Talking with General Education Students about Disabilities

An increasing number of children who have a wide range of disabilities that affect learning and socializing are attending their neighborhood schools. Some will spend most of their time in the regular classroom, while others might only join the general school population for music or physical education.

Many experts say it’s a good idea to inform general education children about the challenges and rewards that a particular child is expected to bring to the classroom.  This helps prevent misunderstandings, while promoting a positive, but realistic look at their new classmate.

shooting stills 8-14 to 8-25 084If a child’s disability is very noticeable or likely to be perceived as severe, a parent or teacher should talk to the class before the child’s first day. It’s important to describe the student’s disability in concrete terms, explaining key strengths and weaknesses, as well as likes and dislikes. Younger children may need to be told the disability is not contagious.

A parent of a child who has Down Syndrome might explain the syndrome in general, and then describe how it affects their own child, explaining that every person, with or without a disability, is different.

When talking to younger children, try not to use overly clinical language. For instance, instead of leaving a seven-year-old to wonder what you mean by intellectual disability, say your student has a brain disorder or difference that makes it harder difficult for her to do some of the things expected in the classroom.

One mother of a child who has a moderate intellectual disability and mild cerebral palsy described her son this way: “David has a brain disorder. For him, that means it takes him a lot longer to learn new things than most people. He is still learning to talk. You might notice it’s harder for him to understand you when you talk fast or use long sentences. But he does enjoy other people, and smiles a lot to let you know that.”

SysSup 090If your child has a special talent or interest in music or art, for instance, let the children know. If your son with autism knows all about trains, mention that. Someone else in the class might have a similar interest. If he has an amazing memory, the class will probably be impressed, especially if you relate a few examples.

Of course it’s also important to honestly relate your child’s challenges, especially if she has unusual behaviors that might bewilder or even scare people who don’t know her. For instance, you might say, “Because of Alice’s brain disorder, there are things she doesn’t like. Loud noises scarce her and she might jump or yell when startled. Sometimes she has trouble understanding what’s going on around her.”

Similarly, if a student is likely to have some classroom meltdowns, let the children know. Even a two-year-old in the midst of a full-blown tantrum is impressive, but a 10-year-old swinging his arms around and screaming is a sight to behold. Teachers should reassure students there is a plan to help the child calm down and feel better.

Let them know that meltdowns often mean something is very upsetting or uncomfortable to the student, but they don’t how to calmly ask for help. Tell them that adults are working to help the child learn better ways to communicate.

The age of your students should dictate the language you use. Reading an age-appropriate book on the subject is a great way to introduce typically developing children to the world of disabilities.

Apples for Cheyenne by Elizabeth King Gerlach is a book about Rachel, a girl who has autism and loves her horse Cheyenne. The story follows Rachel and her two friends, a boy who uses a wheelchair, and a girl with ADHD, on a horse-riding adventure.  The book is beautifully illustrated by Kim Miller, a girl who has autism.

This book, aimed at children in the four- to nine-year-old age range, could be especially helpful to teachers in their efforts to incorporate stories about special needs children into their lesson plans, thereby widening understanding of and respect for those who differ from the “norm”.

Apples for Cheyenne also includes an appendix which gives more detailed information about autism, sensory issues, and therapeutic horseback riding.

How about you? What do you do to help your child or students understand children with disabilities and the challenges they bring to the classroom?  Please comment below.