Keeping Kids with Developmental Differences Safe

When working with students with disabilities and differences, professionals must take specific steps to foster a sense of respect and community in which other students are helpful and kind toward children with differences. There are many ways in which teachers need to keep disabled students safe, but those are often personalized to the child and will require one-on-one time as well as conversations with parents.

However, one very important and simple way to keep “different” kids safe is by having open and honest conversations about what it means to be different. Being different can be a wonderful thing, and we are all different in one way or another. Framing differences carefully can help both “typical” and “different” kids understand and embrace difference.

Here are some ideas for talking to kids about developmental differences: When talking to preschoolers, give brief and direct (and honest) answers. However, do not add your own feelings or interpretations. For example, do not tell them how being different must feel because you will be planting ideas in the young child’s mind about other people’s inner worlds – which you cannot know about.

Here are some simple ways to talk about differences:

  • Lucy sees a specialist twice a week because she has trouble saying the “r” sound.
  • Matthew uses a wheelchair because he was born without the use of his legs.
  • Donna does not use words to speak, so we find other ways to communicate with her.

Perhaps the most important lesson to teach young children is that staring, pointing, laughing, or mocking other students is wholly unacceptable and that they may come to you with questions privately.

When having conversations with older primary school kids, encourage the children to focus on similarities rather than differences. These older children will likely pick up on less obvious developmental differences or disabilities. For example, they may notice a classmate whose behavior is unusual.

Encourage honest discussion but focus on the many ways in which the child is no different from his classmates. Remember to use language that puts the person first before their disability. Lucy is not speech impaired, she has a bit of trouble with speech. Matthew is not wheelchair bound, he has some trouble walking. Donna is not nonverbal, she uses other means to communicate.

For example:

  • Lucy has trouble with speech sometimes, but she loves to write poems… just like you!
  • Matthew cannot use his legs, but he loves to shoot hoops on the playground. Have you ever asked him to play?
  • Donna cannot use words to communicate, but she dances beautifully, and that is her way of expressing herself. Do you like to dance?

Aside from these important conversations, it is vital that all professionals understand the differences in their students and how to serve them best. For example, does your nonverbal student need a whistle when on the playground so that he or she can let you know they need you? Do you have a “runner” in your class? Be sure to consider how you can keep him or her safe on field trips. 

In short, be aware and respectful. These students need patience and kindness more than anyone. Keep your students safe by keeping them enmeshed with your class community and by fostering acceptance of diversity amongst their peers.

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