Joining vs. Being Joined

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Category: Wellness Walk Talk

Any “people watchers” out there?

I admit it. I am one. I love people watching. It’s a great way to fill time when waiting. It is also the foundation of an important skill that I call “joining.”

People watching has taught me that it is often harder to “join” that it is to “be joined.” I am certain there is a professional term for this, but I like mine. It's easy to understand that I'm  talking about the creating a group or shared experience. Recognizing the difference between joining and being joined is key to success when working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Let me explain.


Joining is the act of going over to be with someone else. It is something that we do. An action we take. For some, the process of joining others is easy. “Joiners” are confident they will be accepted by the group or person. They don't need an invitation. Joining another person or a group is brave.

Students in special education are presumed to be “joiners.” The assumption is that they will want to do any activity, join any people, or groups we suggest. There's no fear. "Look, there are some kids your age over there - go join them. Yet in observing students in this situation for years, I am convinced that joining causes more stress for many than watching from afar.

When my son, Andy, was in second grade, I negotiated a transition from a self-contained classroom to a general education setting. During that transition,  Andy’s teacher recommended he begin his time in the general education classroom at center time. Andy, like me, is not a joiner. He is cautious about new situations and new people. He is slow to trust. chute

Andy would arrive with an assistant. They would be expected to join a group of children at a center and become a part of that group. He had never met these children before. Yet they had been in class together for 6 months. They knew each other well. After a few unsuccessful attempts to have  him join other students in different centers, the teacher was concerned. She felt he was not ready for general education solely because he had trouble joining a group of strangers. 

Andy's not a "joiner."

Being Joined

"Being joined" is  the opposite. Usually people  who are shy, or not as confident, prefer to be joined by others. That means, they welcome the company, but they prefer peole come to them. Especially in new situations or with people they don't know. Someone who prefers to be joined will hesitate and push back if you ask them to join others.  They prefer an invitation or are happy to watch over approaching a group. Joining a group is very stressful. 

This is how Andy prefers to become involved in new groups. He does best when people come to him and share in his activity. In other words, he enjoys others joining him. He likes being the host, if you will.

Let's go back to the transition I described above. When the teacher expressed her concerns about Andy  joining in at center time, I suggested Andy begin where he does best: circle time. Not only that, but at the edge of the circle rather than in the front. Our goal was not for Andy to learn the content, but for him to successfully join the group. If he needed to escape the situation, I didn't want him to plow over the top of the other students! 

Here's what happened.

Andy arrived before the students were ready for circle. He understood circle time. He knew what those carpet square were all about.  He headed straight for his carpet square and sat in the circle area when he arrived, waiting for the teacher to get with the program. He smiled and greeted all the students as the came to begin the time together.  Everyone was thrilled with the difference in attitude from Andy with this change. In fact, once he was joined by his classmates, he did not like to leave the room. He went eagerly into the next activity: center time. The next report from the teacher - who admited she didn't think Andy would be successful - was that Andy was spending more of his time in that classroom than the special ed classroom. He was happy. He made friends. The teacher became a believer.

For people like Andy, the skill to develop is the process of joining another person in their space. The goal is to find a shared space that elicits joint attention and then move into a new activity. That is what circle time did for Andy. He went to his designated “spot” where he understood the rules (“I sit here. This is my space. No one will push me or crowd me on my carpet square.”). He was ready to start circle time. When the other students came to the circle, they joined him for an activity he enjoyed. He was "being joined." Once they shared that experience, he felt comfortable enough to do more with his classmates.

I look for this when I watch people. You can feel the stress of the person who is pushed to "join" when he prefers to "be joined."  At the same time, people who are happy to approach groups, to do the joining, are  comfortable either way. 

I find this to be a  powerful tool  when working with anyone – regardless of ability.  Here are a few ways to join someone and establish a shared space.

Coaching someone in their quest to reach new  goals is definitely something to do in a shared space. Working together in a safe environment is especially key when working with people who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities.