Helping Your Child Navigate a Special Needs Encounter

It was both exciting and terrifying the week my daughter Lamp started kindergarten, as I’m sure any mother understands. That being said, I think the nerves get turned up a few notches for us special needs moms. Not only am I trying to prepare Lamp for a new school and the beginning of her academic career, I’m trying to help prepare her to deal with the extra physical and social challenges that she’ll face concerning her limb differences. I’m also helping to prepare and educate the school and other students to know how to talk about and interact with her.

One thing I’ve known for a while is that when Lamp started school I wanted to do some sort of presentation on the first or second day that would address differences and disabilities to all the kids at her school. I wasn’t sure how or what this would look like and I didn’t know how open the school would be to it, but I knew it’d be important for Lamp and her peers.

With the help of Lamp’s therapists and pre-k teachers, we were able to get a hospital representative to come to her new school. She gave a 10-minute presentation to each grade level telling them a little about Lamp – the correct terminology, her power chair, other tools she uses like special utensils and adaptive scissors as well as acceptable and unacceptable language/behavior. I can’t tell you how happy I am that the school was so receptive, because apparently some schools aren’t as receptive to this type of educational experience.

I was also invited to come to the school’s staff meeting along with Lamp’s therapists and give them a quick rundown on Lamp, on how they can best help her (or not help her!) and especially in helping navigating the other students and their reactions and questions concerning Lamp. Her teachers and therapists did most of the talking about how much or how little help she needs in class, what adaptions need to be made, etc. while I spent most of my time going over how I hope they, as educators, help Lamp’s classmates understand her disabilities as well as how to relate and talk to Lamp.

It’s taken about five years for me to finally feel like I have a rough formula for talking to kids about Lamp. It’s not an exact science as every kid thinks and reacts differently, but for the most part, it works really well. This is what I shared with the teachers at Lamp’s new school and I thought I’d share it for those of you wondering what to do when your child comes across a child with special needs and you’re not really sure how to handle it.

I ask every single parent I spotlight on my blog what they’d like to tell the world about interacting with their child. I discuss this in Lamp’s spotlight as well. This is not a new topic for me, but this is a much more simplistic breakdown.

Please note that this is mostly meant to be used with young children approximately eight years old and under. Older children should hopefully know a little about boundaries. I also wouldn’t consider having this type of discussion with an older child (or adult) in front of Lamp to be appropriate.

In order to teach your child about how to talk to children with special needs, you need to make sure they know its ok to talk to them and to ask questions!

What To Teach Your Child About Talking To Special Needs Kids

  1. Questions are OK
    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 it’s OK to have questions. Try not to shush them and turn them away from the child they just encountered as 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.
    Reference friends or relatives who have a wheelchair, walker, glasses, etc. I know this is the hardest part because we think the kind thing to do is to shush our children and walk away. But walking away implies that there’s something wrong with special needs kids. It implies that 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 a potential playmate taken away before things are set right.
  2. Reinforce kindness
    While it’s important not to shame kids for their curiosity, it’s also very important to let children know 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 by saying something like “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 “it would really hurt your feelings if someone laughed at you.” It can be said kindly, it can be said firmly but it HAS to be said. Curiosity can quickly turn to cruelty in young children if left unchecked.
  3. Find common ground
    Once your child has some understanding that some people are just born differently, it’s 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.
  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 OMG, she can drive a chair! Or I always say, you want to know something really cool? 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.

A couple of notes: While I usually advocate for staying and building bridges, sometimes it is appropriate to walk away with your child. For example, if your child is really struggling to accept the idea that “they were just born that way” and they keep pointing, staring and saying innocently 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.

Also, keep in mind that like most really important things in life, this isn’t a one-time conversation! That’s 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 learn to not ask questions and loose out on valuable lessons and conversations.

So there it is! I know these can be hard situations to navigate but for most of us special needs moms, just seeing you try and make an effort means 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.

Small things = big change.
We can do this!

In order to teach your child about how to talk to children with special needs, you need to make sure they know its ok to talk to them and to ask questions!

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