how to talk to kids about learning differences – part two – the panel


After the video, we moved on to the panel discussion. The panel was facilitated by our school social worker, Ms S and consisted of a general education teacher, Ms J, a special education teacher, Ms C and two parents of children with ‘learning differences’ (yours truly and my dear friend D).

We began by presenting our collection of frequently asked questions. When we started planning the panel, our first order of business was to compile a list of questions that we heard most often in our various roles. We then worked together to distill the list and hone in on those that we felt would be the most useful given our limited timeframe. We focused mostly on questions asked by children, but as you’ll see, we couldn’t leave out a couple of important ones that we often hear from adults.

Ms S described the format. We would present each question and then suggest strategies for addressing it. Then we would offer what I think is the most important part – ideas for furthering the discussion and finding ways to engage our children in really thinking about each topic.

Ms S introduced each question then turned it over to the first respondent. A second panelist then weighed in with a follow-up. If the first respondent was a teacher, the follow-up came from a parent, and vice versa. Our objective was to offer as much variety of perspective as possible on each topic. Ms S then gave a brief wrap-up with her own commentary on each question before moving onto the next.

You’ll notice that after each question, we included a suggestion for perspective-taking with our children. I firmly believe that this is the most impactful part of the exercise – not just for our children, but for us as well. I have found no greater tool for fostering compassion and cooperation than learning to stop in our tracks and see the world from another human being’s perspective.

Questions and comments from the crowd were held until the end, at which time they were strongly encouraged. We had printed off copies of the questions with room to write under each and handed them out with pencils so that no questions or comments would go forgotten. (And to benefit the visual learners in the crowd!)

What follows is the bare-bones outline of our presentation. Sorry it isn’t a little fuller or even checked for grammar, but well, I’m at capacity here folks. These are essentially our talking points.


1. Why is ___ so annoying?

Different kids communicate differently.

Children have to use the tools that they have in their toolboxes. If they don’t have words, or the ‘right’ words, they may use their behavior to communicate.

Some kids don’t always have the ‘appropriate’ words to use in different kinds of situations. The ways that they are able to reach out to initiate an interaction may be unexpected or seem unusual to their peers – even ‘annoying’, but they may have no other means to make connections.

Question to your child …

So what do you think s/he might be trying to communicate (tell you) with the behavior that you call annoying? What might that child be wanting or needing or trying to achieve in that moment?

It’s also vital to understand that some behaviors stem from neurological disorders or conditions that the child simply may have no physical or emotional control over.


Suggestions for perspective taking with your child …

Can you think of anything that you do that some of your peers (or your parents or siblings!) might describe as annoying?

We all have things that we do that we perceive one way and that the rest of the world sees another way.

Can you imagine if there were something that you couldn’t control that people got upset at you for? What’s something that your body does involuntarily (without you having to ‘tell it’ to do)? What about breathing? How would you feel if your peers got upset or found it ‘annoying’ when you breathed? How would that make you feel? What would you want the people around you to do with their own behavior to show that they were a little more accepting of the fact that you needed to breathe?


The word ‘annoying’ is very negatively charged for us as adults. But our children tend to use words like ‘annoying’ or ‘weird’ as catch-alls for things that they don’t understand or that make them feel uneasy. Although we may initially bristle at it, it’s important to look beyond the words and find out what they really mean. Remember that it’s good that they’re asking!

2. Why does ___ act different than other kids?

As we just discussed, different kids have different tools in their toolboxes. And as we saw in the film, we all have different types of brains and different kinds of smarts and different combinations of those smarts.

Some people may be music and math smart, but have a lot of trouble sitting still in class or interacting socially. Some kids may be fantastic at sports, but have significant challenges in reading. Some kids may have a lot of trouble reading social cues and may therefore act in ways that are unusual and even uncomfortable for their peers.

There can be a lot of anxiety that comes along with handling these challenges every day, and many kids are carrying a lot of weight just trying to keep up with what’s going on around them all day. It can be very difficult to regulate one’s behavior under a tremendous amount of stress.


Suggestions for perspective taking –

Imagine if you walked into school and your teacher was speaking Spanish (or French or a language that you didn’t understand) and despite the fact that you had no idea what she was saying, the other kids seemed to understand it perfectly. Or if the lights were so bright that you couldn’t focus your eyes or if the air conditioning was buzzing so loudly that you couldn’t hear anything else in the room – but no one else seemed to notice. How would you feel? How would that effect your behavior as you moved through your day?

3. Why do some kids get special treatment? Some kids get breaks; some get to leave the room; some get incentives for behaviors that are simply expected of others; some get more attention from adults (ie aides); some even get ‘toys’ in class.

Every child is different. Everyone learns differently and everyone has different needs. Some of these different challenges that each kid has – that every one of us has in our brains – sometimes needs accommodation.

