(CMR) Teaching children to share and accept each other’s differences could help to build an inclusive culture that shields students with disabilities from bullying. An inclusive culture begins with understanding that children are able to identify differences instead of pretending those differences don’t exist, according to Baylor University.
It’s never too early to start teaching children about differences among their peers. Using picture books that include representations of people who look different and similar to your children is recommended for infants and toddlers.
Becky Bell Scott, faculty member at Baylor University, explained, “Children as young as 1½ or 2 will verbalize that they see a physical difference in another child. 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 abilities. 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.
According to Baylor University, here are some age-appropriate ways to teach your children about people with disabilities.
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 notices a person who is different from them, encourage the child to 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 to think people who are different from them are to be feared.”