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How to Nurture Compassion in Your Child's World

By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

With 20 million plus families in the United States having a child with special needs, more children with challenges are being mainstreamed into America’s public schools. Unfortunately, too often those without special needs feel uncomfortable around a classmate who seems out-of-sync. What’s more, they can translate their discomfort into ugly behaviors, such as verbally demeaning or physically hurting the individual with differences. Helping youngsters become more sensitive is always important. Here are some specific ways to make kids feel more comfortable.

“First, parents should emphasize that these kids are just like them,” says Aileen Weiss of South Carolina, whose daughter Vicki was born with Sturge Weber, a rare syndrome giving Vicki physical and mental differences. “They have the same hurts, fears and joys even though they may be unable to express them because of their limitations.”

“You want to find a way to make your child feel grateful for his abilities and realize that he should help another who may not be as fortunate,” says Bonnie Senner, a licensed clinical social worker in Highland Park, Il. “Helping others is the best way to make you feel good about yourself.”

Children must also feel safe around those with additional challenges. Kids may erroneously fear that the child who looks or acts different has a contagious disease. Reassure your son or daughter that the condition is not contagious or harmful to them.

It’s also helpful to look for attributes of the child with challenges. Maybe Johnny can’t read, but he’s a creative thinker and wonderful artist. Point out the classmate’s strengths. Being disabled doesn’t mean being unabled. Take master violinist Itzhak Perlman, who had polio at age 4 and can’t walk independently. Today, he’s one of the world’s greatest violinists. You never know how or what another can contribute to the world.

If the classmate with special needs behaves improperly, brags or acts angry, explain that often they can’t control their behaviors, brag to make themselves feel better or are angry at their circumstances which have often led them to be repeatedly and unfairly rejected. Understanding breeds acceptance.

“Encourage your son or daughter to befriend someone who has a disability,” says Weiss. “It promises to be a most rewarding experience. Your child will learn about compassion, courage, perseverance and strength.”

Exclusion from birthday parties, activities and other events is excruciating for those with special needs and their families. “Invite the child with a disability to your home,” says Californian, Hogan Hilling, whose son has Angelman’s Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder affecting mobility, mental and verbal skills. “Even if the parents say the child can’t attend the party they feel better being included,” says Hilling. “If the parents decline the invitation, encourage them to bring the child over for a short time. You may also invite the child with his nurse or caregiver.” And, when you have the child at your home, introduce him to your other guests.

With non-ambulatory students, parents and teachers should ask classmates to wheel or accompany the person in the wheelchair to his destination. At Keshet, a school for those with disabilities in Northbrook, Il. non-affected children feel it’s an honor to wheel a child in a wheelchair. If a child in the neighborhood is non-ambulatory, offer to take him for a walk and have your son or daughter push the chair. When talking to someone in a wheelchair talk directly to the person in the chair, not through the one wheeling it.

Should you catch yourself inadvertently staring at someone who looks different, flash a smile. That way, he understands you lack ill intentions.

Primarily, we must make these kids and their families feel accepted and acceptable. Most children with challenges are heroes, overcoming difficult obstacles each day. It’s crucial we recognize, learn from and support them in their struggles. Remember, life has meaning when you’re helping someone else.

Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at