Social Activities for Elementary Students with Special Needs

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with special needs often have challenges with social situations that make it difficult for them to make friends. Let's look at some social activities teachers may use in their classrooms to help their students with disabilities develop social skills.

Social Challenges for Students with Disabilities

Kevin is a second-grade student with Down syndrome. He is high-functioning and can attend a regular education class for part of the day with support from teachers and accommodations. Kevin is making progress on his academic goals, which focus on reading, writing, and math. Although he is doing well in school, it is getting increasingly difficult for him to make and maintain friends. He has told his parents that other kids don't like him, that he sits alone during lunch, and he is left out on the playground. His parents would like him to work on social skills at school to help him have successful interactions with his peers.

From a special education perspective, Kevin's situation is not unique. Many students with special needs, regardless of their disability, find that they struggle socially. The importance of being accepted by their peers is something that most kids share, whether they have a disability or not. Let's look at some fun and engaging activities teachers may try to help their students with special needs practice social skills.

Social Activities

The activities in this section will focus on some of the most common social skills teachers focus on in the classroom. These skills help students behave in a socially acceptable way, interact appropriately with their peers, and pick up on social cues.

Keep in mind that some of these activities will be too easy or too difficult for some of your learners. These ideas will need to be adapted to fit your students' preferences and abilities.

Interpreting Facial Expressions

Students with disabilities often have a difficult time reading nonverbal cues. The ability to read facial expressions helps students have empathy for others, which can build friendships.

  • Create a collection of laminated flashcards with pictures of people making different facial expressions. Include expressions that show common feelings like sad, happy, excited, scared, mad, bored, and surprised. Have the student practice labeling each card with a word to describe what the person is feeling. Using photos of real people will help the student generalize this skill with different individuals.
  • Play charades using feeling words like angry, upset, worried, happy, etc. Have the words written out on strips of paper. Have students take turns acting out the different feelings by making the correct facial expressions, while the rest of the players try to guess how they're feeling.

Eye Contact

Some students with disabilities have a difficult time making and maintaining eye contact with others during a conversation. These activities will help them practice.

  • Pair students up and tell them to have a staring contest. They must look into their partner's eyes without looking away for as long as they can. This practice is meant to help students get more comfortable making eye contact with others.
  • Put stickers of a pair of eyes on your face as close to your eyes as possible. Have your students practice looking at the stickers when they speak to you. This is a visual reminder for them, and gets them looking in the right direction.
  • Make binoculars out of empty toilet paper rolls. Have students practice looking into each other's eyes through their binoculars. This is another way to get students used to making eye contact.
  • Bring in a variety of wind-up toys that may interest your students. Wind a toy up, and wait for the student to make eye contact with you before letting it go. The pause before letting go is meant to remind students to look at you, and their reward is watching and catching the toy.

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