Back to School Part 2 - Or How to Talk to Kids about Kids with Differences

The first Monday morning...
I'm telling you - these early mornings are rough!

Will LOVES his teacher.  Makes my mama heart so very happy and relieved.
He INSISTED on writing her a "book" last week.  I gave paper and markers and returned to this precious note:
"You are the best teacher.  I love you."
He signed his name with a heart!

Apart from brutal early mornings & an ongoing disagreement discussion between my husband and I on what the appropriate number of alarms are in the morning, school is going great.
Will is having fun with his buddies and has been learning new things.  He is happy after school and often singing on the way home.  
Big sigh of relief.

I thought I would offer my two cents on talking to your own kiddos this week about kids they may encounter in school this year with differences.  
Perhaps I'll post more indepth later but, based on our experiences, the following ways are great tips to give your kids to help them be more comfortable and sensitive to those in their classes this year.
(Please know this is just based on our experiences and Will is young... if you have any wisdom to offer, please, please do so!)

1.  Don't stare.  Do smile & look away.
When kids are curious, they sometimes stare... I teach mine to instead smile, wave, & look away.
In Will's class the other day, his teacher had the kids practice staring dramatically & then smiling and looking away.    Staring can be rude and makes someone feel like an object.  Smiling is friendly and recognizes the person - not just the diagnosis or difference.
(When we get stared at, we sometimes smile & make a big friendly scene in return.  That typically stops the starer.)

2.  Don't point.  Do wave.  
Again - teaching friendliness and to recognize the person.

3.  Choose kindness.  Don't name call or tease or make fun of.  Ever.
I tell my kids that name calling makes fun of people God has made in His image.  It hurts Him when we hurt His creations.  

4.  Look for similarities.  This is one of the best tools I've found in dealing with kids who are curious about my kids.  I find something similar between my child and the curious one.  If I don't know the child, I can make an educated guess based on their age that they may enjoy toys like Will, or swimming or playing outside or certain cartoons or foods or any other general kid things.  The point is - it takes the focus off the differences or disability and puts it on the kids' similarities.  By this point, the kids usually transition into discussing whatever toys/activities/ etc that they have in common. Distraction works well.  If your child comes home talking about someone they've noticed who is different at school, address their questions as honestly and accurately and simply as you can... and then engage your child in conversation about things they may have in common with the child.  That could prompt your child to engage the child in conversation back at school and form a friendship.

5.  Don't touch.  Don't grab.  Don't touch medical equipment.  Ask first.  We have to teach kids ownership of their bodies and that no one is allowed to grab or touch them.  The same goes for kids who are different.  Just because they have a wheelchair or prosthetics or asthma inhaler or whatever - doesn't mean its up for grabs by the curious.  I just tell kids they need to ask my child first for permission before they grab his legs to study them.  My kids will typically say yes when someone asks.  It's just the grabbing that is offensive.   
Again - it reiterates kindness and treating someone as a person instead of a diagnosis.

6.  If your child has questions, answer them honestly and accurately and simply.  They don't need a lot of information.  If you don't know the answer to your kid's questions, please don't make assumptions.  Please don't use slang.    If you must, you can ask a teacher or directly ask the mom for information to pass on to your child.  One year, a mom contacted me via the blog as her child was going to be in a class with a child with a limb difference.  She didn't know that child's mom at all and didn't feel comfortable yet asking her how to talk to her child about that child.  So she asked me.  I appreciated her intentional sensitivity to both the child and the mom.  As a mom of a curious kid myself, I also understood that she wanted to give accurate information to her child.  So I gave her a few simple phrases and encouraged her to talk to that mama.  I've always appreciated when parents have asked me how best to answer questions.  I can give a few simple, short phrases and then I know that kids are getting accurate information and consistent information.