There are going to be times when those challenges get in the way of a child being able to learn the way that most of his or her typical peers might be able to. That’s when we – as a team, as a school and as a community – work together to find ways to make the learning accessible to everyone. Sometimes that means different kinds of reinforcements, sometimes it means being able to leave the room when it becomes overwhelming, and sometimes it means that they might appear to have a little more leeway than others, even though they likely don’t. (The fact that appearances might be deceiving is discussed in more detail in the next question.)

Suggestion for perspective taking –

What if you were the only one in your class who had just run a really long race? No one else in your class had run the race; just you. You would be so thirsty that there’d be no way that you could possibly focus without getting some water first.

If you went out to the hallway to get a drink of water, others might think that wasn’t fair, especially if they’d like one too. But while they might LIKE a drink of water, you are incapable of learning without one. And that’s very different.

Can you think of another example?


Everyone gets what they need, but since needs are different, then what they get is different. Kids leave the room for all different reasons. Some receive support for the things that they find challenging, some need to take a break as we discussed a minute ago, some may need a smaller or less chaotic environment in which to learn. Some need a preview or review of materials in order to understand and participate in class discussion.

Suggestion for perspective taking –

Are there times when you’ve ever had to leave the room? How did it make you feel? Was it hard to miss things? How would you have liked your peers to have reacted when you came back?

4. Why does someone else get away with behaviors I can’t? And why do I have to put up with those behaviors with them?

Part one

Although you may not see it, those children likely do not ‘get away’ with the behaviors the way you might think. Although they may not face the SAME consequences or because a child doesn’t SEE the consequence, it does not mean that the behavior is not being addressed.

It is important to recognize that teachers sometimes have to tailor consequences to maximize their meaning and impact for each child, just as they do with any other learning tool. For example, taking away recess might have a huge impact on a child who loves recess, but it would ultimately serve as a reward to a child who hates to go outside.

Teachers have toolboxes too, just like kids too. The same tools don’t always work for different kids.

Part two

If we don’t give each other some leeway at times, we will miss out on getting to really know the people underneath what we think we see on the surface. When we look past challenges, we start to see people and we give ourselves the opportunity to make new friends.


Suggestions for perspective taking

What if the playground had nothing but tightropes on it and you were afraid of heights? Would you want the other kids to decide that you weren’t worth playing with because you couldn’t walk a tightrope? Or would you want them to ask you what you DO like to do? Maybe invent a game together in the field NEXT TO the playground?

5. How can I be a friend to a kid with differences?

The same way you’d be a friend to anyone else! Ask them what they are interested in. Ask what they like to do. Join them in something that they like or that you’ve noticed that they’re good at. If you’re not comfortable approaching them directly, you can always ask an adult for help!

Always smile and be kind and respectful. If you ever hear anyone saying something to or about that child (or any child!) that you are not comfortable with, ask a teacher or a nearby adult for help.

Look around to see who is left out and include them. Even if you think they’ll say no, ask. There’s never harm in an invitation.


Take it from a parent – if you’re not sure if you can handle or how to handle a play date with a particular child, please don’t hesitate to approach that child’s parent.

Parents are often at very different stages with this, but there’s a pretty easy first step. You can open a conversation by saying something as innocuous as, ‘We’d love to have ___ over for a play date. I know my child would really enjoy it. I was wondering if there’s anything in particular that he or she really likes to do.’

The conversation may end there, but likely not. Many parents of kids with disabilities will be happy to accompany their child if necessary, or at the very least to help work out a game plan or offer suggestions for planning a successful interaction. It can take just a little more work, but it’s worth it!

The invitation might mean the world to that kid (and some parents who struggle to be a part of the community as well).

Suggestion for perspective taking

Have you ever felt left out of something? How did it make you feel?


As parents, we are our kids’ first teachers. It’s really important for them to see us reaching out to each other and making overtures to get to know other families.


1. What kind of language should I use and what words need to be avoided?

Always keep your language kind, respectful and age appropriate.

Many of us grew up using words like ‘retard’ in our every day language. Words like retard, freak and weirdo simply need to be removed from our lexicons. The words have to be addressed ANY and EVERY time they are used. Why are they using the words? Do they know what the words mean? Do they understand the people behind those labels?

We must also show our kids that when we hear those words and don’t react to them, our silence is equally powerful as it issues tacit approval.

Seize teachable moments. Emphasize the positive. When you hear them say something that is positive or empathetic, take note and discuss that too!

A note for added sensitivity – the words ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ have become offensive to many parents of children with neurological differences. As we’ve discussed and as we saw in the video, there’s a huge range of human condition along the lines of neurological development, essentially showing us all that there is no ‘normal’. Although it’s very similar, an acceptable alternative is ‘typically developing.’


Suggestion for perspective taking

Have you ever been called a name? Even if it wasn’t meant to be mean, how did it make you feel?


Remember that when people use these words, they are not necessarily intending to be hurtful. Some people may not even realize that these words CAN be hurtful. In some cases, they simply don’t know better. For years, the word ‘retarded’ was peppered throughout my speech. I used it constantly – as in, “What am I, retarded?” Yeah, I know, I was a laugh a minute. But the point is, I didn’t know any different. I’d never had an experience that would lead me to understand that the words I was using were not OK.

Three years ago, when I registered my little girl with our state’s Department of Mental Retardation, I understood. But not everyone’s there yet. It’s up to us to withhold judgement in place of understanding. It’s up to us to gently teach rather than assume they should know. Above all, it’s up to us to set the example – to show our kids through our own behavior what it means to truly have respect for other human beings.

2. If I know that a child has a particular label or diagnosis should I be sharing that with my child?

Labels have a place, but with kids the default answer is no.

Examine why you feel the need to disclose the label to the child. If we’re thinking and talking about learning, behavioral and social DIFFERENCES – if we’re talking with out kids about identifying different kinds of smarts, the labels likely become unnecessary. As your child gains some understanding of how different people think and learn and communicate, there becomes far less of a need for the labels as means of understanding.

If they come to you and say, “I heard ____ has ____” you can say that it is not our place to speculate, but instead to support them and be a good friend in every way that they can. Where labels are out there and obvious, it’s important to recognize that while the label describes a set of attributes or challenges, it does NOT describe the child.


Suggestions for perspective taking

Has anyone ever said something about you behind your back? If they did, how would it make you feel?

Next up .. Part three – the Q and A

16 thoughts on “how to talk to kids about learning differences – part two – the panel

  1. These are all great Jes! I loved them because during the education phase of RDI ( Professionally_ I am always looking at role play exercises to help families grasp how their child is feeling and the incompetence that is involved in trying to *keep up* with the world. I know as a parent of 2 children on the spectrum, I can relate to each question!! Nice job!


  2. All I can say is Thank You!

    Thank You for paving the way….
    Thank You for providing me the tools ….
    Thank You for being a voice…

    Thank You

  3. I want to say the same as K. Thank You!!!! Thank You!!!! Thank You!!! You have an amazing family. You guys really give me something to strive for. I love these teachable moments.

  4. You need to bookmark this series in a single place on the sidebar (if you haven’t already). Seriously good information that I will be coming back to in the future, and I KNOW that I am not the only one!

    I LOVE this. I love that you (and the others) have taken the time to do all of this and to SHARE it with us. You’ve taken a first step and are showing the way for many of us to follow in your wake. Blaze the trail girl — we’re not far behind!

  5. I have really appreciated your documentation of this experience. it is an invaluable set of information. I have to echo others here and say ‘thank you!’ in the biggest, most heartfelt way. And, well, hey, look at this, another moment to pause and see how wide the ripples in the ocean can spread from a single drop of hope. So, thank you. Just, thank you.

  6. Thanks for this incredibly useful series. My question is how we as parents should address situations when the needs of other students disrupt classroom instruction. My 4th grader comes home frustrated by significant disruptions by a classmate at least once a week. Without going in to details, these disruptions affect both the atmosphere and the academic progress for other children in the classroom. The school officials seem to have a plan for dealing with them, and the student does have a full time aid, but the plan does not insulate other children in the classroom from the effects. At the beginning of the year, I encouraged patience, perspective, and tolerance. Now, my child is frustrated and angry and comes home saying things like “I know `Johnny’ has different things to work on but it’s not fair that he keeps ruining class. I used to like math but now I hate it because he is in my class.” Conversations with her teacher confirm that these disruptions are somewhat routine, that my child’s response is in line with her peers and not disproportionate to the situation, and that the class is about 5-6 days behind schedule as a cumulative result of the disruptions.

    How do you suggest I talk to my child about the situation? What can I do to help her be tolerant and supportive, but still validate and advocate for her need to learn in a reasonably harmonious environment? I have my own ideas about speaking to her teachers and the school principal, but what do you think is an appropriate response from another parent in this circumstance?

    Thanks for your thoughts on this issue. I’ve really enjoyed your blog, especially these recent Inclusion Committee posts.

