Inclusion in early years settings and schools is something that is widely discussed thanks to its advantages and disadvantages. Despite any disadvantages, one major bonus of inclusion is the opportunity for children to mix with other children with different needs and learn about differences in others. Throughout their early years and schooling a child is likely to meet others with a wide range of abilities and needs.
Young children are very accepting of differences. They aren’t born judging others – they learn this. Children will 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.
To young children, the additional needs of others may sometimes be obvious – for example one of their peers may be a wheelchair user, or the needs may be hidden. So how do we teach children to accept and respect those children around them with additional needs, whatever they are?
Teach children that we are all different.
To begin with, we need to teach children that no two people are the same. Circle time is a great opportunity for 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 be different. In fact it is a good thing. Wouldn’t it be boring if we all looked exactly the same?
Once we’ve established the fact that differences are a positive thing then you can include the fact that one girl wears glasses because her eyes need a little extra help to see, and another boy uses a wheelchair because his legs don’t work well.
Teach children that we all have similarities.
As well as differences we also all have common ground. Point out the fact that a few children like a certain book character, a few of you have the same lunch box, a few have the same hair colour etc. Include the child with special needs when discussing similarities so that all children can see that their need doesn’t define them – they have lots of other wonderful things about them that we can learn about.
Extend to the fact that we all find some things easy and some things hard.
It’s important for children to realise that we all learn at different speeds. 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. It doesn’t matter how long we take to learn something as long as we try our hardest and don’t give up. Again, a good way to tackle this is at circle time. Ask the children what they are good at and what they find hard, again highlighting everyone’s differences.
Once you’ve helped develop an understanding and acceptance of the fact that we all have differences – with regard to our looks, our circumstances and the things that we find easy and hard – then you can start to talk about the particular needs that are in your setting if necessary.
Talk about behaviour head on.
This is the area that you are most likely to need to discuss with children because if one child in your setting is really struggling with behaviour it can easily have a knock on effect on others. As we know children are constantly observing one another and tend to copy behaviours which can be something that needs addressing. You may also have children that are worried or upset by another child’s behaviour. If you have a child that is displaying negative behaviour, don’t sweep it under the carpet. Acknowledge it to the other children and talk about how the behaviour makes them feel. Come back to the fact that we all find some things easy and some things hard. Now explain to the rest of the children that, just as you find it hard to do e.g. drawing, this child finds it hard to do the right thing. Reassure the children that you are dealing with this child’s behaviour in the best way for them and that they do not need to worry.
Ask them to help.
Get children involved. Explain that we can all help one another by showing each other the right thing to do. Use it as an opportunity to reiterate your expectations and let the children know how proud you are of both them, and the child that is struggling. You can also discuss practical ways that the children in your setting can help another child.
Teach children that it is ok to ask questions.
Understanding is key to acceptance therefore children need to feel safe to ask questions about their friend’s needs. Just encourage them to do so sensitively.
As in all aspect of life, acceptance is always going to be a sticky issue that can cause problems. Children with special needs, just like all children, want friends and respect. Thankfully if we can educate children to accept and understand others at a very young age then they stand a good chance of being more tolerant of others as they grow up.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.