7.  If you are a mama, reach out to us.  Sometimes, navigating a world of diagnoses, doctors, therapies, research, & what ifs can be lonely.  We are mamas like you who dread sending our kids back to school too, not knowing what is going on in their days.  We too have the nerves and jitters of back to school.  But.  We also have the additional worries of medical issues - wondering if their ill fitting prosthetics will cause sores or pain, wondering if their equipment will work the way it is supposed to without us to manage it.  We wonder if they will get their medicine when they need it and in the same loving way we dispense it.  Like any mommy, we wonder if someone is teasing our kids or are they making friends.  But.  We know that ours may be more obvious targets.  Ours are sometimes judged before someone even gets to know them.
Would you smile at us at drop off?  Include us in playdates?  Invite us for coffee after drop off? Wave when you see us at the grocery store?  Send an email or text?
Please.  See us as moms... not as "other."  We're moms too.

When Will started Pre-K, I got an email that first day of school.  A woman I had never met had seen me at school and could tell I was nervous and struggling.  She cleverly found my blog & email address and took a risk to reach out.  Today, she's a dear friend who on the first day of school this year, sent me a picture of her kiddos wearing their "Where There's a WILL, There's a Way" t-shirts in their new city of Houston.   She reached out.

Last year, a mom I was sitting by on a field trip, over heard me mention that Will had an upcoming surgery.  She noted the surgery date in her phone and the day before we left town for the hospital, she showed up at my home with a care package for Will & hugs for me.  Today, our sons are best buddies and I'm so thankful for her friendship and support.

Another who I've known forever but never spent much one on one time texted me before school started and let me know that Will & I were on her heart & she was praying for us.  The first day of school, she texted again and invited me for coffee.

A mom commented on the blog the other day that her daughter befriended a little girl in a wheelchair.  This mom contacted the little girl's mom & learned how to operate and fold the wheelchair and before long, was hosting playdates and slumber parties.  She reached out to the other mom and her daughter gained a new friend.

Our kids learn so much from watching their moms.  When we include others and model compassion and sensitivity, our kiddos will emulate that.

Will had a great first week and that is in no small part due to kids who treat him just like everyone else and teachers who were loving and compassionate.  It was due to moms who have already invited him over to play.  It was due to being included and welcomed and feeling wanted.  And it was probably due too to his mommy feeling encouraged and loved on by so many at his school.

There may be some incredible friendships just waiting to happen this year for your kids - help them learn how to appropriately control and display their natural curiosity.  Help them learn how to see kids and not just differences and those friendships will quickly become lifelong.

3 thoughts:

Barb said...

I've looked forward to this post since you mentioned it last week. :) As always, I'm so thankful that you are willing to share such valuable info (along with great pics-LOVE the super cute one of Will with his head on the table!) and plan to put your suggestions into practice. Some of them you've mentioned before and they have been so helpful to our family. Thank you again and I'm so happy Kindergarten is going so well! (My oldest started Kindergarten on Monday, too!)

ywilbur said...

Kharan's karate class has a 'verbal martial arts' component as a first response. One of the methods is called Tactical Introduction and the example was if someone is teasing/throwing spit balls or such at you. I still get more annoyed then JK does but this technique and 'calm mind/anger guard' helps me SO much to remain positive and not get so angry. So, here is how it works. There are 3 steps: introduce yourself, state the problem, tell what you are willing going to do about it. Another technique that works well with it is to make a 'polite threat'. So someone is staring, talking about, following, etc... You go up and say 'Hello, my name is JK, what is your name (step 1 introduce self). You are looking at my hands/talking about me/following me around/asking me the same questions over and over (stating problem). I've already told you God made me this way and it is how I was born, so if you don't stop I'm going to go tell your mom/ the teacher that you are annoying me and then you might get in trouble, so please don't ask me anymore(polite threat).

It really stops a child if I am the one doing this, sometimes the older pre-teens and teens will ask additional questions and really I forget this but with older children you CAN use more medical terms like it is genetic. I realized once I was still giving my 'young child answer' to older kids when at the end of my 'he was born that way' comment, an 11 year old girl said 'oh, so it's genetic? my dad is a geneticist'.

Miles said...

Great advice Katie. Thanks!

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