The New School Year Can Be Terrifying by Ellen Stumbo

It’s that time of the year when kids go back to school. A new year. A new teacher. Perhaps even a new backpack or wardrobe. But it also means new classmates. New friends.

As a special-needs mom, the new school year can be terrifying. I am not sure what your experience was, but when I was in school, the children with disabilities were not in class with me. They either had their own class or their own school.

Back then, I was afraid of disability. I was told to look away, to ignore, to not ask questions, to not be rude. So I thought disability was bad. Really bad. Then I became a special-needs mom and let me tell you, this is how you take a crash course on disability.

But I remember being on the “other” side, the side where you are not so sure how to respond to people with disabilities, how to act around them, perhaps even how to treat them or talk to them. And you know, your child might be going to school with a peer with who has a disability. Thankfully, we now practice something beautiful called inclusion, where kids of all abilities learn together, and learn from each other.

And this is why a new year is terrifying. Will my daughter with Down syndrome have friends? Will there be a kid in their class that will be able to look past the poor speech and see the wonderful, beautiful, funny person that she is? Will my daughter with cerebral palsy have friends that play with her during recess? Will they still include her even if she cannot run and keep up with them?

I want my children to have friends.

So dear mom with typical kids, it’s okay if you have not taken the crash course on disability (or any course at all). The only thing that matters is that you encourage your kids to get to know my kids. That you teach them that although they might be different, we are all uniquely gifted. That you stress out that disability is just a part of life, and not what defines a person.

And you know what, as your kids get to know mine, maybe we can get to know each other too. I might also need a friend.

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com.

Help Your Child Make Friends

Don’t miss Rebecca Isbell’s great article "Practical Playtime" in the August edition of ParentLife about helping kids develop social skills through play. Dr. Isbell offers a few additional tips for our blog this month. Check it out below!

Some children are natural at initiating play — and relationships — with other children, while others must be guided. Here are some tips for ensuring your child will learn to make and keep friends.

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  • Start with the Golden Rule. “Have them consider, ‘Would you like it if Jayden did that to you?’” says Corinne Gregory, founder of SocialSmarts, a nationally-recognized program that teaches good social skills, positive character, and values to kids. “Young children are not aware of how much power they have to make other people feel good or bad. To build and keep friends, you have to put yourself in their shoes. Keep reinforcing this concept with your child, praising positive behavior when you see it and gently correcting the negative.”
  • Offer consistency. “Teaching the concept of ‘friend’ comes best when there can be one consistent one-on-one situation, one consistent family with whom you and your child feel comfortable,” says Andrea Gould, Ph.D., president of Lucid Learning Systems. “After mastering the art of playing peaceably with one other youngster, preferably close in age, a child can learn, with guidance, to generalize about friendship, its comforts, and its challenges. Good experience generalizes readily.”
  • Foster empathy. “Learning to recognize and interpret social cues such as a sad face, a laugh, or a child’s need to be alone can determine whether or not your child will make and keep friends easily,” says Jackie Gass, president of Sunbrook Academy and early childhood development expert. “You can promote the process [of developing empathy] through everyday experiences by talking about facial expressions of others and asking, ‘How do you think she feels?’ or ‘How does that make you feel?’ or ‘Does he look happy or sad?’ You can also encourage this by expressing your own feelings or through books and games.”
  • Pay attention and discuss what you see. “Talk to your child about what to expect when you go to the park, attend a birthday party, or school,” says Vicki Folds, Ph.D., vice president of education and professional development at Children of America. “If your child dominates situations, discuss how the other children might be feeling if they never get a turn. If your child stands back and waits for others to engage them, you might want to encourage your child to initiate a game. At the end of a play day, encourage your child to tell you about the day, about the friends they made, and what they did. This helps them remember events and build relationships.”