Reciprocity in Relationships with Learning Differences
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Reciprocity in Relationships with Learning Differences

by Janet Price, Regional Director of Community Education and Transition and Dr. Scott Hykin, Director of Psychological Services, CLE Rockville

Friends at CLE Rockville learning reciprocityWhether it is a friendship or something more, reciprocity is essential to maintaining a healthy relationship. What is social reciprocity? As the name implies, reciprocity consists of a back and forth. In a social context, reciprocity can be described as an exchange of gestures, which can be verbal or nonverbal, where each person mirrors a response from the other.

Social reciprocity can be seen in everyday interactions, beginning with a simple, “Hello, how are you?” You can answer, “Fine,” and leave it at that – but a better, and more reciprocal, response would be, “I’m fine, how are you?” This give-and-take shows interest in the other person and openness to continuing the exchange. Reciprocity can be seen in more complex interactions as well, such as picking out a birthday present. All sorts of factors are taken into account, from how well do you know this person and his or her likes and interests, to how much is it appropriate to spend based on past interactions and how much they may have spent on you? Social reciprocity is all about balance.

Why is this important?

Everyone wants to feel valued, as well as validated, when it comes to their interests in others. A relationship that is one-sided will inevitably burn out, as one person becomes frustrated putting forth all of the effort required to maintain a friendship, while getting none of that back in return.

At CLE, one of the ways we demonstrate and teach social reciprocity is through our mentors. Our mentoring sessions are designed to replicate a typical social interaction, with the added benefit of the mentor being able to offer feedback so that the student can practice these skills. Students are encouraged to initiate a plan for the session, but also to be mindful of the other person’s interest and enthusiasm, just as they would with any friendship or relationship.

A typical mentoring conversation might go like this:

Jason (CLE Mentor): Hi Greg! What do you want to do during mentoring today?

Greg (student): Let’s go to McDonald’s!

Jason: Hmmm, we’ve gone to McDonald’s for the past three sessions, haven’t we?

Greg: Yes, I love McDonald’s!

Jason: Well, have you ever noticed that every time we go to McDonald’s, you order a burger and fries, and I just sit there with a drink?

Greg: I’m not sure that I noticed that.

Jason: Okay, but that’s what usually happens. So if you think about that, it might give you some clues about how I feel about McDonald’s food.

Greg: Maybe you don’t like it?

Jason: That’s right; I’m really not crazy about McDonald’s. So what do you want to do during mentoring today?

Greg: How about instead of going to McDonald’s, we get some pizza? You like pizza, right? I saw you eating some the other day.

Jason: Yes, I do like pizza, thanks for noticing! Sounds great, let’s go!

Practicing reciprocity in controlled situations like these is one of the keys to learning how to recognize and engage in social reciprocity in a broader context. In the end, we all want to maintain a healthy balance in our relationships.

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Ellie at CLE Denver discusses gender identity

Ellie is a student at College Living Experience who identifies as a transgender woman. She was comfortable with me using her real name. Ellie is on track to graduate with her Bachelor’s degree from Metro State University this semester, and was generous to take a few minutes away from her academic workload to describe the impact of gender identity on relationship dynamics.

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