One positive change I have noticed over the past 15 years is an increase in the awareness and compassion of students regarding the social, emotional and learning needs of their classmates. I have seen incredible empathy, patience, and understanding from students as they walk with students who struggle. One reason for this is the increase of inclusion in the classroom. Students with disabilities are now more than ever included in mainstream classrooms throughout our public schools, and students are used to it. This presents many opportunities for students to get up close and personal with others who have different needs than they do. While these natural interactions are an effective way to increase understanding about one another, I have found that a little teaching in this area can go a long way, particularly in the early elementary grades.
Many teachers are uncertain how to best teach their class to better understand students with disabilities. I have presented to many classrooms over the years around this topic and have used a slightly different approach than most. Instead of identifying different disabilities by name, I focus on the different tools that students need to learn.
To be sure, all students need tools in school. That fact creates a great common starting point. As we look more closely, some students (particularly students with disabilities) need certain tools that not everyone needs. The tools in school presentation (right) is merely a template or catalyst for discussion with students. It provides a framework of language and categories by which students can understand the needs of others. Children easily identify with the tool theme and remain engaged as the presentation moves to identifying tools we all use in school. (Click image above or below for presentation details.)
The ultimate point here is to build awareness and understanding in your students of the unique needs in the people around them, and the tools needed to meet those needs. Our students will inevitably meet others with disabilities in their classrooms, in college, in the community, and in the workplace. Some of our students will even go on to do groundbreaking work in supporting people with disabilities! The more they know now, the better equipped they will be to welcome, support, and learn from those around them for the rest of their lives.