The first couple of weeks of school is what teachers like to call the “honeymoon phase”. When I taught, I remember students always being on their best behavior. But soon students will become more comfortable and a classroom hierarchy will develop. Students begin to notice those that may be different, and will start making comments or asking questions.
As a parent of child with Down syndrome, I’ve often wondered how I would formally introduce my son to his typical peers. My son, Troy, has had the same preschool teacher for the past two years, and his teacher and I have a decided not to do any formal explanation of Troy’s differences. He is more alike than different, after all. And the 3 and 4-year-olds aren’t concerned about labeling his difference.
When and how should parents formally introduce their child in a classroom setting, and promote disability awareness and acceptance?
First, let’s talk about what NOT to do. You might have come across the use of disability simulations: marshmallows in the mouth to simulate low tone and lack of intelligibility, hands in mittens to simulate poor fine motor skills, blindfolds to simulate–well, being blind. Do you notice what all these simulations highlight?
What a person can’t do, rather than how individuals with disabilities successfully adapt to their environment with the right modifications and supports.
Instead of promoting empathy and awareness, research studies show disability simulations actually promote fear, apprehension, and pity towards their classmate with a disability. Also, because the simulation is only for a short time, it’s hard for typical students to truly experience the classmate’s limitations in a meaningful way.
Awareness Activities in Grade School
Many teachers and parents like to take a more broad approach to awareness of differences in lower grades. For instance, in kindergarten through 2nd grade you may not even mention the term “Down syndrome” or “Autism.” Many parents decide the discussion shouldn’t single their child out, but foster acceptance of all students. Children’s books are a great way to foster acceptance of people for who they are. Here’s some examples:
“My Friend Isabelle” by Eliza Wilson: I love this book, because it starts with two friends that have so much in common, but also talks about differences. The reader only finds out that one character has Down syndrome by reading the jacket note at the end of the book. It also has a guide to help teachers and parents incorporate the book into a classroom lesson. Watch the YouTube click below for a video version of the book.
“The Day the Sheep Showed Up” by David McPhail: About farm animals who had never met a sheep before. The sheep teaches them that they are more alike than different. Great metaphor for accepting those that are different, and fabulous for new readers.
“King Louie and His Marshmallow Kingdom” by Louis Rotella: About a little king who rules over a kingdom where the sun always shines and every meal is a picnic. Louie explains to his friends that he loves to do kid-things, even though he’s different. This is one of my all-time favorites!
Awareness Activities with Older Students
Books can also be used with older students, and some may actually define a disability. But more hands-on or project-based activities are also fun at this age. Open discussions about what students already know about disabilities (or think they know) is imperative. Prior knowledge allows teachers and parents to assess where to start, as well as any preconceived notions students may have. Discussing inclusion is also important at this age. All kids want to be included.
- Students create a class motto for inclusion
- Anonymously write questions students have about disability and difference, and have those questions read and answered as a class (or in private)
- Create a classroom mural that depicts what an inclusive class, school, and community looks like
- Perform a simple skit showing appropriate and inappropriate ways to interact with classmates with disabilities: people’s first language, asking before you help someone, inviting classmates to special occasions, treat your classmate the way you want to be treated
- Show a movie or show that depicts someone with a disability as the main character
- Evaluate their school or local business to see if they accessible for people with disabilities. If they’re not, come up with a plan to change that.
- Invite a sign language interpreter to teach students some simple signs.
What are you planning to foster acceptance in your child’s classroom? Add some ideas in the comments sections.
The following are some other books that may help you foster acceptance in the classroom: