Friend Squad is a welcoming, inclusive social group for students aged 11 to 16 years old. While many of our participants, or friends, have special needs, the program is open to anyone who struggles with establishing and maintaining friendship connections.
Our primary focus is to create a fun, engaging environment where young people of all abilities can enjoy the company of peers. It’s a monthly program, and each month trained peer volunteers, or Friendship Ambassadors, help facilitate board games and other group activities.
Our Friendship Ambassadors are a dedicated group of friendly junior high and high school students, and many have participated since we first started offering the program two years ago. In a training each fall, Friendship Ambassadors learn about supporting peers who may experience the world differently than they do. We consider the factors that can be barriers to inclusion (from shyness to exclusion on the basis of disability) and discuss strategies for overcoming those barriers.
One important point we emphasize to our volunteers is that they aren’t expected to be social workers or teachers, but simply friends. We want them to be encouraging and positive, and to be good influences in their own schools and social circles by promoting inclusion and understanding.
Before each monthly Friend Squad program, we reach out to the parents of any new registrants in order to make ourselves aware of their circumstances. Does the student usually work with a one-on-one aide? If so, we ask that the aide or a caregiver attend the program as well. We ask whether there are specific strategies that they use at home that we might be able to help reinforce at Friend Squad, and whether their child has specific sensitivities that we should know about.
Each month, Friendship Ambassadors convene about 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled program in order to meet and discuss the evening’s plan. We go over the attendance list and let the Friendship Ambassadors know who they will be paired with for the program activities.
Friend Squad is designed to follow a routine structure that takes us from group games to smaller, partnered activities, including a movement break, a snack break and a video sharing experience. We create a visual schedule using icons from the free online resource Noun Project , so that friends can check off each activity as we complete it and know what is coming next.
It has been enormously helpful to have the support of the dedicated teachers and social workers of Niles Township District Special Education (NTDSE). An NTDSE social worker attends each Friend Squad session, which means that almost every student in the room sees a friendly familiar face, even if they’re new to Friend Squad.
Friend Squad was launched in 2014 by Skokie Public Library librarians Holly Jin and Shauna Anderson, who consulted with Glenview Public Library about their Friendship Club.
Laurel Johnson is the Young Adult Librarian at Skokie Public Library. She’s a Ravenclaw. Her cat is adorable.