In our settings we explore many differences with the children we support, we talk about the changing seasons, we explore different cultures and ethnicities, we celebrate festivals and we talk about growing up and growing old.
Difference is a part of life; a very wonderful part.
I live in a rural location lacking in ethnic diversity. From time to time, I have heard parents and childcare professionals mutter something along the lines of “what’s the point of them learning about X, there is none of that around here?” It is an understandable point of view, one focused on children learning that which is immediately relevant to them. However, it is flawed. Difference is always immediately relevant to children, because all children are different. When we learn to recognise and understand difference in others, we are better equipped to recognise and understand our own differences. Teach children to embrace difference and you teach them to embrace themselves.
Often in settings, we are trying to get children to conform, to all sit down, to all listen, or to all line up. These edicts serve practical purposes but they also install a subconscious message, that to be the same is desirable. Children can grow to be ashamed of their differences and to try and hide them. Upfront, frank conversations about difference gives children permission to be authentically themselves and are great for everyone’s wellbeing.
In this series of four articles, we are going to explore how we might talk about difference through the lenses of disability, neurological divergence and social and emotional wellbeing with the children in our settings. We are starting with Down’s syndrome. As we discuss differences of any kind, we model for children how they should respond to difference and talk about it. When you talk about children with Down’s syndrome say “with Down’s syndrome” not “A Down’s child.” This indicates that you understand that Down’s syndrome is not definitive of that person, it is something they have, and there is much more to them than just Down’s syndrome1.
You can start a conversation about difference by asking children to look around at each other and describe some of the differences they see. You are looking for them to notice hair colour, skin colour, eye colour etc. Help them to make their descriptions factual, not judgemental. For example, if a child says “her hair is a yucky colour,” change that to a simple statement of what colour the hair is. Continue until they are confidently factually describing difference. You can ask them what they think the world would be like if we all looked the same, hopefully they will agree that it would be very boring.
Next look at a picture of someone with Down’s syndrome, if a child in the setting has Down’s syndrome then you do not need a picture as they will already have been part of the differences spotted during the first section. Ask the children what differences they can see. State these differences as factually as you did the first set of differences, be very matter of fact about it. This is not shocking, or saddening, or strange, (or cute): it is just difference and difference is very normal.
"Ask the children to think about whether they are different inside. This will be a tricky concept for them, so be ready to help them out."
Explain to the children that the facial features they are observing mean that the person they are looking at has Down’s syndrome and that having Down’s syndrome means they are a little bit different inside as well. When I have talked to young children about this, I have found that revealing it as if they have discovered a secret really captures their attention. At an age, where discovery is fascinating, learning that a visual clue tells you about an unseen thing, is really exciting.
Ask the children to think about whether they are different inside. This will be a tricky concept for them, so be ready to help them out. Perhaps a child in your setting can speak a different language, perhaps one child is really good at counting. Use these children as examples, so let’s say Martha speaks Spanish and English, you might ask Martha to stand up. “We all know Martha can speak another language, don’t we?” The children nod. “Can we see that?” This might be tricky for them as they visually recognise Martha. You could show them a photo of someone they do not know and ask them whether they think that person can speak Spanish. Help them to understand that some differences are visible and some are hidden.
Go back to looking at the picture of the person with Down’s syndrome, explain that they have a difference inside that we cannot see; some of them to do with Down’s syndrome, some of them to do with their personality. Tell the children that having Down’s syndrome can mean that your brain will take longer to learn new things. Seek examples from them of things they have learned quickly and things it took them a long time to learn. How did they learn the things that did not come easily to them?
Do not shy away from identifying things children have struggled with or are struggling to learn. If we talk openly about these things, it gives the children the permission to be open about it too, to ask for help and to not feel guilty that they do not understand yet.
Ask the children what they would need to do if their brain took longer to learn. They may say “ask for help, try again, practice” etc. Reinforce that these are good ideas and that people with Down’s syndrome may need to employ these strategies too. Ask them how they can help a friend who is struggling to learn? They might say, “tell them the answer, show them how to do it, help them to do it” etc. Praise their ideas and tell them that these would be great to do for a friend who had Down’s syndrome too.
This conversation will take a few minutes of your day. It will help children to think about the strategies they use when they learn and remind them how to cope when they are struggling to learn. And for children with Down’s syndrome and their families, having Down’s syndrome understood as a fact not a tragedy, could make all the difference!
You could end the chat by watching some videos of children and adults with Down’s syndrome doing fun things, so that the children can see more differences and similarities – “they like football like me”, “he likes cats but she doesn’t” and so on.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.