When I was at school I don’t recall experiencing peers with complex additional support needs or disabilities. I remember there was mention of one child with epilepsy and I can remember a fair few children with learning difficulties but nothing more challenging than that.
Since working in early years over the past ten years I have seen a real shift in inclusion and we now seem to be raising children in an educational setting along side their disabled and delayed friends. I have seen children leave nurseries I’ve worked in, then going on to main stream education with a variety of conditions such as global delay, downs syndrome, Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum disorder and probably a few more I’ve failed to mention.
Before having Runa I remember feeling so positive about this shift in inclusive practise and thinking of the positive impact it would have on the “neurotypical” majority. As disabilities become normalised and embraced – moving away from any sort of taboo- these children will grow up more understanding, compassionate and open minded than we did back in my day.
Every nursery I’ve worked in has embraced makaton sign language, and each nursery has given children and their carers the opportunity to educate other children and staff about their disability or condition.
I am very fortunate to have had the access to educational settings professionally and have been so lucky to work alongside children of all different abilities. I have been able to use what I have learned when supporting Nina to understand additional support needs (ASN) that her friends have had. Now, even more importantly, my background is supporting me to help Nina understand what’s going on with her sister.
But how do parents who have not had the advantage of working with a diverse group of children support their own children to be inclusive of those with ASN? Here’s 4 tips that I think may help:
1. Support Responsibility
I remember talking to a group of boys about appropriate behaviour and what to do if someone is behaving in a way that makes you sad. One wee chap said “my dad says if anyone hits me I’m to hit them back.” it’s never fun having to tell a child that their parent is wrong, but I did have to explain why that wouldn’t be the best course of action. I didn’t think much more about it until my own daughter came home from nursery saying a little boy had been pulling her hair. I asked how she reacted, and being frightfully well trained she told them “no thank you” and asked a grown up for help. But the child kept doing it. I asked Nina which child it was and she told me. Once I heard his name I knew exactly who it was and knew, from a grown up perspective, that he had ASN. I explained to Nina that he didn’t understand that he was hurting her, he needed a little extra help and he was still learning how to be more gentle. I reassured her that she had done the right thing and she was happy that she understood better why some children might behave in a way that she deems unfair or inappropriate. It made me think about the wee boy who’s dad had told him to “hit back” and what he would have done in that situation. Without knowing this child’s complex needs and delay in understanding, his dad would have had his kid hit him; a lesson which would not benefit anyone! Every parent should endeavour to support their children to make responsible choices and know that violence is the incorrect response in any situation. If they are unsure, uncomfortable or scared they should be encouraged to seek out an adult who can use their best judgement to defuse the situation.
2. Support High Expectations
Nina was talking to me about her friend who has downs syndrome. He is a character and can be a real cheeky monkey and Nina had somehow gotten it in her head that it’s because he has downs syndrome that he can be cheeky and that he is unable to control this. Me and her dad explained to her that for some children it will take them a bit longer to learn how to behave properly but they can still learn. She can help her friends (and her sister) to learn by showing them how well she behaves, shares, etc.
We should all have high expectations of our children regardless of their diagnosis and we should encourage our children (and other adults) to have high, yet realistic, expectations too. Just because a child hasn’t learned something yet, doesn’t mean they won’t. But if they don’t have the support of their parents, peers and everyone else they will be battling even harder to succeed.
3. Support Understanding
If your child utters the dreaded phrase “what’s wrong with that boy?” at the shop, park or what have you; chances are your immediate reaction will be to shhh your kid and tell them to stop staring, stop being rude etc.
It is highly likely that your kid doesn’t realise they’re being rude. As curious little creatures they just want to find out about the world.
Equally true is that the majority of parents with ASN kids will not be offended that your child is curious. They may not want to engage in an educational dialogue with you, but rather than shhing and going red, take a deep breath and answer the question as best you can. For example: “there’s nothing wrong with him, he has downs syndrome. At home we can find out a bit more about it” or “there’s nothing wrong with him, some people need a wheelchair to get around” or even “there isn’t anything wrong with him, but he has a condition that I’m not sure about”. There are so many wonderful books and stories to support children to understand their ASN peers, embrace this curiosity and learn with them.
4. Support Kindness
Most importantly, encourage your children to be kind and build friendships with their ASN peers. In doing so, not only will the children with ASN benefit, but your children will develop life long social skills that will aid their interactions with the disabled community in the future.
As the world becomes more inclusive, understanding and supportive our children are so lucky, regardless of ability, to learn in educational environments that value and respect them all. We parents, as their primary educators, should take any opportunity to facilitate them to become as compassionate, understanding, supportive and supported as they can be.