Q: [School-Aged] This year my child is in an inclusive classroom with some differently-abled kids and at least one on the Spectrum. How can I help her with his developing friendships?
A: The most important teacher your child has is you- and your greatest lesson? Inclusivity and kindness. Start with this big-picture perspective and then affirm and encourage when you observe your child being kind. When they help someone up after falling. When they include a new friend at the park or school. Find a moment to look your child in their eyes and validate their behavior. I saw you help Jake up after he fell off his bike. I love how kind and aware of others you are. Great job. Teach your child that kindness is inclusive of all ages, genders and physical appearances, including children with special needs.
Focus on Commonalities First
When your child notices a peer with special needs, introduce them to the child and focus on similarities like age, grade and common interests. By nature, children are connectors and see themselves in others. Try starting the introductions with “Jane, this is my friend Bri. Bri is in second grade like you are – and she likes horses too!” Creating a neutral starting point encourages your child to see someone with special needs as a friend who likes the same interests, instead of focusing on the initial differences.
Different is Cool
Children are aware of differences in themselves and others and acknowledging these differences in a positive light paves the way for future compassionate adults. Affirm the differences in a special needs friend by explaining that he or she speaks differently because his or her brain works in a unique way. Perhaps he or she has a different appearance than your child. Offer a framework for why this may be the case. Point out that a child with special needs may speak in an unfamiliar tone or flap their hands and affirm your child’s awareness: I can see you notice her, but let’s not stare because it might make her uncomfortable. He likes flapping his hands. He’s excited. You get excited sometimes, too. Don’t you?
Answer questions as they arise and gauge what’s appropriate to discuss in public or at home in private. Give credit to your child by saying, I love your curiosity. Let’s talk about this more at home in private. By validating your son or daughter’s questions, you affirm their awareness and have time to form an educated response instead of a reactive explanation. Be mindful not to dismiss questions as this can discourage your child from seeking information from you in the future, but provide a safe space for questions and assure your child: Any question can be asked. Some I can answer now and others we’ll talk about at home. I love your curiosity to want to know more about others.
Books To Read Together
For continued conversations surrounding kindness and inclusivity, check out these books with your child:
- “A Friend Like Simon” by Kate Gaynot
- “My Brother Charlie” by Holly Robinson Peete
- “Just Because” by Rebecca Elliott
- “The Prince Who Was Just Himself” by Silke Schnee & Heike Sistig
Ria Tirona is the Program Director of the YMCA of Orange County’s Y Inclusion program, which fosters the inclusion of children with special needs ages 3 to 17 enrolled in a preschool, child care or community program setting throughout OC.