Kids are naturally curious – they unabashedly stare at others who are different from them, and many parents have experienced the chagrin of hushing their toddler as they ask loudly “What happened to that lady?” (or something similar) in a public venue. As parents, how we respond to kids’ questions about difference can shape how they view those who appear or act different from themselves, and lay the foundations for acceptance, compassion and empathy for years to come.
Visible indicators of varied ability, such as wheelchairs, walkers, significant mobility issues or pronounced facial features (as in Down’s Syndrome) are easy for kids to notice. On the other hand, learning disabilities or other invisible disabilities, such as autism or dyslexia, are often harder to see, and may remain unnoticed in a variety of situations. Kids need to be taught by example that being genuinely interested and curious is acceptable, as long as it is expressed in a respectful way to everyone involved, and that there is no one answer that will apply to any whole group of people, even if they made have the same label for their challenges.
By encouraging kids to ask questions and seek out information in respectful ways, we are teaching them that disability is not something taboo or secretive, or something that anyone should be ashamed of. In fact, the more kids are exposed to varying abilities and gifts, the more they learn to accept that every individual has strengths and challenges, and the more likely they are to be inclusive and respectful in their interactions with everyone they meet.
Integrated classrooms are a wonderful environment for teaching all kids about how to learn from and support each other. While they may not be the ideal environment for all students all the time, the benefits far outweigh the negatives for both typical and non-typical peers. If your child is the one with a disability, an integrated setting is a wonderful opportunity to teach them to self-advocate, within their abilities. Kids who know about their own strengths and challenges are more confident in addressing questions from their peers, and peers who are educated are often the strongest advocates for their friends who may need extra support. If students are not verbal or still working on functional communication, peer modelling and prompting can often be a strong motivator for learning, and supportive peers can often help reduce anxiety, frustration and isolation in students with a disability, by supporting them in age-appropriate ways throughout the day.
As parents, it is important to talk with your child about their comfort level in disclosing information to their peers. Some students with a disability may not be comfortable with being singled out, while others may welcome the chance to help educate their peers through their own experiences. If possible, discuss with your child and their teacher what approach you would like them to take in speaking to the class about your child’s needs. The new school year is a great time for teachers to discuss learning styles with their class, highlighting the variety of abilities within a class, and helping students identify ways that they can all help support each other. When possible, and if all parties are comfortable, specific information can be very valuable in helping children understand their peer’s needs and behaviour.
In my high-needs class for student with autism, we have peer buddies for a variety of play activities – wonderful learning and communication opportunities for my students, and incredible leadership and learning opportunities for their peers, as well. Because my students are mostly non-verbal and can sometimes have aggressive behaviours, we start by holding a training session for all the peer buddies. We talk about autism, how it affects language and communication and sensory input, and what that means for communicating and interacting with my students. We practice modelling appropriate language, talk about specific students likes and dislikes, and strategies to help my students manage if they start to get upset or overwhelmed. These peer buddies are not only great models of appropriate communication and behaviour, but by the end of the year, they come to view my students as friends and peers through their shared interactions, completing the circle of integration and learning from each other in ways that often amaze us as adults.
Ultimately, kids who learn that intelligence comes in many forms are going to be the strongest advocates for themselves and their peers in an integrated classroom. Whether your child has a disability or not, learning to ask respectful questions, seek out information and support each other are all valuable lessons that will last long into adulthood, and that are brought uo life every day in an integrated setting in a way that nothing else can.