Though friendships between students with special needs and their typically-developing peers pose unique challenges, they also offer lifelong benefits. Generally, these relationships are no accident and require both foundational and continuing support to be meaningful.
Research indicates that peer acceptance during school years is an indicator for quality of life in adulthood. Therefore, while we recognize that improving the social skills of those with special needs is important, we also are aware that typically-developing students benefit from social-emotional lessons as well. Lessons that help in creating a culture of acceptance in a school will both reduce bullying behavior and increase acceptance of peers, regardless of differing ability. This article offers suggestions for teaching acceptance and fostering empathy for students with special needs.
Whether you are a classroom teacher or a parent, your example matters to those looking to you for guidance on how to interact with a child with disabilities. If you talk about the child rather than to him or her--especially if you do so within the child’s hearing--you imply that the child is incapable of understanding what you’re saying or being engaged in your conversation or activity. This effectively creates an obstacle to social interaction, as bystanders are less likely to interact with the child. By presuming competence, even if the child does not consistently demonstrate reliable verbal skills, you will be making the least harmful assumption about his or her ability and willingness to engage in social opportunities.
It doesn’t take long for children, even in primary elementary school, to notice differences among classmates. With disabilities that are visible, such as mobility impairments requiring adaptive aids, students will ask questions about both cause and specialized equipment. The “invisible disabilities,” such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are less understood and require additional explanation in developmentally-appropriate terminology.
Two children are never so different that they cannot find a common denominator to make a social connection. While they may have different abilities, they may have similar interests, such as video games and music. Though they may have different talents, they likely have many strengths. Be sure to focus on the positive.
Fostering empathy goes a long way in building natural supports. If a child has a visual impairment, consider asking his friend to wear dark glasses for an hour to experience what his classmate experiences each day. If a student doesn’t have words, have his friends try to express themselves with something other than spoken language during lunchtime. Getting a feel for the associated frustrations helps peers jump in either before an obstacle gets in their friend’s way, or once trouble is setting in.
It is important to understand that disclosing a disability is a violation of both IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). However, talking specifically about a student’s needs and strengths can be helpful. Often, it makes sense in such discussions to associate these needs with a particular diagnosis.
While a student with ADHD, and another with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), might both have difficulty attending to some curricular presentations, their attention issues have rather different sources. For example, explaining sensory dysregulation in an age-appropriate way with classmates will help them understand both their classmate’s disability-driven behavior and their own role in keeping their classmate with special needs feeling respected by self-managing potentially distracting behavior.
The saying, “Fair isn’t everyone getting the same. It means everyone getting what they need,” is a good one in this case. Students with special education needs have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and additional teachers and therapists. They often have extracurricular activities that have little, if anything, to do with academics, which sometimes means they also miss out on recreational opportunities in the community. Ignoring the differences is insulting to the students’ individual and collective intelligence. Some people wear glasses to help them see, some students take medicine to help them think and some children use wheelchairs to help them move. We must make adaptations to help everyone be the best they can be.
If awareness leads to acceptance, keep in mind that it has to start with the student herself. Self-advocacy and self-determination are necessary qualities for all lifelong learners, but are especially crucial for the development of individuals with special needs. These start in the primary elementary school years and are practiced over time to ready one’s self for life after a system of entitlement (as in public education) to one of eligibility (as in post-secondary options).
Talking about interacting with students with different social and cognitive abilities only one time and then expecting potential friends to understand how to grow a relationship is silly. This can be compared to teaching addition in math and expecting students to know how to divide without additional instruction. Social-emotional learning is as important -- and progressive -- as academic learning.
The grade school years should be filled with friendships and learning for all students, including those with special needs. Teaching typically-developing students how to be friends with those who are different needs to be deliberate, specific, ongoing and compassionate. When everyone in a community--especially a school--models acceptance from the administration on down, a culture of kindness can be established. Schools that practice inclusion are full of flexible, empathetic people who are not afraid to provide leadership to do the right thing or to humble themselves for the good of the team. With an institution filled with such people, friendships between children of all abilities will surely blossom.
More expert advice about Kids with Special Needs
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