Young Children Playing with Child in Wheelchair

Teaching Compassion to Non-Disabled Children

Teach and Practice Compassion

Early childhood is a time of wonder and discovery. It is also a time filled with lessons that can carry a child through the rest of their life. One of the most important lessons a child should learn is the importance of compassion.

Compassion is closely linked to empathy. When a child learns to show compassion for others, they experience more joy in their lives. Where can a child learn to practice compassion? One place is in the classroom.

When a child starts school, their worldview expands to include awareness of how other people live their lives. Enrollment in school is often where kids first learn how to interact with peers with physical or developmental disabilities.

This awareness presents an opportunity for parents to teach their children about a variety of disabilities. It is also a chance to help non-disabled children discover the joy of being friends with children who have physical or mental limitations.

Do you want to enhance your child’s compassion for others? Are you concerned about how to discuss disabilities with your child? Here are some helpful tips to help you explain disabilities and build empathy in non-disabled children.

Simple Steps to Follow

  1. Embrace Curiosity
  2. Have Honest, Direct Communication
  3. Take Time to Educate
  4. Focus on the Positive
  5. Celebrate Diversity
  6. Set a Positive Example
  7. Look for Ways to Practice Compassion

Embrace Curiosity

The first time a non-disabled child encounters a peer with a disability, they may be curious about what they observe. This curiosity may lead to embarrassing moments or awkward questions. The key to overcoming these moments is to not run from them. If a child asks hard questions from a place of innocence, use the opportunity to engage in conversation. This approach requires parents to be prepared for those questions to happen so they can turn an uncomfortable moment into a teaching moment without crushing their child’s curiosity.

Young Disabled Girl in Library with Her Classmates

How Would You Answer Your Child?

  • Why is that little boy drooling?
  • How come that girl is in a wheelchair?
  • Mommy, why can’t they talk?
  • What’s wrong with them?

These types of questions may be challenging to answer, especially if they are asked in public or within earshot of the disabled person. How should you respond?

Have Honest, Direct Communication

Difficult questions about disabilities may prompt an adult to tell a child to ignore the differences they observe. This approach would be a mistake. It alienated the person with the disability. It also implies that there is something shameful about the person who is different from a non-disabled child.

The best approach is to be honest about what the non-disabled child is seeing. Use the moment to teach a child compassion and kindness. The best way to do this is to be mindful of your words when explaining the disability. Use words that describe the difference but do not marginalize or criticize the person with a disability.

Words like “disabled,” “challenged,” or “special” are good words to use. Derogatory slang should always be avoided.

Take every opportunity to highlight the affirmative in your conversation. Using words like “capable,” “unlimited,” “brave,” and “powerful” are great ways to focus a non-disabled child’s mind on the things that matter.

Take Time to Educate

It’s okay if you don’t know how to answer a question about a disability. This uncertainty creates an opportunity to sit down with your child and do research together about some of the reasons why a child might be in a wheelchair or be non-verbal.

This is a great teaching moment to discuss ways to show compassion and how to talk about disabilities with adults and peers in a way that doesn’t inflict sigmatism or pain.

When talking about disabilities, it’s vital to point out that physical disabilities or difficulty communicating do not always include mental limitations. Encourage your non-disabled child to reach out to their classmate to discover the best way to communicate with them. The chances are high that they will discover a true friend.

Focus on the Positive

When discussing disabilities with a non-disabled child, there is a difference between focusing on the negative and describing the disability in a fact-based manner. Instead of dwelling too much on how a non-disabled child is different from a child with a disability, use the opportunity to discuss the importance of making friends with kids even if they don’t look, act, or sound like us.

When a non-disabled child is in the same school as a disabled child, parents are presented with the perfect opportunity to point out to their non-disabled child the things they have in common with their disabled peer. For example, do both children love the same superhero, snack food, or music?

Building the beauty of diversity and compassion into a child’s life is essential for their development. What are some simple ways to create a love of diversity in your child’s life?

Celebrate Diversity

Practice Compassion - Disabled Girl Playing Basketball with Her Peers

When a non-disabled child first encounters a peer with disabilities, they may see that difference as a weakness. Parents and other adults can curtail this misconception by highlighting the strength, courage, endurance a child with a disability or debilitating illness demonstrates every day.

Another great way to instill acceptance and compassion in a child is to ask them how they would feel if they were unable to do some of the things they love? Would they feel lonely? Sad?

After giving your children an opportunity to express their emotions, help them formulate ideas for including their disabled peers in their activities, gatherings, and peer groups. 

Set a Positive Example

Adults have a unique power to influence kids. How we use that power often impacts a child’s whole life. If we want our non-disabled children to exhibit compassion toward their disabled peers, we need to take every opportunity to lead by example.

How much time have we taken to get to know someone with a disability? Do we ignore disabled people when they are around us? Could we volunteer our time to support organizations that provide support to families with disabled children?

We can set a positive example in other ways too. For example, do you tell jokes or watch movies that make individuals with disabilities the punchline? These “harmless” choices may diminish your child’s ability to feel empathy.  In turn, they may be less inclined to show compassion and kindness toward their peers with disabilities.

Look for Ways to Practice Compassion

Practice Compassion - Young Girl Reading a Story to Disabled Girl

Your child can practice compassion daily by discouraging bullying and rejecting any behavior that makes their disabled peers feel like outsiders. Help your child build interpersonal skills that draw people in and make them feel accepted.

Have regular, honest communication about aspects of a disability your child doesn’t understand. Invite the family of a disabled classmate over to your home. The more an adult can normalize the disabilities of a child, the more their non-disabled peer is likely to see through the disability to the beautiful human within. Remember, these conversations are not always easy.

Children may have trouble adjusting to seeing past the disability. Be patient with yourself and your children. Encourage them to ask respectful questions. When you practice compassion with your children as they learn about the world, they will be better equipped to show compassion toward others.

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