Peer-related Social Competence for Young Children with Disabilities

Indiana University, USA

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The development of social relationships with peers is a major achievement of the preschool years. For some children with disabilities (e.g. developmental delay, autism, mental retardation, emotional/behavioural disorder), acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary for interacting positively and successfully with peers is a challenge. Leaders in the field propose that the development of peer-related social competence should be a primary goal of early intervention and early childhood programs.1 For many young children with disabilities, practitioners need to develop individualized educational plans that include social competence goals.2 To reach these programmatic and individual goals, specific teaching/intervention strategies are necessary. 


When young children with disabilities are placed in inclusive settings, teachers and parents report that many children do develop friendships with their typically developing peers.3 Yet, for those children with disabilities who are socially rejected by their peers, such friendships rarely develop.  Peer social relations are based on children’s competent participation in social interactions. Such peer-related social competence is often defined as children engaging in behaviours that meet the social goals of the child and that are appropriate for the social context.4 As a group, children with disabilities consistently perform less well socially than do typically developing peers.5 A consistent finding in the literature is that children with disabilities, when compared to typically developing children of similar ages, interact with peers less often and are less well accepted.6 Social acceptance and indices of peer-related social competence are associated with the type of disability and characteristics of individual children.  Children with communication disorders who do have some communication skills are relatively well accepted.7,8,9 Conversely, children with disabilities who have aggressive behaviour, very limited or no communication skills, limited social skills, and/or limited motor skills are often socially rejected by their peer group.8,9  Moreover, children not formally identified as having disabilities but who share the characteristics just noted are considered at risk for social rejection by their peers and are candidates for social skills interventions.


For children with disabilities who are socially rejected, systematic instructional programs or intervention procedures are necessary.  Most young children learn prosocial skills through the natural process of observing and engaging in social interactions with socially competent peers.  Socially rejected children with disabilities may not have the opportunity to engage in such rich and essential learning experiences.  Their access to socially competent peers may be limited by a) placement in settings with few socially competent peers (e.g. special education classrooms including only other students with disabilities); or b) the absence of the entry skills needed for engaging in even simple social interaction and play with socially competent peers.10  The foci of intervention programs are to arrange the social group setting and/or to teach the social skills necessary for engaging in the rich, naturally occurring learning opportunities that exist in social participation with the peer group. 

Research Context

Contexts for research are both procedural and methodological. A key feature in the procedural dimension of research on interventions to promote social relationships is the presence of peers who are typically developing and socially competent.  That is, intervention effects are stronger when children with disabilities are in settings with typically developing peers.11,12  Intervention effects are limited when interventions occur outside of this naturally occurring context for social competence interventions.

Methodological and logistic constraints (e.g. levels of funding available, low prevalence of some types of disabilities) have limited the use of randomized experimental group designs in research on peer-related social competence interventions. Instead, investigators have employed single-subject research methods, which depend on documentation of treatment effects within subjects and replication across studies.13 Also, researchers have used quasi-experimental designs in their analyses.14 These designs generate a moderate degree of evidence for the effectiveness of intervention methods, and the strength of evidence is built through replications across studies.

Key Research Questions

Primary research questions focus on the efficacy of individual intervention approaches for promoting peer-related social competence of young children with disabilities.  Addressing this primary question is complicated by the heterogeneity existing in the population, so more refined research questions are necessary for determining which intervention approach works for which types of children (e.g. children with communication disorders, autism, behaviour disorders). Questions regarding effectiveness (i.e. do intervention procedures work when they are “scaled up” for use in a wide range of natural settings) have generally not been addressed because they depend on a solid basis of efficacy research.

Recent Research Results

Intervention approaches may be aligned according to their degree of intensity.10,15  Intensity refers to the amount of time needed to implement the intervention, accommodations to a regular classroom routine, and the degree of specialized training required. Intervention approaches with evidence of efficacy, in ascending order of intensiveness, include:

  • Inclusion in early childhood settings with typically developing peers;3
  • Classroom-wide intervention procedures designed to promote prosocial skills for all children and prevent behaviour problems from occurring;16,17,18
  • Naturalistic interventions such as group friendship activities;19,20,21 
  • Social integration activities in which structured play groups are formed in inclusive classrooms and facilitated by teachers;21,22
  • Explicit skills training in which children learn prosocial skills in small groups23 or peer-mediated approaches involving peers as facilitators.24,25,26


The intervention approaches just described all have moderate to strong evidence of efficacy for children with disabilities or children at risk for social rejection.  Efficacy outcomes are most often reflected in increased participation in social interaction with peers outside the intervention setting or when treatment is withdrawn;24,25,26 the development of friendships when children participate in inclusive programs;3,9 decreased aggression toward others;16 positive changes on multiple measures of social competence;12 and reduced referral to special education placements.18  In addition, some studies have examined the maintenance of changes in social competence months or years after the intervention programs have ended.12,18,27 To date, there have been few longitudinal studies of changes in social-emotional development that result from specific interventions that promote immediate or short-term changes in the social competence of children with disabilities.  The exception to this general rule is research on prevention of conduct disorders and antisocial behaviour, where there is some evidence that early prevention curricula do have longitudinal effects.17,18


For many children with disabilities, systematic and individually planned interventions or teaching strategies are necessary to promote peer-related social competence and social relationships with peers.  The research literature documents the immediate and short-term effects of these interventions on children’s social competence.  A key feature that determines the success of these interventions is access to a socially competent peer group, and the policy implication is that inclusive programs should be the educational placement of choice for young children with disabilities.  A variety of models exist for providing inclusive educational experience.28  Intervention approaches also vary in intensity, with children having the greatest needs requiring the most intensive interventions.  The policy and practical implication is that, relative to the less intense interventions, more intensive interventions will require a greater amount of time, training, administrative support and accommodations in classroom settings.


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How to cite this article:

Odom SL. Peer-related Social Competence for Young Children with Disabilities. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Boivin M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Published: January 2005. Accessed April 18, 2024.

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