    • jess,

      i’m working on gathering some answers to your question from different perspectives. in the mean time i’d say BRAVO to you for having given your child the tools to understand the situation and the sensitivity to see that we all have different needs.

      that said, it sounds to me like the school staff has to work on creating a better balance for everyone.

      while inclusion is a worthy goal, it’s got to be done in a a way that allows EVERYONE’S needs to be met. although my daughter is in a typical classroom for most of the day, she is often taken out of the room for individual work. her aide often takes her out to preview new material so that she will be able to participate in class when it is presented. she often leaves again later to review it so that she’ll be ready to move on with the group. or her aide will work with her individually (or in a small group of kids) when things get overwhelming.

      her education plan is written in a way that very intentionally empowers the aide with the ability to gauge the situation and make changes as needed.

      inclusion takes work. it takes cooperation. it takes skilled, creative, dedicated and vigilant support. i have found that when executed right, it’s like a living, breathing organism – constantly changing and evolving as the child develops and the educational and social demands on them change over time.

      so i guess my answer is that i’d tell your daughter she’s wonderful – and that sometimes the adults need time to get it right. then i’d talk to the teacher/ support staff/ administration – whomever you think is most appropriate. i’d make sure to have that conversation privately and to convey all the respect and compassion that you have here. i’d let them know how supportive you are of inclusion, but that you have some concerns that the balance might be off .. not just for your child, but for johnny too.

      i’ll round this out with other perspectives if i can. i hope it’s at least somewhat helpful.



    • The fact that your daughter can say, “I know that Johnny has different things to work on…” shows that you have done an incredible amount of work with her (hopefully in conjunction with her school/classroom) to foster such understanding and compassion. That little sentence, or start to a sentence, is half the battle. From there, just about anything is possible.

      As a teacher I have worked in a variety of inclusive classrooms – some have worked seamlessly, others not so much. But one thing that I have learned is that listening to the kids – all of them – is often the most helpful tool in terms of creating a safe and fluid learning environment for everyone.

      This year there are a couple of kids in other classrooms who need to leave their rooms at times. This means they are in the hallway outside my room, often having a difficult time and often in a very loud manner. All the kids in my class know these kids. Their outbursts don’t scare them. We are all pretty used to it in fact. But recently I have noticed that when this happens, there is one little boy who quietly gets up and respectfully closes the door. Not a big deal right? Except it is, because as a teacher I seemed to have forgotten that it’s not only acceptance that needs to be addressed here; he ‘get’s it,’ there’s no doubt about that, but it doesn’t mean that it is working for him. That little act reminded me that I have to listen to my kids, and, more importantly, they need to be able to tell me when something is interfering with their learning; whether it is the grass mowing outside our classroom window or Johnny interfering with a math lesson.

      So, I guess my point is that, as a teacher, it would be super important to me that your daughter come to me and voice her concerns. You could help her to do so in a way that does not place the blame on Johnny, but instead focuses on what she needs to be successful and have her own needs met in the classroom. This isn’t about Johnny, this is about your daughter and her learning. Johnny isn’t going anywhere (I hope) and if he does, he will just pop up somewhere else in her educational career or beyond. The important thing is that she knows that her right to learn is no more or no less than Johnny’s – and that her concerns are valid. And after that, yes, the adults need to figure out how to get from point a to point b without leaving anyone behind.

      Because when done right, inclusion enriches a classroom without taking away from it at all.

  7. Thank you so much for your response! I love the idea of telling her that the adults need time to get things right. I think that lets me respect her perspective and validate her needs while showing her that our family doesn’t turn away from its values — which include respecting and reaching out to other people — when the going gets a little tough. I was focused on how to talk with her about `Johnny,’ but in this case, talking about the adults and what our responsibilities are in this situation may work better. I’m glad she came to me when there was a problem (and since I also have a 7th grader, I know that won’t last long!) and I do want to show her that when she asks for help, she will get it.

    I’m also encouraged to hear that you think talking to the school about this specific classmate is acceptable. It always seems a little underhanded to discuss any child except my own with school officials, and of course I don’t expect nor want them to disclose any private information. I suppose I’ll take the approach of the parent-as-partner: “this is the feedback I’m getting from my daughter, I wanted to bring it to your attention and see if we can come up with ways to improve the situation.” And we’ll go from there.

    • The conversation shouldn’t be about Johnny. You’re talking about your daughter and how she perceives her learning environment.

      Her perception may be accurate or it may be somewhat skewed as we well-know kids’ can be in these situations, but I do think it’s important to address her concerns. The last thing that anyone wants is misplaced resentment.

      (I’m told by the way that a class being 5-6 days ‘behind’ curriculum is actually quite typical and is not cause to be overly concerned.)

      I’m so glad you’ve found this helpful, but this is just the perspective of one parent who is trying to figure it all out just like you. I’m hardly an expert on any of this. That said, I’d ask you to hold off until we (hopefully) gather some more insight from others!!

  8. I just wanted to add — you’re making a difference. For your own daughter and your own community, clearly. But also for my daughter and for a classmate of hers, and for that little boy’s family. You’re helping me handle a situation better than I might have otherwise. I am grateful for that.

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