughout their lives.   


“The pertinent issue here is more about the wider education of society regarding embracing, accepting and tolerating different forms of play and interaction. Quite often, with positive role-modelling from adults, friendships between children and young people can form regardless of any differences society may perceive.” - Victoria Sanderson, Management Committee at Essex Family Forum



8. Cut out the noise, and work with your child. They're their own person!


Naturally, seeing your children struggle socially can be frustrating. Whilst we all want the best for our children, it’s key to note that each child is their own person. Our unique set of traits, quirks and features make us human!

 Having spoken to NSPCWT, it was key that ensuring that every child is treated as an individual. Francesca Betts has kindly provided us with her tips for helping her child build relationships: 


  1. Low Stimulation Environment - it can prove a sense of security and comfort
  2.  Visuals - use picture cards and/or social stories to give children ample time to process the situation placed in front of them, reducing anxiety
  3.  Parallel Play - allow children to play alongside, without the need for communication. Exposure first, communication second
  4.  Shared Interests - discuss common interests with other children’s parents. That way, you can best equip your child for an upcoming social encounter during play
  5.  Encouraging Co-operation - using childhood favourites such as building blocks teaches teamwork, trust, patience and success at an early age
  6.  Social skill building - your mirror is your best friend! Practice facial emotion recognition and conversation starters at home. Then, your child can take that with them and converse at their own pace


Francesca Betts - NSPCWT



9. Identifying Emotions = Confidence, Resilience and Empathy!


Remember, not only children with SEND struggle with making friends. This is natural for all children and is a natural part of development. 

Wendy White, the founder of My Mood Stars, discusses her key tips below: 


  1. Talking to your child about who they’ve been getting on with at school is a good step. Learning who your child connects with will help with arranging successful playdates.
  2.  Start with playdates at your home so your child feels more secure in their own territory! If your child has said why they connect with a certain child, provide an activity that you know both the children will enjoy. This will encourage interaction and help build the friendship further!
  3.  Be aware of your child’s limits and slowly increase the hours of play each date. Usually, half an hour or forty minutes is enough, to begin with.
  4.  Be prepared to discuss your child’s behaviour with their playmate. Being open about your child’s differences will help their playmate’s understanding and help towards building the friendship!


Wendy White - Wendy Woo & My Mood St


We hope that these tips will help you and your child’s journey in building meaningful relationships, which could last a lifetime! Feel free to have a look at even more resources related to relationships to support your child, available in KS1 and KS2



KS3 Types of Friendship Description Cards

KS3 Types of Friendship Description Cards



How Can I Be A Friend? Drawing Worksheet

How Can I Be A Friend? Drawing Worksheet



Older Learners: Getting to Know You Blether Stations

* New * Older Learners: Getting to Know You Blether Stations



We hope you find the information on our website and resources useful. These resources are those which we have generally found to be of benefit to learners with SEND. However, every child's needs are different and so these resources may not be suitable for your child. It is for you to consider whether it is appropriate to use these resources with your child.

Many thanks to Twinkl for their kind permission for the use of this article