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 to communicate their needs or 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.
8. Explain Adaptive Equipment
You can also discuss adaptive equipment with your kids. Explain how people with disabilities use extra tools to help them. While you describe the equipment, you could provide common examples, like:
- Hearing aids
- AAC Communicators
In addition, you could talk about other helpful tools for people with disabilities, like designated parking spaces or wheelchair ramps.
By teaching kids to recognize adaptive equipment, they can be more understanding when seeing it in the future. You can also explain how to treat people that use the equipment. You can explain that the equipment is helpful for kids with disabilities and that you should treat it with respect.
9. Make Sure Kids Ask Before Helping
Many kids like to be helpers at school. From wanting to be the line leader to volunteering to pass out materials, these children want to assist their peers and teachers in any way they can. However, it’s important to teach your students to ask before trying to aid a child with a disability. If they try to help before getting permission, it could worsen the situation.
For instance, a student might want to comfort an upset child with special needs. The student could think a hug would help the child, but it might make them feel more uncomfortable.
Instead, you can teach your students to ask before jumping in with assistance. Asking a quick question like “Is there anything I can do to help?” can help people with disabilities set boundaries and accept the help they need. That way, they can stay more comfortable within the classroom.
10. Focus on Similarities
Another great approach for explaining disabilities to students is to focus on similarities. Instead of only explaining the differences, point out shared interests or traits between people with disabilities and everyone else. You could talk about similarities like:
- Favorite subjects
- Common hobbies
- Hair colors
- Favorite foods
As kids realize what they have in common with people with disabilities, it becomes easier to relate to them. This practice can help with empathy development, encouraging kids to experience someone else’s point of view.
How to Interact With Someone Who Has Special Needs
Your child will also look to you to model how to interact with a classmate who has special needs. Wondering how kids can include classmates with special needs? These tips can help.
1. Remember That Everyone Is Human
At the core of it all is the understanding that everyone is human. We all want acceptance and to engage with others. How do you show this to a child? Model this behavior in your interactions with everyone you meet. The way you treat the cashier at the grocery store, the crossing guard in front of your child’s school, and the other parents you encounter in the carpool line will go a long way toward teaching your child that every human being is valuable. If they see this modeled by their parents, they will be more likely to emulate this behavior with all of their classmates, regardless of any special needs they might have.
With younger children, play is a valuable tool for understanding and connecting with others. Young children form relationships through play and can develop a better understanding of their special needs peers when they engage together through play. Look for opportunities for your young child to engage and interact with other children and adults who are different from them.
2. Be Yourself
A common question children and adults have about engaging with special needs students is “How do I interact with them?” The short answer to this question is: Just be yourself! A child’s disability does not necessarily change their ability to respond to others around them. For instance, a child with speech and language disabilities can still participate in conversations with others using their adaptive equipment.
At the same time, there’s no need for your child to go overboard trying to engage with them. A child who tends to be quiet but loves to help might do better by offering assistance to a special needs peer during a classroom activity. A child who tends to be more talkative and outgoing may choose to engage in conversation with their special needs peer. Encourage your child to find ways to engage with their classmate that are reflective of their personality. Although everyone should step out of their comfort zone from time to time, there’s no reason your child has to change their personality or do things that they wouldn’t even do with their other classmates.
3. Recognize Boundaries
Although it’s important for children to be inclusive of others, it’s also vital that they learn to understand that their classmates may have boundaries and struggles that don’t always go well with your child’s personality. For example, autistic children don’t usually like to be touched. An affectionate child might like to hug or touch other children, but a child with special needs might not welcome touches. Because children spend so much time in the classroom together, they often pick up on these preferences just from watching their classmates. However, it’s still important to remind them to be alert and aware of how their behavior can affect their classmates.
If your child has a classmate who uses a wheelchair to get around the school, teach them to consider the wheelchair to be an extension of their classmate’s body. That means that it’s not okay to lean on the wheelchair, destroy or deface it in any way or ask to ride in it. They should also never grab for the chair or attempt to push their classmate without permission.
4. Use the Universal Language of Music
In some cases, music can be a great way to bridge the gap between classmates of varying abilities and needs. Even if a child is non-verbal or has physical limitations, they can still connect with music because it is universally understood across the world. They can enjoy the antics and voices of their classmates, and they can connect with the words, even to silly songs. As children grow older, they may also be able to bond over the love of a particular genre of music or a band they both enjoy. This can be especially helpful for tweens and teens who are looking for ways to connect with a classmate with special needs.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk
Even if your child has a classmate who is non-verbal, you can encourage them to engage in conversation with them. Engaging in conversation with another person demonstrates an interest in them and helps to establish a connection. Your child can tell stories or ask about their day. Remind them that it doesn’t have to turn into a 20-minute discussion. Even taking 30 seconds to say “hello” or telling a brief story about something that happened at the bus stop that morning can go a long way.
That being said, teach your child to be sensitive to their classmates if they have any hearing loss or sensory issues because conversation in a crowded or loud space may do more harm than good. Guide them to look for opportunities to talk in quiet face-to-face settings, such as during assignments that require students to choose a partner to complete them or inviting them to play an educational game during a free period.
Parents of special needs students are typically receptive to questions from their child’s classmates. These questions give them the opportunity to inform others and help them develop a more accurate understanding of what makes their child unique. It doesn’t take a well-scripted list of questions to approach another parent. Many times, a simple “Hello” is all you need to open the door to conversation.
6. Recognize Limitations
Children of all ages and stages have their limits. In children with special needs, these limitations are often magnified because of the physical or sensory issues associated with certain conditions. Talk with your child about recognizing these limits in their peers with special needs. For example, they may have a classmate who is deaf. That student may not be able to follow a conversation in spoken English, but they can still engage in active play at recess. Your child could also learn a few basic signs so that they can communicate with them.
If your child has a classmate with autism spectrum disorder, you may want to prepare them for witnessing their classmate having a meltdown or episode where they seem to be out of control. When these outbursts happen, children without disabilities can often misunderstand them. Children might react by making fun of or becoming scared of their special needs classmates. But the truth is that these outbursts are simply a part of their disability. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to prevent and mitigate these outbursts, not the children’s. But your child can cultivate an understanding attitude toward what’s happening and not allow it to mar their opinion of their classmate.
How Can Teachers Make the Classroom Inclusive?
Parents can and should play an active role in teaching their children how to treat others and how to get along with others who are different than them. But teachers have a valuable role to play in working with special needs children as well.
1. Accommodate Lessons to Ensure Everyone’s Needs Are Met
It might go without saying, but for teachers to accommodate their students’ needs, they must first understand those needs and limitations. Teachers should follow the same guidelines as children and parents by educating themselves on their students’ special needs, boundaries and limitations.
Once a teacher has a good handle on what their students’ needs are, then they can develop lesson plans that find creative ways to meet them. Make a point to coordinate with the school’s specialists, including occupational therapists, speech therapists, school psychologists, special education instructors and reading specialists. You can work together to build inclusive lessons that will provide the needed accommodations for all students.
While a teacher may need to make certain alterations to accommodate a student’s special needs, it’s essential to keep the general theme of the lesson the same for everyone. By engaging them in the same topics and basic activities, you promote an inclusive atmosphere for everyone in the class. When your students have a common goal, they’ll engage with each other more effectively and feel more like a cohesive group.
Depending on your students’ needs, you may also have an additional teacher in the classroom to assist them. Or, you might use specialized technology to obtain information in an alternative fashion. For example, a student who is deaf or hard of hearing may require a visual translation of the lesson or a seat up front to read lips during a lecture. If another teacher is assigned to work with one of the students in the classroom, work closely with them. That way, you can both adequately prepare to instruct the class and meet individual needs.
2. Avoid Stereotypes
Whether you’ve been teaching for two months or twenty years, you may have formed some preconceived notions about special needs students and how to interact with them. In some cases, these ideas may have been informed by stereotypes and long-ago incidents that served to inform and reinforce those stereotypes. Although it may not feel natural at first, make a point to check those conceptions at the door and start fresh.
When it comes to including and instructing students with special needs, teachers should refrain from allowing past experiences to inform their current situation. Remember that each of your students — regardless of their physical and mental abilities — is a human being. They each learn differently. They each have different likes and dislikes. They each have different ways of engaging with the world around them. As you know, part of a teacher’s goal is oftentimes to learn about their students and what makes them tick. Then, they can apply their training and knowledge to the business of helping them learn.
3. Maintain a Positive Attitude
There are just some days that staying positive in the classroom is really tough, but it’s important to maintain perspective and focus on the big picture. Believe each student is capable of succeeding and regularly evaluate your teaching plan for better ways to do this.
It’s also important to accept responsibility for the learning outcomes in your classroom. Although some students struggle more than others, there’s no benefit to blaming the student or their disability for their lack of understanding. There is no such thing as a waste of time. Regardless of how they engage with their class or what information they retain in the long run, your role is to teach them something they didn’t know before and prepare them for what’s ahead.
4. Maintain an Inclusive Atmosphere at All Times
Children will mimic the behavior they see in the adults around them. If a teacher includes all students in activities and strives to maintain an inclusive atmosphere in the classroom, then students will follow suit. If a teacher excludes certain students from certain activities or shows a preference for those they think are “smarter” or “better,” then they risk cultivating a divisive classroom.
A great way to create an inclusive environment is to incorporate games and interactive activities into lesson plans. This helps students learn about each other’s strengths and understand their personalities. It’s also a great way to develop unity among students. When children have fun together, it helps them grow closer to each other, regardless of their abilities.
5. Have Adaptive Equipment and Assistive Technology in the Classroom
Some of this may depend on your students’ individual needs, but having the appropriate adaptive equipment and assistive technology available in the classroom goes a long way toward effective instruction. Using assistive technology in the classroom ensures that students with varying levels of ability can be included in a variety of activities. It also helps to promote inclusion by ensuring no student is left out. Not sure what kind of equipment you need? Check out our wide variety of products and classroom kits.
6. Talk About Disabilities With Students in a Healthy Way
Lastly, remember to keep all classroom discussions about disabilities healthy and positive. Teachers can help students form positive feelings about peers with disabilities, instead of fear or awkwardness.
For instance, you could encourage healthy communication strategies like:
- Humanize others: When students notice children who are different from them, inspire them to treat them like other classmates. For instance, you could tell students to introduce themselves and ask questions. Remind them of the similarities between everyone despite appearances.
- Normalize confusion: Your students might feel confused about the best way to include or speak to kids with disabilities. Let them know that confusion is okay, but it’s important to overcome it and welcome others.
- Use respect: Emphasize that respect is the most important aspect of all interactions. While it’s okay to ask questions, remind students that everyone’s feelings should come first. They should treat every person they meet with respect and think about how their words might impact others.
Taking a healthy approach to students with disabilities in the classroom can help you maintain a positive environment.
Assistive Technology Products and Classroom Kits from Enabling Devices
With the proper support, children who have special needs can thrive in the classroom environment. For more than three decades, Enabling Devices has worked with parents, teachers and special needs individuals to develop exceptional, high-quality products that help special needs individuals succeed in the classroom, the workplace and at home. Our ultimate goal is to help everyone we work with to live a full life and experience the joy of being able to fully engage in the world around them.