Teaching Tolerance to Kids for Their Special Needs Classmates

How Do You Teach Compassion for Special Needs Classmates?

My elementary school children switch tables every month and this is always a topic at the dinner table because it’s a really big deal to them.  Each month there is either wild  elation or grave disappointment depending on the seating chart.  Over time, I realized that when my kids are most upset about their new table mates, it is not necessarily that they are not sitting near their friends, but it’s because there is someone at the table who is disruptive.

For my middle child, a disruptive child is the bane of her existence because her table gets reward or punishment based on collective good behavior at their table.  Sometimes prizes and recess are at stake.

For my oldest child, a disruptive child prevents her from hearing the teacher and is so distracting she will sometimes request a seat change.

But sometimes, their classmates can’t help their behavior because they have special needs.  My kids equate a special needs child with an assigned aide, but not all special needs children in their classroom have an assigned aide.  We want to teach our children to be tolerant and compassionate but how do you explain this to a kindergartener or first grader?  I pose this question to my Mom School Psychologist Friend.   This is how she’d recommend talking to your children:

The response is the same for all disabilities.  It is important for young school age children to understand that every child has areas of strengths and weaknesses.  Help your child to assess his/her own areas of strengths (what is easy for him/her to do) and his/her areas of weakness (what is difficult for him/her to do.)  Every person has different strengths and weaknesses because all brains are different.  Some children have a lot of difficulty in school because they are still developing skills.  Use specific examples of developing or lagging skills that your child may notice in others.

A Mom Friend who ran our Understanding Our Differences program and who also does this professionally, had this advice:

“When we did the Understanding Our Differences presentation on Learning Disabilities, that is the approach they took.  We spent time having the children think about their own strengths and challenges, and ran activity groups to give them a taste of what it would be like for them if they faced the kind of challenges that someone with a learning disability might face (i.e., writing words looking into a mirror where the letters appeared upside down and backwards, or trying to listen to instructions without being able to filter out background noise, etc.).  I ran a memory station where the kids had to memorize items in a box.  When I asked them to come up with strategies to help them, they each had different approaches (i.e., sort them by color, function, size, first letter, etc.) and I emphasized that their brains are set up differently, and the strategy that worked best for one child, did not work for another.  The way a child with a learning disability, or any child, overcomes their challenges is by finding the strategy that works best for them.”

My final note is that a phrase that seems to work nicely when your child is frustrated by the behavior of others who can’t help their behavior is:  “She or he doesn’t understand how others want to be treated.  What can you do to help him or her?”  That always seems to lead to a robust dinner conversation.

One last thought…in this new 21st century, we’ve been fortunate in our community to personally not experience prejudice based on the color of our skin or the amount of money we make.  I haven’t noticed this kind of prejudice, in general, among the kids so maybe special needs kids is the new frontier of diversity.  It’s actually a golden opportunity for “typical” kids to learn how to get along with kids who are different from them.

That being said, my 4th grader’s friend who has a very kind heart and a real interest and talent for relating to special needs kids tried to help the little girl who didn’t understand how other kids wanted to be treated.  She had invited that little girl over for a play date and tried to coach her into acting and looking her best.  Her other friends really gave her a hard time for befriending this little girl so the girl with the kind heart ended up crying over this.  So…there is a big opportunity for all of us here.  We can coach our daughter to stand up for her friend with the kind heart as well as be tolerant of the little girl who doesn’t know how others want to be treated.

And the upside?… In the workplace, there are always people who are difficult to get along with whether they are peers, bosses or direct reports.  What a gift we can give our children if they learn the skills to get along with people who are very different from themselves.

I would love your thoughts and experiences so please comment!

p.s. Some related posts:

Top 10 Books that Teach Kids Compassion

Teaching Empathy Successful in Preventing Bullying (NYTimes)

How To: Teach Your Kid Compassion

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Tammy

    what a great post, thank you for sharing it. This is a subject very near and dear to me, as I have a 7 yo on the spectrum. Since pre-school years, I have been a huge advocate for him, always seeking out ways to help him with social skills (especially in a school setting). The hardest part was/is usually the lack of understanding from his role models/peers.
    I wrote the following, with hopes of a better understanding amongst his (now 2nd grade) classmates.
    thanks for letting me share.
    Looking forward to your future posts.

  2. This is excellent, practical and accessible advice. Great site!

  3. Marcell Toporek

    Once I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new feedback are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you possibly can take away me from that service? Thanks

  4. Saul Weber

    Great post.

    There is a major problem with children’s books, books which attempt to teach tolerance is far berween each other or simply does not exist. And even if these books do exist, their sales are almost non-existing as well, despite efforts to communicate their existence.

    I’m the author of a children’s book, “A Lesson My Cat Taught Me”, which tries, as the dedication reads, “To all cat lover and people who cab accept others for who they are and not what they are.”

    You can read about my book at http://www.createspace.com/3447169 and the reviews on Amazon.com

    Yet, despite a recommendation my book recieved, people tend to ignore it.
    [ http://www.tolerance.org/resources?keys=saul+weber&level=All&subject=All ]

    I would appreciate any assistance you can render in spreading the word of my book’s existence.


    Saul Weber

  5. Thank you for that . we have a transfer student coming in next week with aspergers. We have dealt with this before many times, but this year we have a group of kids who seem a bit more insensitive. We have been coaching them for several weeks in preparation. YOur article was a great help. Thank you for your efforts.

    • Hi Marv,
      I think that Special Needs is truly the real diversity at our public elementary school. Race doesn’t seem be a factor, nor homosexuality of parents. It’s the toughest when their classmate has a special need that is not obvious but affects their social skills. My kids, even when told that the child has a special need, don’t buy it.

      The one way to get them more tolerant is to read books about special needs kids that puts them in the shoes of another. Wonder by R. J. Palacio is wonderful for that. I wish there was a great book on Asperbergers. Rules by Cynthia Lord is another great book.

      I guess all we can do is try to change one kid at a time, starting with our own.

  6. As a mother who has a special needs child, I think this is a topic that should be added to health class. Through my sons school years I watched children ridicule, run away from him, tease and antagonize him. I had phone calls from school that he had been pushed through a window and banged his head on the lunch table out of frustration which in turn left a nice size bump and bruise on his head. This is just a few things throughout his 3 years of preschool and 14 years of public school( he had senior plus program) If kids understood more about specific disabilities and the characteristics, behaviors, triggers etc, maybe they would be more tolerant and helpful. It’s just a thought and in return parents would be more relaxed sending their child to school. I worried everyday about my son and what may happen.

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