Today’s guest author Carolyn joins regulars Marjorie, Marci and Michelle for our first four-author post! Carolyn, mother of two children, both with special needs, has worked in the field of special education for over thirteen years. She loves reading and crocheting. She’s attending BYU-I (online) studying Marriage and Family Studies.
How can we help children be empathetic, loving and kind when the behavior of a child with special needs frightens them?
Recently in response to one of our blog posts, we received this superb question: “Samuel is a new boy in our church who has cerebral palsy. He is in a wheelchair and doesn’t speak. He often yells out loudly. My 5 year old can be particularly sensitive to sensory things, and when Samuel yells or cries, it upsets her. Yesterday as we were leaving church, he yelled out and it scared all of us because it was unexpected. My daughter’s first response was, ‘I don’t like him.’ We’ve talked about him before, and loving him, but I’m not sure what steps to take next. Any suggestions?”
Carolyn: You can’t force a child (or anyone) to be understanding and loving. And it takes time to teach love and understanding, especially around special needs because it’s just so different from your own reality. This is multi-layered process. You must honor the feelings of ALL the children in Primary. Don’t band aid the situation with the “they are a child of God and we should love them” explanation. While true, that is a really big concept. And it doesn’t honor the fact that the other kids are scared by the screaming, or intimidated by the wheelchair. So back up a step.
The ultimate goal is love for this little child, and for them to be included in Primary fellowship as much as possible. But the first step is acceptance. You can’t move toward understanding and then toward love until you accept the disability and the child with the disability. To teach acceptance, you just have to let people talk about what they feel. The little girl is scared. That’s okay. She doesn’t like it when Samuel screams. Neither do I. She feels angry when he screams? That’s okay. She doesn’t want to sit with him? That’s okay. Behaviors can be good or bad. But ALL feelings are okay.
But quickly point out that the ACT is scary–not the child. Screaming is scary. Samuel is not. His is a little boy. As you reinforce this concept, use the same phrasing over and over so that they can remember the sentence. You might say, “The screaming is scary, but Samuel is our friend” or “The screaming is scary, but Samuel is just a little boy, like other little boys.” Use that same phrasing each time, and kids will learn through repetition.
Next, remember that even kids with special needs have needs. They just struggle to communicate. And when they can’t communicate, sometimes they get frustrated and scream. Just like we all do! You might ask “do you sometimes scream when you get frustrated? Samuel does too.”
Ask the parents what they recommend. How have they taught other kids to understand Samuel’s special needs? Many parents of children with special needs are very open. They want to talk about their child. They are your best resource because they are the experts on their children. Take the time to really get to know the family, visit them in their home, and let them know you are there to support them and their child.
Finally, children take their cues from adults. They are more intuitive, resilient, compassionate, and aware than we think. When the adults around them are comfortable, the children will be comfortable.
Marjorie: One Sunday I took a few minutes to tell the kids about my son who has autism. I made a poster about him with things he liked, such as his iPad and his favorite movies. I talked about things that he had in common with the other kids. I explained about autism and some of his autistic behaviors by asking if any of them twirled their hair, chewed on their pencils, etc. I explained that that was the same thing. Focus on similarities, explain differences, explain what the disability is and why the kids have certain behaviors or have physical needs. Demystifying and normalizing behavior leads to acceptance.
Marci: As I thought about this, I thought of the saying, “If you don’t love someone, you haven’t served them enough.” Kids CAN serve other kids:
- Give them a kind note.
- Draw them a picture.
- Find out their favorite color, and wear something with that color one day.
- Pick some wildflowers for them.
- Or even just make it a point to always say hello and smile.
Michelle: There is always someone who needs a friend. Perhaps it is someone who is new or lonely or being bullied. And at one time or another that person may be you. The truth is that we are all “poor and needy” in one way or another at different times in our lives. Service is not a one-way linear sort of process. I see it more as a circular give-and-take sort of cycle. We need to serve others just as much as we need to receive service. This ebb and flow of service creates a community of love, mutual respect and empathy for one another.