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.
QUESTIONS WE HEAR FROM OUR KIDS
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?
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.
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.
QUESTIONS WE HEAR FROM ADULTS
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?
PERSPECTIVE TAKING FOR ADULTS
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