FRIENDS for Life - Learning Disabilities

People holding hands in a circle

What is FRIENDS for Life?

FRIENDS for Life is an internationally recognised programme that teaches children and young people techniques to cope with anxiety and promote wellbeing, social and emotional skills and resilience. The programme was developed in Australia by Professor Paula Barrett, from a previously strong evidence base for effective anxiety interventions, designed by Professor Phillip Kendall in the USA.

FRIENDS for Life is the only programme of its kind endorsed by the World Health Organisation as "efficacious across the entire spectrum, as a universal prevention program, as a targeted prevention program and as a treatment."

Research on the programme shows reduced anxiety and depression, increased coping skills and self-esteem, with improvements maintained up to 6 years after the completion of the programme. (Barrett 2006; Stallard et all 2007).

It enables children to learn a range of skills, including how to:

  • Identify “anxiety-increasing” thoughts and to replace them with more helpful thoughts
  • Identify anxious (and other difficult) feelings and learn to manage them
  • Learn to overcome problems rather than avoid them.

Now in its sixth edition, FRIENDS for Life incorporates resilience and mindfulness into its social-emotional-developmental and cognitive behavioural framework. The Pathways Health and Research website provides further information on the programme and cites research, including studies describing developments to ensure FRIENDS for Life reaches socially and economically disadvantaged and indigenous communities. For more information, please see our background paper FRIENDS for Life – Learning Disabilities Development Project (PDF).

FRIENDS for Life builds skills using the FRIENDS mnemonic:

F Feelings

R Remember to relax

I I can do it, I can try

E Explore solutions and coping step-plans

N Now reward yourself, you’ve done your best

D Do practice 

S Smile, stay calm, use your support networks

What is the FRIENDS for Life – Learning Disabilities Development Project?

Our small FRIENDS for Life – Learning Disabilities development project was adapted from the internationally recognised FRIENDS for Life programme with the intention of it being accessible for children and young people with learning disabilities. The adaptations were based on relevant research, expert opinion, our own combined experience (70+ years!) and feedback from pupils, families and session leaders. A systematic evaluation of the adapted FRIENDS for Life programme is currently being planned, with pilot trials designed to measure its effectiveness.

When adapting the programme, the Foundation worked in collaboration with Rowena Rossiter, a Clinical Psychologist with extensive experience of adapting therapies to be accessible for children, young people and adults with learning disabilities. In trialling our ideas for the programme we also worked alongside staff, children and young people with learning disabilities and their families at Hazel Court School, and education colleagues at the Sussex Partnership Mental Health Trust.

Our adaptation

Our adaptations consisted of simplified materials with high visual, low verbal content, together with the use of multi-media to make the sessions more meaningful.  A key part of the project was finding innovative ways of adapting content and delivery to accommodate the specific needs of young people with learning disabilities. For example, rather than reading out stories from the workbook, the facilitators performed role-plays of the characters Tom and Pepper, so as to make the content of the sessions more visual. Other role plays were also facilitated which focused on concepts and feelings that were relevant to the group such as a role play based on over-excitement, which looked at situations in which over-excitement might be a problem and encouraged young people to think about how to manage their feelings when this happens.

Our guide for practitioners

Following our small development project, we have also produced a guide for practitioners (PDF) working with children and young people which describes how the original FRIENDS for Life can be adapted and provides suggestions for activities and resources that can be used to run the programme. For further information, please see our resources below or contact Jill Davies at or 020 7803 1141.

The FRIENDS for Life – Learning Disabilities Development Project was made possible by legacy funding from the estate of Patricia Collen who spent the majority of her life in Normansfield hospital in the United Kingdom.

Our broader FRIENDS for Life – Learning Disabilities Development Research Team includes Professor Paul Stallard, University of Bath, Professor Glyn Murphy, Tizard Centre, University of Kent and Dr Nicky Wood, East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust.

FRIENDS for Life resources

FRIENDS for Life Guide

Friends for Life Guide front page

Download the guide (PDF)

FRIENDS for Life Background Paper

Front cover of the Friends for life background paper

Download the background paper (PDF)

FRIENDS for Life Presentation
The front page of a presentation about the Friends for life project. 

Download the presentation (PDF)