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Facilitating friendships for the social and emotional well-being of children with disabilities

A bunch of balloons with smiling faces printed on them

Childhood disability can make the already complex issue of social inclusion even more challenging, impeding children with disabilities from developing and sustaining friendships. However, teachers can play a critical role toward creating inclusive spaces for children with disabilities in early childhood and beyond, says Ryerson researcher and professor of Early Childhood Studies, Donna Koller.

Following a systematic review of approximately 150 studies on interventions that promote social inclusion, professor Koller and her research team − including co-investigators professor Aurelia Di Santo (Early Childhood Studies) and professor Esther Ignagni (Disability Studies) − are taking information gained from evidence and practice and applying it to a new project that diverges from trying to "fix" the child and instead focuses on environmental factors, such as organization of play spaces, equipment and teacher practices. "The majority of studies present the child as someone who needs to be fixed," said professor Koller. "This focus on the child as the 'problem' has inhibited us from looking at a wide range of other variables."

Professor Koller is working closely with stakeholders across the GTA to share knowledge and resources that address social inclusion as an integral part of children's social and emotional well-being. Professor Koller's "Building Friendships Program" has been administered as a series of workshops for registered early childhood educators to five community partners, including the City of Toronto, the George Hull Centre for Children and Families, the Ryerson Early Learning Centre, the EarlyON Davenport-Perth Child and Family Centre, and Community Living Toronto. Building on the work of Dr. Michael Guralnick, professor of Psychology and Pediatrics, University of Washington, professor Koller's program encourages reflective practice and problem solving and promotes knowledge exchange and strategies aimed at supporting friendships between diverse children.

"So far, the workshops have been very well received and our research team is looking at how we can share this program across sectors," said professor Koller. A series of knowledge dissemination tasks are planned in order to promote sustainability and currency in educator practices across a variety of platforms.

The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.