How to Help Your Child Get to Know the Special Needs Student in Their Classroom

Maybe they’ve just started, or maybe they’re gearing up to begin- either way, the back-to-school season is officially upon us🍎.

I’ve been on both sides of the desk now – as first a teacher, and now the parent – and when a sweet boy pointed to my son this summer and asked me very genuinely why he couldn’t walk, what surprised me most was that I was completely and utterly unprepared to answer.

What’s the right way to explain something like that to a little one? What’s the “appropriate” response?🤷‍♀️

And here I was, sitting in the most important role of all – Mom!

In relaying that story to other mom friends, it’s consistently apparent that we all want the same thing – to plant seeds of inclusion and love in the hearts of our children💖💙…but we could all use a little direction in doing so.

While listening to a podcast by “Risen Motherhood,” I was recently reminded that not talking about all of the ways God makes us different can also have an unintentional, opposite effect, whereby we inadvertently teach our children that differences are not something we talk about 😬. It’s completely natural for our children to be curious about the discrepancies they see in the world around them 👀. All they want is to understand, and it’s our job as parents to help them on that journey💪🏻.

So… as Mom now to two young boys myself, one typical and one with significantly disabling special needs, here’s what I want you to know:

1.)  I want your child to ask questions. Whether privately to Mom and Dad, or waiting in line at the grocery store for all to hear👂🏻 (because isn’t that how it always happens?‍), we want you to have those conversations. We want you to understand the heart of the little boy who sits in the wheelchair. Because, our little guy? He’s sweet, silly, and a serious fighter. 💙

It’s easy for all of the qualities that make him so very *special* to be overshadowed by the soft helmet that he sometimes wears, the sensory manipulatives he’s chewing, the bottle he still drinks at almost 4–years-old, the sky-blue glasses that frame his face, the braces supporting his little legs, or the wheelchair that sits beneath him.

It’s ok if your child wants to stare 👀 as they take it all in. It can be a lot for a little mind to process!💭 Rest assured, we will not be offended. In fact, quite the opposite. In this politically correct society, I understand wholeheartedly how the fear of saying, or doing, something offensive so often leads us to refrain from engagement altogether. But everyone has a story, and we’d love to share a little more of ours with you.

2.)  Individuals with special needs are not to be ignored or avoided, no matter how “out of it” they may appear to be. That being said, we understand that engagement can sometimes be tricky – especially if the student in your child’s classroom is nonverbal, as my son is. The most important thing I can say here, is that even when an individual is not able to respond much conversationally they might still be able to understand a great deal. Encourage your child to talk to a new friend/classmate with the assumption that he or she understands everything. Whether or not they respond? That may vary – but they will appreciate it, and they just might surprise you.

Whenever we drive in the car🚙, I make a point of telling each of my boys that I love them. As I get to O, his twin brother emphatically replies, each and every time 📣, “He’s not saying it back, Mom!” to which my response is always the same: “That’s ok! I know he’s thinking it.” This is usually met with a resounding, happy “Aaaaahhhhh!” from my little O in the back seat– and that’s response enough for me.

3.)  If there is a student in your child’s classroom with special needs who is able to verbalize without difficulty, encourage your child to engage in friendly conversation with them as they would any other friend. A child with physical disabilities may be feeling self-conscious about their differences😔, particularly at the beginning of a new school year. A friendly “Hello” and a smile🙂 might be all that’s needed to break the ice, and help everyone feel more comfortable.

4.)  Encourage your child to ask the teacher how to best relate to their new peer. They might have some tangible advice to offer. For example, my son’s visual impairment only allows him to see 2-4 feet in front of him– something that you would never know just by looking at him.

What are some of his/her interests? O’s twin brother knows that peek-a-boo is one of his very favorite games, so periodically he’ll pick up a blanket so that they can have fun together. Do I expect him to constantly include O in everything he’s doing? Certainly not – they’re two very different little people. But does my heart completely spill over 💗 when they are able to find those moments of common ground? Absolutely.

5.)  If your child develops a friendship with a new classmate, who also happens to have special needs, don’t shy away from the idea of a play date. Reach out to the child’s parents📱. Ask for suggestions as to what might work best for everyone. They will certainly appreciate your thoughtfulness!

