Inclusion in early years settings and schools is a topic which is widely discussed in the sector. One major bonus of inclusion is the opportunity for children to mix with others with differences to them. Throughout their early years and through schooling, a child is likely to meet others with a wide range of abilities and needs.

I have always found young children to be very accepting of differences. They don’t know any different from that which they have grown up with, so why question it? In some cases, though, children can learn prejudices from their parents or other outside influences. Therefore, as practitioners, we have a duty to teach children to accept one another, no matter what their needs.

When it comes to children with additional needs, some of their needs may be obvious- for example they may be in a wheelchair, however, other needs may be hidden most of the time to the other children. For example, a little boy’s autistic tendencies may not be obvious to other children until something really upsets him. So how do we teach children to accept and respect those children around them with additional needs, whatever they are?

Talk about being different

To begin with, we need to teach children that no two people are the same. Circle time is a great opportunity to teach this. Talk about the fact that we all look different – some have curly hair, we have different eye colours, different skin colour, some people wear glasses. Then, extend to other differences such as where people live, what language they speak, what different things they like doing. The important thing to emphasise here is that it is ok to have black / brown / blonde / red hair. We are all different and that is a good thing. Wouldn’t it be boring if we all looked exactly the same?

Once we’ve established that basic differences are okay, then you can include in that discussion the fact that one girl uses a wheelchair because her legs don’t work as well as they should, just the same as someone else needs glasses because his eyes need a little extra help to see.

Address negative behaviour

It is always harder to tackle issues with behaviour. As we know, children are constantly observing one another and tend to copy behaviours. If you have a child that is displaying negative behaviour, in my experience it is best to discuss this behaviour head on with the other children. Don’t sweep it under the carpet. Explain to them that this child finds it hard to do the right thing and that you are all going to help him by showing him the right thing to do. Use it as an opportunity to reiterate your expectations of the other children and let them know how proud you are of both them, and the child you are talking about.

Again, a good way to tackle this is at circle time. You could tell the children a little something about you e.g. I am really good at playing the piano but I find drawing really hard. Ask the children what they are good at and what they find hard. Then explain to them that while some of them are good at behaviour such as, say, listening or sitting on the carpet, this child finds that really really hard, and we need to help them just like you need help drawing.

Learning at different speeds

Another issue to tackle is ability. Some children are very aware of whether or not they are able at something, whilst others are not. It’s important for children to realise that we all learn at different speeds. Again here use yourself as an example – there are things that you learnt to do quickly and things that you need to practise again and again. It’s just the same for all of us – some of us may learn things quickly whilst others take longer. The important thing is that we are all kind to one another and help one another. It doesn’t matter how long we take to learn something as long as we try our hardest and don’t give up.

As in all aspects of life, acceptance is always going to be a sticky issue that can cause problems. Children are born as a blank slate. Whilst children with additional needs may be in the minority, all children should be able to grow up accepting one another.

As Nelson Mandela once said ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion’.  - Or his special needs!

About the author

Georgina Smith has had 8 years experience teaching both mainstream and special education. She has created her own website www.sensupport.com which makes learning resources to help children with Special Educational Needs. You can contact her on @sen_support on Twitter or on Facebook.

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