Teaching Your Child about Peers with Special Needs

Disability awareness, compassion, and making friends in the classroom

kids playing at a table

According to her mother, 8-year-old J. is "really sweet and loves attention." She goes to her friend's house, does horseback riding, and likes to play board games. She also has cerebral palsy, and is non-verbal and non-ambulatory. She uses augmentative communication boards to communicate and a wheelchair for mobility. At her public school, J. has a one-on-one aide and spends time both in and out of her third grade classroom.

Disabilities cover a wide range. Some are obvious -- such as a child with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair or a child with a visual impairment who uses a cane to navigate when walking. Other disabilities may be more "hidden" -- for example, children who have learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorder.

Chances are that at some point your child will have a classmate with a disability. Just as you guided your very young child when he or she began to befriend others, you can encourage your child to learn about and be a friend to children who have disabilities.

Basic ideas to share with your child

  • No two people are the same -- some differences are just more noticeable.
  • A disability is only one characteristic of a person. People have many facets: likes and dislikes, strengths and challenges.
  • Children with disabilities are like all children in that they want friends, respect and to be included.
  • Children can be born disabled or become disabled from an accident or illness. You can't "catch" a disability from someone else.
  • Just because someone has a physical disability (when a part or parts of the body do not work well) does not mean they necessarily have a cognitive (or thinking) disability.
  • Children with disabilities can do many of the things your child does, but it might take them longer. They may need assistance or adaptive equipment to help them.

Try to use clear, respectful language when talking about someone with disabilities. For a younger child, keep explanations simple, such as, "She uses a wheelchair because a part of her body does not work as well as it could."

Reinforce with your child that name calling -- even if meant as a joke -- is always unacceptable as it hurts people's feelings.

Special needs at school

While each child learns differently and at his or her own pace, children with disabilities may need extra school support or accommodations. Many children with special needs attend public schools; others may go to private or other schools. If your child has a classmate with special needs, he or she may notice certain things.

  • Special teachers may come into the classroom to work one-on-one with the student.
  • Sometimes students will leave the room for a part of the day for individualized attention.
  • Accommodations may be present in the classroom. For example, a teacher may wear a microphone so that a student with a hearing impairment can hear better in school.

Getting to know children with disabilities

Paradoxically, when it comes to approaching someone with a disability, children may be better at it than their parents because they are less inhibited. Some adults -- especially those without previous exposure to people with disabilities -- may be more timid. Worried about appearing intrusive or insensitive, they may not know what to say or do.

"The other kids are great," J.'s mom says, "They are very direct, which is good. They like her and want to interact with her."

However, if your child (or you, for that matter) is unsure about approaching a child with a disability, here are some helpful tips:

  • Most parents of children with disabilities would prefer that other adults ask them about their child directly, rather than avoiding them. A smile or friendly "Hello!" is an easy icebreaker.
  • Even if a child doesn't talk, there are still activities the children can do together, such as play board games or arts and crafts.
  • If your child wants to have a play date with a child with a disability or invite him or her to a birthday party, encourage it. Call the other parent and say simply, "How can we make this work?"
  • Share any concerns with the other parent. Parents of children with disabilities will often be happy to facilitate a successful play date or outing.
  • Extra effort goes a long way. For instance, learning simple signs so that you can better communicate with a child who is deaf (and uses sign language) will be much appreciated.

Learning more about disabilities

Reading or learning about a disability is a great way to further understand a child's experiences. It may also help dispel any questions you or your child may have.

Your local library and librarian can be a great resource for finding age-appropriate books and materials.

  • Read picture books with younger children and discuss them afterward.
  • Chapter books with characters who have special needs are appropriate for older readers. Ask your child about the book when he or she is done -- maybe you'll be intrigued and read it yourself.
  • Some audio-visual materials have positive portrayals of children with disabilities. "Sesame Street," for example, routinely includes children with disabilities in their episodes.
  • Websites with age-appropriate explanations and activities can be interesting and fun to explore.

Disability-awareness programs in schools

Find out if your child's school offers any disability-awareness curriculum. These types of programs teach children about different disabilities, often through engaging activities and guest speakers. Consider volunteering if they need parent volunteers -- it can be a wonderful experience for both you and the students.

Helpful Links

Kids' Quest, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh bibliography on children's books about disabilities

Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington, Kids' Corner

Deborah Elbaum, M.D. is a parent of three children and lives in Massachusetts. She is a volunteer for the disability awareness program taught at her children's school.

