“How can I explain to my daughter that even if the new girl in her class is different, she should still be treated like any other classmate?”
It’s a dilemma many parents face as more and more school systems “mainstream” children with disabilities into “typical” functioning classrooms. While there may always be a need for self-contained classrooms (where children with more profound disabilities are taught in one space separate from the rest of the school’s students), more and more children who are “different” are settling into classrooms with children who aren’t “different.”
How do you, as a parent, talk to your child about accepting a classmate with disabilities? We’ve all heard the stories about how children can be cruel to kids who are “different.” No parent wants their child to be known as a bully or the mean kid. What’s the best way? Below are some suggestions:
Validate your child’s feelings: Children instinctively know when another child is “different.” They may be confused, scared, uncertain, and most of all, curious about their new classmate’s looks and/or behavior. Any feelings your child displays are natural. Let them voice what they think and feel to you in a private setting even if it is not “PC.” Finding out what your child feels is a good first step to helping them learn the concept of acceptance.
Acceptance is natural, prejudice is learned: People aren’t born with discrimination against others; they learn when it’s modeled to them. Your child needs to see you accept others for who they are as their primary example for learning to accept someone different. Words are a wonderful gateway to opening up effective communication, but the old saying “Actions speak louder than words” is often the message children receive the clearest.
Be honest: It’s okay to admit you don’t know why some children are different. Even the parents of children with disabilities may not know why their child is different. Explain to your child that disabilities are like natural hair or eye color; we don’t get to choose, they simply are part of who we are as a person.
Spend time observing: Many parents aren’t certain on how a mainstream classroom works. Schools and teachers actively invite parents to silently observe their classrooms for a couple of hours. Seeing is believing, after all.
Keep communication open: The best way to open a dialogue with your child is to let him or her start it. We all get the standard “fine” when we ask, “How was your day?” Often, asking a child about how they feel regarding a classmate with a disability isn’t the best way to get them to talk. Let your child tell you when they are ready.
Speaking with your child about these things can open up a whole new line of communication for you both. Conversations are one of the best parenting skills a parent can utilize.