Attempts to create friendship in the lives of students with disabilities: The case of "circles of friends"

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas Biklen


mainstreaming, Special education, Educational sociology, Recreation, Academic guidance counseling, Social psychology

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


"Circles of friends" are groups formed for the purposes of support and friendship to a student with a disability. The use of participant-observation and in-depth qualitative interviewing in six "circles of friends" for children and teens in Ontario, Canada, revealed these and other purposes, the views of students about their participation, the perceptions of adults who are organizing these groups, and the meaning that participants make of their involvement. Findings related to the idea of "circles of friends," relationships and "support" are also discussed. A variety of different kinds of relationships existed in these "circles:" helpers, friends, advocates and recreation companions. For four of the students with disabilities, friendships had not materialized over time. Also, "circles" tended to be relatively inactive. A tension was apparent in four of the circles, between "support" and friendship-making. The heavy focus on "helping out" in these circles appeared to be a barrier to the development of friendships. In one case, the mother avoided a formal "circle of friends," and fostered friendships informally. Another group had the support of three adults over five years. In both these situations, there were several close friendships. Another friendship existed between a student and a peer who was paid to support him after school. The issues raised by this data are discussed.

Implications for educators and parents are discussed, including the need for adults to structure situations for fostering friendships and inclusion, and the need for attention to creating caring school communities. Also discussed are the potential benefits of having teacher training focus on the opportunities for relationships between students with disabilities and those without.


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