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Comments (11)
Laura H.
As a mother of a child with multiple disabilities I really appreciated this article. I did wonder about the necessity of making the point that even if a child has a physical disability that doesn't necessarily mean they have a cognitive disability. This can be true, but the way it is framed suggests a fear or worry about cognitive disabilities. I would suggest that disabilities not necessarily be framed vis a vis each other. I have found most children are inquisitive toward my son (who has physical and cognitive disabilities) but also deeply and wonderfully compassionate.
Posted: April 23, 2014 at 6:43 AM
Photo of Kerri W.
Kerri W.
I love that Care posted this article! I'm pretty good at fielding questions kids have about other kids with disabilities because I grew up answering those questions (my oldest sister has Down Syndrome). But it makes me so sad when the kids I nanny come home and tell me about how some kids were mean to one of the special ed kids. I always ask them what they did during the time when a child was being picked on and it makes me so proud to hear them tell me that they stood up for the disabled kid and try to tell the others that it's not that child's fault that they are behaving the way that they do and people need to be understanding of that. I think it's so important to teach kids about how to react to and interact with children (or anyone!) with any kind of disability. Kids can be cruel, but some of the time they don't mean to be; they simply don't know what they are supposed to do/say.
Posted: April 01, 2014 at 3:08 AM
Roberta C.
I enjoy this article, because it help me when approaching a person with a disability. Be direct with the parents and not to tip toe around it. We all have some kind of disability. Thank you for such a good and learning tool for me.
Posted: December 09, 2013 at 9:49 PM
Ro. B
I truly appreciate this article. My 5 year old just started kindergarden and was afraid to play on the playground at school because there was a special needs child who has recess at the same time. The little girl has a tracheostomy and cannot speak. As an adult, I know how I would react, but I was having problems explaining it to my son. This article helped me tremendously. As the parent, making sure you are confident when speaking to children is the key. Knowledge is power and now I am armed to deal with this issue.
Posted: September 12, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Photo of Wendy W.
Wendy W.
I agree about teaching kids about special needs kids too. Adults need to be educated also. There have been a few times lately when my child, who has autism, was making his usual noises and quirky behavior and the looks I have been getting from other adults are upsetting and not required. I have a hard enough time dealing with it myself. For example when I was interviewing a potential babysitter at Panera Bread a while ago, I had an older man tell my kids off. It had been the only time I had actually taken my attention of them for more than a few seconds. I apologised to the gentleman and told him my son has autism. He responded to me with "Been there, done that." I would have expected someone who claims to have knowlege of autism to have been less rude. The baby sitter didn't work out either. When my son made a quirky noise she looked at him like he was from another planet. This girl claimed to have had experience with special needs kids. Did not give her the job. Make sure they actually have before even making an appointment.
Posted: April 06, 2012 at 9:55 AM
Bernadette M.
I like this article, esp that you can't always see the child's disabilities. My child has Aspberger's Syndrome and often acts out but to look at you would never know anything is different about him. He just wants to have a friend and a good time at school like everyone else.
Posted: January 06, 2012 at 3:22 PM
Photo of Sharon I.
Sharon I.
Great article, I too have a child with special needs with physical and cognitive disabilities. He is in a wheel chair, uses an augmentative communication boar,d has a trach and is fed via a J-Tube. I have always introduced him and tried to help his classmates better understand things. Most people thing that people who do not speak, also do not understand. Having a time of question and answers regarding my son has helped tremendously. If we as parents do not take the time to teach others then the avoidance will continue. Its good to see a good article pertaining to this subject and to know others are on board.
Posted: August 04, 2011 at 12:25 PM
Astrid J.
I loved the article and i agree with the information. My 3 year child has Down Syndrome, and it is very important for me to see my child gettting accepted by others. She loves to play with other kids, so it is so wonderful to see parents teaching their kids about children with special needs. Thank you for the information, and to make others aware of how much we appreciate our children be treated with respect.
Posted: July 17, 2011 at 9:24 PM
Ruth E.
I read the article about children with special learning needs, and appreciated the information immensely!! As an Intervention Specialist who works with children that have special learning needs, I know how important it is to help the special needs child feel and find a comfort level within the school & classroom setting. When children feel comfortable & safe within their learning environment, its easier for them to participate in their learning, make friends, & show how successful they can be as learners!!
Posted: July 06, 2011 at 10:45 PM
Photo of Tiffany C.
Tiffany C.
excellent article. i am a mother of a 4 year special needs child with physical and cognitive disabilities and I appreciate people taking the time to share these ideas with others. I agree one hundred percent with the statement that parents with special needs children prefer you to directly ask them about their child rather than avoid them..sadly, too many times avoidance is the road people take.
Posted: July 05, 2011 at 7:59 PM
Photo of Carol B.
Carol B.
This is a very good article,that gives most peolple an idea of how to approach a situation with a diabled person (kid). I particularly like that you mention that there different facets of a person with a dissability, for most lay people tha's all they see. Thank you again
Posted: June 25, 2011 at 1:06 PM
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