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 playdate 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:
Teaching Empathy Successful in Preventing Bullying (NYTimes)
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.