School is back in session, and if you have a school-aged child, there is a high chance they will encounter a classmate with disabilities. It’s essential to teach your child about children with special needs and how to treat them. Unfortunately, many adults tend to feel awkward about acknowledging another person’s disabilities and, if they’re not careful, they can pass this attitude on to their children. Even if you don’t say things that are rude when talking about a person with disabilities, your child may pick up on your avoidance of the topic or your lack of understanding of people who are different.
Today, there are approximately 61 million Americans with disabilities. Ignoring them or avoiding them isn’t an option for adults or children. Instead, we need to learn how to include them and get to know them as we would any other person. As a parent, it’s crucial to help your child understand this and learn how to apply this knowledge in the classroom. But even if you agree about the importance of teaching kids about disabilities, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start.
How Parents Can Teach Children About Peers With Special Needs
Some conversations will happen on the fly as your child observes people with special needs in their classroom, at a restaurant or in a store. It’s also important to address this topic with them outside of those moments. These conversations will teach them how to respond when they meet someone with different needs than them. Read on for tips on how to encourage your child to include students with disability in the classroom and outside the classroom.
A great way to help young children understand disabilities is to make use of your local library. There are many great children’s books that talk about people with special needs and teach children how to engage with them. You can also look for online videos or television shows that positively portray people with special needs. Sesame Street does a great job of this and can be a great video resource for younger children.
One thing parents often forget is that videos and books are more effective if you take the time to talk about them with your child after they read or view them. Ask what they think, how they feel and how they can apply what they learned in everyday situations. If your child has a classmate with a disability, this is a great time to make the connection between the material they just encountered and the individual they see every day.
2. You Don’t Have to Explain Every Last Detail
Every child is different. This means they’ll process information differently. Children — especially younger ones — may easily become overwhelmed or confused if given too much information. The goal here is not to turn your child into an expert on disabilities. The goal is simply to help them realize that every child is different and those differences should be celebrated, not avoided.
3. Teach Your Child That Everyone Is Different
Every person — with or without disabilities — is unique. Embracing others’ differences is an essential life skill. Even if they aren’t interacting with a special needs child daily, make it a point to encourage your child to interact with a variety of playmates. Seek out opportunities for them to engage with others who are different from them. And, perhaps most important of all, allow them to see you engaging with adults of various backgrounds and abilities. When this practice is modeled to them from the beginning, they will have an easier time understanding its practical applications when they encounter classmates with special needs.
4. Emphasize That Just Because Someone Has a Physical Disability Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Do Something
A child who has a disability or physical limitation is still a person who enjoys activities and engaging with others their age. They want to be loved and accepted by their peers, but may simply require special accommodation to do so. As your child grows, teach them the importance of giving all students a chance to participate in activities. Encourage them to invite their classmates who have special needs to join in playground games and extracurricular activities when appropriate. If they aren’t sure what’s okay or their friend requires special accommodation, encourage your child to ask a teacher how to best include and assist their friend. It’s better to ask for an explanation than make incorrect assumptions and leave people out.
5. Teach Patience
Another thing to help your child understand is that children with special needs can often do the same things as their peers — it just takes them a little bit longer. Patience goes a long way toward building friendships and including others. If your child understands their classmate’s disability, it will be easier for them to display patience if they move slower or take longer to understand a game or activity.
6. Remind Your Child That Everyone Wants to Have Friends
If children don’t know any better, they may assume that a classmate who has difficulty communicating verbally or who cannot engage in physical activity does not want or need friends. Explain to your child that this assumption is false. Even children who are unable toor participate in certain activities still long for love and acceptance. As you talk with your child about their peers with special needs, it’s important to focus on the things they have in common with your child, rather than their differences. Remind them that everyone wants to have friends and be included. Even if their body doesn’t allow them to walk, run or speak, they are still human, and they love having friends who care for them.
7. Educate Yourself
To help your child develop a healthy and age-appropriate understanding of how to help special needs students in the classroom, it’s important to educate yourself first. Researching these topics can help you become more informed. If you know any specifics about the special needs of any of your child’s classmates, you can look more closely into these areas. However, it’s not necessary to become an expert. Your child isn’t looking for a lecture or to be overwhelmed with facts. Your child is simply looking to you to help them understand what’s going on and how to treat others with compassion.