Saturday, January 28, 2012

Educating Children and School Personnel about Disabilities

There has never been a greater need to familiarize school personnel and other students about the ways in which various disabilities affect the students who have them. The days when most students with disabilities were educated apart from their peers are long past. Today, as a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) most children with disabilities spend at least part of the school day in general education classrooms with their nondisabled peers.

However, as experience continues to demonstrate, this increased proximity does not always translate into increased understanding on the part of teachers and nondisabled peers. Instead, research has shown that children with disabilities, whether visible or nonvisible, are more frequently bullied than their nondisabled peers. Those who have significant social skills and communication challenges as a core trait of their disability are at the greatest risk for bullying and marginalization. They are also the most likely to be rejected by their mainstream peers and struggle more with loneliness.

Educators who don’t understand the ways in which specific disabilities affect behavior are more likely to perceive children who have those disabilities as being poorly behaved and needing more discipline, are more likely to get into inappropriate power struggles with them. While children with autism spectrum disorder, psychiatric disorders, and other disabilities may at times willfully choose to engage in inappropriate behaviors, there is great risk when a teacher or administrator acts on an assumption that such a child’ behavior is willful. A history of being punished for behavior that arises from a disability is likely to result in low self-esteem, hopelessness, depression, and a lack of opportunities to learn alternative behaviors.

The process of teaching kids about disabilities can have a profound impact on the ways in which mainstreamed students interact with their special education peers. Rather than waiting until misunderstanding has resulted in harm to children with disabilities, the provision of information to teachers and students may help them understand why a child learns or behaves differently, and encourage them to avoid engaging in behavior that is hurtful. It may also help students who don’t know how to interact with children with disabilities, to learn how to do so, and open the door to peer relationships.

Before presenting disability information, teachers and parents should determine whether children with disabilities want to be included in the presentation, or whether this would make them uncomfortable. Some children may not want to participate, while others may be willing to engage in a question and answer session. Some presentations for young children include the use of picture books, while presentations for older students may reference various fiction and nonfiction books and resources available on the Internet.

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