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Disability Awareness for 5 year olds
By: Lisa Simmons, Director - The Ideal Lives Project

Practical ideas for parents who want to help their child's classmates and playmates understand more about their child and his/her special needs.

As parents, we want our children to feel included and successful at school. For parents of children with special needs, this is an especially sensitive area.
,Once our kids reach school age, we might feel like there is little we can do to help them socially. That feeling would be wrong.

One of the best things you can do for your child is help them get started on the right social foot. I recommend doing this as early as possible, focusing in their inclusionary school life. If you've read my columns before then you'll know that I am a strong advocate of building a strong partnership with your child's teacher so that you are working together instead of against each other.
,A wonderful way to begin this partnership is to personally offer to do a disability awareness session with your child's classmates at the beginning of the school year. In case presentations (even to 5 year olds) make you shudder, let me offer a few helpful hints to get you started.

1. Include your child as the star of the presentation.
This sets the tone immediately that your son or daughter should be talked to, not at or about.
,2. Start with a story.
Especially if you are nervous, this can be a great way to help everyone relax. Young kids relate well to the characters in stories. If you use a story with a positive message it will help set a great tone for what you'll be saying later.

3. Make it fun and educational.
Kids respond best to education approached in a playful fun manner. Keep your sense of humor. If you're too serious the kids will be scared to just play with your child later.

4. Remember the basics.
Hopefully, the children will naturally call your child by his/her first name. However, they will eventually need to refer to their disability as well. If you don't want them creating their own catch phrases then start them off right -- explain to them how your family would like them to talk about the disability. If this seems awkward, try to imagine the kids going home telling their parents about your presentation. What would you like them to say?

,5. Talk about the things that will be more difficult for your child.
Young children are naturally empathetic. They feel the pain of the book character that gets hurt , they worry about the fate of their favorite TV character when he's in trouble. Don't be melodramatic about things; just be real with the kids about what tasks will be harder for your child.

6. Tell them how they can help!
Do some pre-planning with the teacher decide what support roles classmates can play. Will there be a transition buddy to help your child find areas away from the regular classroom? Will anyone besides the teacher be pushing your child's wheelchair? Is it important for someone to sit next to your child who can help them find activity supplies? Kids are natural helpers and this is a wonderful time to ask for volunteers who like to help out. Just remember to talk about exactly what they will need to do and when they should do it (i.e. only when the teacher reminds you, every day after recess, etc.).
,7. Don't forget safety issues.
This is a good time to build safety into the school day. Talk with the teacher about a normal school day routine. Then work together to come up with some basic safety guidelines for your child his/her classmates. Be conscious of things like wheelchair safety, dietary restrictions, ambulation problems, or unsteadiness when walking. You probably won't be able to anticipate everything, but at least everyone will be on the same page and more safety conscious because of your discussions. With your child's classmates, this may be a nice time for the teacher to step in go over the guidelines that you decided on together.
,8. Don't try to be a doctor.
This may take some practice! Try to forget all the jargon you've learned over the last 5 years and just speak in simple terms. Remember, your goal is not to impress everyone with your expertise, it is too help everyone get comfortable with who your child is! The explanation has to be in a language that they understand.

9. Remind them that we're more alike than we are different.
This is a great opportunity to help your child's classmates see him as just another kid. You've already addressed how he or she is different, now spend some time talking about how s/he's just like them. Help lay the groundwork for future friendships by talking about all the regular kid things your child enjoys. This is a perfect place for your child to participate. Practice a simple conversation about your child's interests that you both can share in front of the class. Not only does your child have the opportunity to share about themselves, but you demonstrate how to communicate with him/her in a non-threatening way.

10. Answer their questions honestly and address their fears.
This is probably the most important thing you can do. Allow as much time as it takes and answer all their questions to the best of your ability. It will probably help to think through some possible questions and answers ahead of time, just so you can phrase your answers in kid-friendly terms. If you're not sure what questions they may ask, think back to when you first heard your child's diagnosis. What questions did you have? How about your child's siblings? Chances are their classmates will have similar questions. Can he play games with us? Will I hurt her? How do I ask her a question? Will she ever be able to (talk, run, etc?)

I hope that these tips will help you put together a presentation which will start your child out on the road to true inclusion among friends who understand and accept your child for who they really are. Be prepared for the fact that this may be an emotional experience for you. Also, try to allow a little informal time after your discussion so that the other kids can come up and talk with both you and your child.
,It will be a wonderful feeling to know that you helped build a bridge of friendship with only words and understanding!

2001 Lisa Simmons

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