It's that time of year again... school supplies, new shoes, school lunches. It's all so exciting! For the first few weeks anyway. This year also marks a new beginning for us as we now have TWO girls in all day school. It feels both strange and exciting. More time with my littlest one and more freedom as we no longer have mid-day school drop-offs. But of course having Lamp gone all day will be an adjustment. Zuzu's going to miss her bff. But adjust we will.
I wanted to revisit a post I did last year at this time about talking to your kids about their special needs peers. In general, it's great to talk to our kids about being kind and inclusive at school. I've long considered this post by Glennon Dolye Melton as the holy text of back-to-school talks. It's wonderful.
BUT, if I may be so bold to say, it's not enough when it comes to our special needs and disabled kiddos.
See, a lot of what we teach our children about kindness and being inclusive flies right out of their brains when they see someone who is noticeably different. Especially when their young and inexperienced minds have never encountered someone with differences before. It's not because these kids are mean and want to make fun of a child with special needs. It's because they have questions! And concerns! And how's and why's and all sorts of stuff. It's really, really hard to remember to "be nice" when you're also trying to comprehend wheelchairs, limb differences, atypical movements or sounds, leg braces, walkers or any number of things that set our special needs kids apart.
Kids are curious. And that's OK. But curiosity can quickly turn to exclusion, discomfort, and even cruelty if left in a vacuum of ignorance. We must teach our kids about differences.
Last year I was invited to come speak to the staff at Lamp's* school to educate them about Lamp and the best way to address their students questions and to steer them towards positive interactions. I was grateful the principle invited me because we can't teach the kids, until we teach the teachers. Unfortunately I had been in the school many time with Lamp where kids were staring, pointing and whispering with the teacher present and aware, but with no intervention on their part whatsoever. Frankly I was shocked as we had similar experience when Lamp would visit her sister's school in San Antonio but the teachers always intervened and talked to any kids who were acting inappropriately.
It took me about 5 years to come up with the following formula. While it's not perfect I follow this outline almost every time I'm navigating an encounter between Lamp and a child who has never met her before. You could say this method has been field tested a time or two (hundred). This is more for a face-to-face interaction, but would also be a great outline for having a discussion privately with your child as well. In fact, I have had many parents tell me that they've browsed through the Special Needs Spotlight posts with their kids to teach them about people with disabilities. You have no idea how happy that makes me to know the spotlight is being used as a teaching tool for young children.
How to Navigate a Special Needs Encounter with your Child1) Questions are OK + Don't Walk Away
The emotions that a child feels when seeing or meeting another child with special needs can range from curious to nervous or scared to just plain confused. Let your child know that if they have a question it's OK. Try not to shush them and turn them away from the child they just encountered--this only reinforces an exclusionary mentality. If your child points at Lamp and says "What happened to her arm!" my suggestion would be to get down on their level and have the whole "some people are born differently" conversation right then and there. We often say, "She was born differently" or "This is how God made her." And we talk about other differences like hair color, skin color, glasses, etc. It helps to reference friends or relatives who have a wheelchair, walker, glasses, etc. I know this is the hardest part because we think the kind thing is to shush our children and walk away. But walking away implies that there is something wrong with special needs kids and we don't interact with them. So please, do your best to stay. Remember, Lamp knows she has limb differences--it doesn't hurt her feelings to have it explained in front of her. What does hurt her feelings is having a rude interaction and then having that potential playmate taken away before things are set right, so-to-speak.
2) Reinforce kindness
While it's important not to shame kids for their curiosity, it's also very important to let children know in no uncertain terms that certain things are NOT OK. It's not OK to point, stare, laugh, call names or use mean words. Even if your child does this innocently--"she's weird!" "Yuck! Why does her arm look like that?"--please correct them. For example, "That's not a nice word and that might hurt her feelings" or "that would really hurt your feelings if someone laughed at you." or "She's different than you, but she's not weird." It can be said kindly, it can be said firmly but it HAS to be said.
3) Find common ground
Once your child has some understanding that some people are just born differently now is a great time to find some common ground. "She may be a little different, but she's mostly the same as you. I bet she likes a lot of the same toys/games/food that you like." You can then ask the child or the child's caregiver what they like to do. Establishing this sameness is KEY. This is when the light goes on and children realize, oh... she's just another kid, like me. We are more alike than different!
4) Emphasize strengths
Now this one won't be as easy to do if you don't know the special needs child personally, but as Lamp's mom I try to emphasize that she is DIFFERENTLY-abled. Yes there are some things she can't do, like walking which is why she drives a power chair, but wow, she can drive a chair! Or I always tell them, she might not be able to do somethings you can do but guess what? Lamp can write with her feet! This is when you see the jaws drop--literally. Again, it's super important for kids to understand from a young age that disabled really means differently-abled. If possible, try to help your child see a special needs child's strengths.
A couple notes:
--Of course I can't speak for all special needs families, but if you read my past spotlights the vast majority agree with this "stay and talk" approach. That being said, keep in mind that special needs families deal with these interactions all the time and we have our off days, and "I don't feel like dealing with this right now" moments. But again, the vast majority of families I've interviewed--and myself--do appreciate this open approach.
--In general this method is most appropriate for young children--think 8 and under. The older the child (or adult) the less appropriate it is to be asking these questions in front of Lamp. Older children (and adults) should hopefully have a better grasp of boundaries.
--Sometimes it is appropriate to walk away with your child. If your child is really struggling to accept the idea that "they were just born that way" and they keep pointing, staring and saying rude things it's a good idea to apologize and walk away to have a more in depth conversation with your child out of ear shot.
--Keep in mind that like most really important things in life this isn't a one time conversation! Which is the main reason I don't want children to feel shame for asking questions. If a child is shamed when they ask a question, they will soon learn not to ask questions. Which means they will loose out on really valuable lessons and conversations that need to take place.
So there it is! I know these can be hard situations to navigate, for most of us special needs moms just seeing you try and make an effort will mean a lot to us. And it will be meaningful for your children as well. Remember the end goal is to bring down the walls created by ignorance and social stigma and allow for real bonds to be formed. In a word, it's about friendship. I really hope you take the time to read, share and implement this with your kids. I hope you share it with your friends and family too.
Thank you so much for reading and, I don't usually ask this, but please share this post with family and friends! And lets have a fantastic school year together.
*For any newcomers please note that Lamp is not her real name, but rather an online alias I shamelessly cling to.