How to Teach Children About Disabilities and Inclusion
“We accept you.”
When expressed freely among peers, this phrase can have a lifesaving effect on youth who are vulnerable to bullying’s most dangerous outcomes: depression, isolation, anxiety, and fear.
“It's become sort of the rallying echo for who we are as a group and how our group connects with one another,” said David McClung, youth engagement specialist for Texas System of Care, which helps connect youth who have mental health needs with community organizations that provide care.
“The experiences you are going through may not make sense right now,” he said, “but they can be used to fuel your passion and change the world.”
Teaching youth to share and accept each other’s differences is part of building an inclusive culture that shields students with disabilities from bullying. Numerous studies have documented that students with visible and invisible disabilities are at greater risk of experiencing bullying (PDF, 348 KB) than their peers.
Educating children about disability and inclusion can protect vulnerable students from bullying and encourage empathy and kindness among the student body.
Why Is Disability Education Important for Students?
Inclusion is mandated by law, but meaningful education about disabilities goes much beyond legal compliance. Creating an environment where all children feel included and valued is a necessary part of ensuring that students receive a comprehensive education that they can apply to the real world.
An inclusive culture begins with understanding that children are able to identify differences instead of pretending those differences don’t exist. That can start with teaching person-first language, which refers to the individual first instead of equating them to a disability or neuro-diverse identity. For example, instead of referring to a classmate as autistic, a child can learn to identify their peer as a person with autism.
“Kids have implicit bias just like adults do,” said Becky Bell Scott, faculty member at Baylor University’s Master of Social Work program online. “When they’re not left to sort that out on their own, the differences become less pronounced through their lifetime.”
Positive Effects of Disability and Inclusion Education:
- Protects vulnerable students from bullying
- Promotes inclusivity among the student body
- Builds empathy and emotional intelligence
- Helps students understand differences in a positive manner
- Diminishes negative effects of implicit bias
- Develops skills that youth carry with them beyond school
Disability education is an important part of social development that should be revisited at different ages to help children learn more as they grow and build an understanding of the world and their role in it.
“When done correctly, it adds to the trajectory of a child developing their empathy,” Scott said.
Age-Appropriate Ways to Teach Children About Disabilities
It’s never too early to start teaching children about differences among their peers. With infants and toddlers, Scott recommended using picture books that include representations of people who look different and similar to them.
“Children as young as 1½ or 2 will verbalize that they see a physical difference in another child,” Scott said. “We need to follow the curiosity. We need to not shame that and instead help make sense of it, normalize it, and talk about what is the same between them and the person they’re observing for the first time.”
Some differences may be invisible to children, so explaining developmental and learning disabilities can help children understand various types of ability. These discussions can include the autism spectrum, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and should also mention the strengths of children with these diagnoses.
In a school environment, social workers and educators can focus on unique aspects of disability education at different developmental stages:
5–9 YEARS OLD
Focus on concrete thinking: Young children internalize most information literally, so build concrete thinking skills by focusing on facts, not imaginations or implicit biases.
Identify differences and similarities: Just as children may be able to see visible differences, they can point out traits they share with others.
Humanize others: When a child takes notice of a person who is different from them, encourage the child introduce themselves and ask the other person’s name.
Balance curiosity with respect: Remind them that it’s OK to ask questions, but they should be thoughtful and respectful.
10-11 YEARS OLD
Focus on emotional thinking: Older children are beginning to associate feelings with specific experiences. Ask them to unpack how they feel after an interaction with someone new.
Address conflicted feelings: Some students may feel they are being watched or judged by their peers when they choose to be inclusive of others. Talk about these tendencies to care more about social perceptions than the social good.
Normalize confusion: Let children know that it’s understandable to feel confused about how to best include others, but emphasize the importance of overcoming that fear and not singling others out.
Discuss social structures: Around this stage of development, children may form social groups or cliques. Talk candidly about the harm in excluding others because of perceived differences.
12–17 YEARS OLD
Focus on empathy and kindness: Encourage students to invite others into their friend groups, intervene when they see bullying, and be on the lookout for peers at risk of isolation.
Address social exclusion: Around this age, ingroup-outgroup behaviors become more pronounced than they are for preteens. Explain how isolation can cause signs of depression and anxiety; this can happen both online and in person.
Discuss individual differences: All students have their own unique traits, fears, and challenges. Teach students to identify and share their own differences that are beginning to emerge.
Introduce the continuum of ability: Teenagers can understand and internalize the concept of an ability continuum, meaning that physical and mental ability — like other aspects of identity — are measured by many variables that include visual and auditory processing, spatial awareness, creative thinking, executive functions, and other aspects of communication.
Revisiting these strategies throughout adolescence can help children build on what they know while they are experiencing their own development and setting social expectations.
“It is common for children to have a fear reaction about difference,” Scott said. “We need to address that because we don’t want them think people who are different from them are to be feared.”
Supporting Disability Education in a School Environment
These interventions can be conducted by school-based social workers but are best implemented with the support of parents and school administrators. Other professionals who can help create and spread inclusive curricula and activities include teachers, school nurses, school counselors, and — most importantly — peers of students with disabilities.
“We want to have allies at least supporting that conversation, if not introducing it, so the burden’s not always falling on the person who is perceived as different,” Scott said.
Cultivating student involvement can help foster an environment where students with disabilities feel a genuine belonging with their classmates.
“Connection to other people makes huge differences,” McClung said. “Not only in our sense of social belonging, but also in our physical health, in our emotional health, in our support systems, and how we get through difficult times.”
McClung leads a program called ACCEPT, which stands for Allies Cultivating Change by Empowering Positive Transformation. “The program connects youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 25 to educate, advocate, and grow the youth voice in Texas,” he said.
“Our youth have a whole lot to say about how we can build cultures in our schools that are inclusive and understand the point of belonging,” McClung said.
Professionals like McClung are proof that supportive adults are an important part of helping youth facilitate activities within a school environment, at home, or in advocacy groups.
Strategies for Fostering Empathy and Understanding
Incorporate storybooks or narratives that include representations of children with various physical and intellectual abilities.
Ask students deliberate questions that encourage them to share and consider their own thoughts when encountering people who are different from themselves. Examples include:
- What did you notice?
- What was the same?
- What was different?
- How did you feel?
Empower students with disabilities to tell stories about their own experiences. This helps students be in charge of their own narratives, as long as they willfully opt in to sharing.
If students with disabilities don’t feel comfortable sharing, facilitators can use online videos to share stories from similarly aged peers, followed by a classroom discussion.
These games foster cooperation, as opposed to focusing on competition. This use of meta cognition encourages participants to consider the social dynamics of the whole group, not just with themselves.
Listening to students and young people in any community can help school personnel shape a meaningful curriculum of diversity and inclusion.
“Our goal is not to save the world,” McClung said. “Our goal is to try to impact the lives of one youth at a time.”
Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.