6.)  Discuss behaviors that might be troublesome to your child. Head hitting, biting, hair pulling, and yelling out – these are all things that can be very difficult for little ones to process, particularly in the classroom environment. Encourage your child to ask the teacher why a classmate might exhibit such behaviors, and he/she may be able to help them feel more at ease.

For example, my son’s inability to verbalize wants and needs can be very frustrating for him – particularly if we do not understand😖. Help your child imagine how that might feel. Sometimes O will bite his arm or yell out when he’s feeling overwhelmed, or excited. Can your child relate to those feelings?

Does the student in your child’s classroom have an adult aide with them during the school day? Why do they think that might be? What can your child do them self, that this new friend might need some extra help accomplishing?

Rather than instilling a sense of sympathy in our children for classmates with special needs, we want to encourage a sense of greater understanding and empathy for another human being – one who, deep down, is a kid just like them.

7.)  It’s a process. Give your child (and yourself!) lots of grace. We don’t want our children to feel it’s their obligation to befriend every individual with special needs who crosses their path. We do want to imprint their little hearts with the notion that God’s fingerprints are on everyone they encounter. Day by day, they can learn a little more about new friends who might initially be harder to understand. Day by day, they’ll learn that differences aren’t so much scary, as they are a reminder that God’s plan for each of us is different.

Last week, my son’s teacher sent home a fabulous list, entitled, “Questions to ask Your Child Beyond ‘How Was Your Day?’” I had admired similar lists when I’d seen them before, and this particular one was adorned with inquiries like, “What made you happy today?” and “What was most challenging?”

So, Mama – here’s my request. When you’re questioning your child about their school day, can I ask you to include just one more? 🙏🏼

Have you asked them about the special needs student(s) in their classroom?🤔

From one Mama heart to another💕, trust me when I say that my child – and yours – will thank you for it.

And this Mama? Well, she certainly thanks you, too.
💙Jen

{Please Note: This advice represents the opinion of only one special needs parent, who is still humbly trying to figure things out as she goes. While reference is made to a few of my son’s specific disabilities, it is my hope that all Mamas of special children – of all forms and degrees of disability – might find themselves represented here. }

Soaking in the Truth

Scripture to encourage you:

  • “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14).
  • “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’, said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God may be displayed in him’” (John 9: 2-3).
  • “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I sanctified you (Jeremiah 1:5).

Music to inspire you:

Readings and Resources to come alongside of you:

Related Posts on Texting The Truth:

Living Out the Truth

Ideas to try:

  • Here’s an idea that a few of my former colleagues used, and I loved: Read the book Only One You, by Linda Kranz. Go on a hike or a scavenger hunt in the backyard, and find a rock to represent each member of the family. This could also be a fun sleepover or play date activity! Have each child or family member paint their rock with things that they love. Display them in your garden, a vase, or in the classroom as a visual reminder that there is incredible beauty in individuality. 
  • Check out some of these great book suggestions with your kids:  1.) Books about Kids with Special Needs    2.)  Books about Being Different

 

Treasured Products we love:

{These suggestions are ideas from novice moms. Sometimes our life situations need more.

In that case, seeking out professional help is the right call.}

 

4 thoughts on “How to Help Your Child Get to Know the Special Needs Student in Their Classroom

  1. I have such a heart for the special needs kids. Many times the counselors would put them in my class. I taught speech, debate, and drama. I loved having them there. I was able to stretch them to do things they didn’t know possible. I did a lot of these things to help the other kids in the class to work with them.

    1. Hi, Julie! Thank you so much for your comments. It sounds like those students were equally as blessed to have had you as a teacher. Your point is so true – it is such a learning experience for both parties. The typical kids learn so much from their special counterparts, and vice versa. I love that you were able to challenge your special needs students to reach beyond their potential. I hope that during my time in the classroom I was able to do the same, but sitting where I am now I’m not sure that was always the case – that I did as much as I could have. These conversations are important to continue so that we ensure we’re best meeting the needs of each and every kiddo. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Hi Christa,
      Thank you so much for your comments. I agree – when we know these individuals personally, we know the incredible things they have to teach us and the fantastic personality traits they possess. This can be hard to understand if you’ve never had experience with special needs, personally. I have learned a great deal from the comments that have come from this post as well – I hope we can continue these conversations so that everyone sees first the delightful side of these individuals before they notice their challenges. Thanks for taking the time to share!

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