Engaging Siblings to Build Social Skills: A Relative Solution to a Complex Problem
Play is a primary context for children to learn important skills and to interact, but it tends to be “messy”. Children with special needs often find playtime with friends to be unpredictable and confusing because of its unspoken rules and rituals. They may be overwhelmed because they lack the skills to interact with same-aged peers appropriately. Children who don’t know how to play may refuse to participate, fail to recognize or respect the needs of their peers, disrupt activities, or quite simply, be unable to maintain control – leading to social isolation.
Although play is a great way to build social skills, getting access to appropriate peer role models may be challenging either because children are unwilling or contact is limited. Luckily, siblings – and possibly neighborhood pals – can be a wonderful resource. First, they tend to be handy. Activities occurring regularly in homes and communities provide consistent opportunities for developing and generalizing skills. Second, siblings may be motivated to help because they want an enjoyable play partner or to take a proactive role in their brother or sister’s life. Third, because homes are familiar, children with special needs are often less stressed and more responsive to learning there. Finally, encouraging appropriate play between siblings may solicit more positive attention from parents, thereby improving the quality of family time. For all these reasons, siblings offer a great conduit to improving children’s social skills.
What is sibling-supported play?
Sibling-supported play capitalizes on the availability of positive peer role models. It involves providing direct instruction in social skills within the context of typical play routines. Older or more sophisticated siblings and peers may take an active role in instruction in which they model activities, coach children to follow suit, and respond to the children to encourage positive behavior. When enlisting siblings or other peer play partners, it is essential that their involvement be voluntary. Play partners must see value in the child learning skills and feel confident that they can make a difference. Therefore, the activities selected should be “mutually-reinforcing”; that is, both of the children should find them to be equally enjoyable.