How to Teach the Language of Friendship (Plus a Freebie!)

How to teach the language of friendship in speech

Do you work on friendship skills during your speech therapy sessions? Is that even a speech/language area to work on? Like many of you, I had that question about areas of social skills at one time. But after doing my research, my answer is a resounding yes! Find out why and download some really helpful freebies.

Friends telling secrets

Finding out about your students’ families and likes/dislikes are a typical part of building a connection with your students. It helps SLPs to know how to bring meaning and enjoyment into the work we do with each student. But do you ask about friends as well as family members?

You should! Once I started asking my students with autism what they liked to do with their friends, I started getting these responses: “I don’t have any friends.” “I play with my brother.” “I don’t need a friend.”

So, I started reading up on friendship skills and soon realized that this was a guarded way of letting me know that they lacked the social language skills to develop and maintain friendships. Was this a speech/language therapy problem? I think so.

Like all special education needs, it takes a village to help students. But, take a look at this summary of 4 skills needed for friendship in this basic article that is easily understood by parents. Which of those skills do not have a language base? Zero.

SLPs Need to Develop the Language of Friendship!

Once your students have basic language skills for content, form, and use, we usually help to support academic growth. But, don’t forget to include work on your students’ social language too! If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the social interactions of students are a much treasured and needed component of attending school.

It helps us as SLPs to understand the phases of friendship (Robert Selman, 1980) so we can help our students develop the language needed for each phase.

Toddlers in Friendship Stage 0 are playing together.

Preschool: Momentary Playmates – Stage 0- ages 3-7

Preschoolers’ friendship needs are basic and in the moment. Playmates are people who are around. Kids this age just want to have fun playing with someone who wants to do the same thing they want to do.

The communication skills we work on include:

  • nonvocal social skills, such as joint attention and
  • expanding play skills.
  • turn-taking skills.
  • increasing vocabulary.
  • developing varied sentence structures.
Friends fighting over a remote.

Early Elementary: One Way Support – Stage 1- ages 4-9

In early elementary school, children view friends as people who are nice to them and do what they like to do. Friendships are about more than just getting along for the moment, but there isn’t much thought given to what they can do for their friend. Play skills are fully developed for pretend play and group play is becoming organized.

Children have well-developed grammar skills at this point and are developing more complex language skills. While they really want to have friends, you may hear them saying things like, “I won’t be your friend if…” to get their way.

The social communication skills we work on include:

Kids with backs turned and arms crossed

Elementary School: Two Way Fair Weather Cooperation – Stage 2- ages 6-12

During elementary school years, students develop the basics of perspective-taking skills and are interested in fairness in social interactions. While they can understand their friend’s perspective, they can’t do it in the ‘heat of the moment’ while they are in their own point of view. They know that friendships are based on a give and take, but lack the language skills to work out conflicts.

The social communication skills we work on include:

Girl whispering a secret to a friend.

Middle School: Intimate Mutually Shared Relationship – Stage 3- ages 11-15

Friendships are based on more than a simple give and take at this stage. Students have trust in their friends, help them when needed, and share their thoughts and secrets. They work out problems, but can feel jealous when their friend acquires a new friend. So friendships are often in pairs. This happens mostly with girls, who tend to have more intimate friendships at this stage than boys do.

The social communication skills we work on include:

Group of teen friends

High School: Mature Friendship – Stage 4- ages 12-adulthood

Students are now able to maintain friendships over time and through separations. They appreciate differences between themselves and their friends and are no longer jealous of their friends having other friends. They’ve learned to hang out in groups. Most language skills should be developed at this point, but students continue to accrue vocabulary, expand existing social language skills, and increase their nonliteral language skills.

The social communication skills we work on include:

  • remediating skills from earlier ages that have not developed.
  • increasing nonliteral language usage, including idioms and proverbs, metaphors, inferential language, double meanings, sarcasm, and irony.
  • improving language for social skills such as point of view, making social inferences, perspective taking, and problem solving.
  • clarification, persuasion, negotiation, and conflict resolution.
  • code switching, or changing how you communicate to fit the current environment.

As you can see, the ages vary quite a bit in each stage, but children generally develop these skills in order. Our students with language disorders, especially those with autism or social-emotional disorders, often lag behind their typical peers. When you look at the language skills needed, it makes sense, doesn’t it? And since we have all attended school, we know how tough it can be for those kids who just don’t seem to fit in.

Teaching the Language of Friendship

You can easily teach the language of friendship while working on your current social skills and language goals. The trick is to first teach the skill using your typical methods, whether it is producing complex sentences, making inferences, or any of the other language-based skills needed. Then, instead of moving on to a new goal, apply the newly learned skill to a friendship scenario.

Vocabulary Skills

Most language impaired students have weak vocabularies. Instead of working on specific words that will only be used for a week in the classroom, why not spend your time on social skills vocabulary that can be practiced all year long? Developing your students’ ability to describe personal qualities helps them with comprehending story plots as well as being able to discuss social situations.

Behavioral Themes

Everyone is familiar with using seasonal and holiday themes to build skills for preschool and early elementary students. But if your older students have social skills deficits, have you considered using different aspects of your school’s behavior or social-emotional learning programs as your therapy themes? Obviously, this idea is not meant for students who just need some academic support.

Free download vocabulary pages from Social-Emotional Learning websites

Social-Emotional Learning Websites

First, think about your students’ social skills needs after doing informal assessments. Then, check out the character qualities from these school social-emotional learning programs if your school doesn’t have a program.

Organization Tips

It can take some reorganization at first, both mentally and in terms of sorting your materials and filling in gaps. But if you work in a special school, or in a school that uses a specific program, doing this can make your language therapy work more meaningful to your students.

Don’t expect to do this all at once. After you have assessed your students’ priority social skills needs, choose a format or social skills vocabulary word that best meets your caseload needs, resonates with you, and is an area that you already have materials for. The change doesn’t have to be dramatic or last for more than a month when you first get started. In fact, you may already be doing this!

For example, kindness and friendship skills are easily used as a February theme, and you probably own social skills materials that can be adapted to that theme! For your older students, just expand the skill with themes like compassion, respectfulness, or cooperation. Check out my Pinterest posts this month as I search for books, activities, and freebies to help you develop this theme. And here are some freebies to get you started!


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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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