Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Classroom Activities to Enhance Empathy for Children with Special Needs

October is Down Syndrome Awareness month, so I wanted to dedicate a post honoring my 10 year old niece, Ella. She, like her parents, is a rock star who has a wonderful circle of friends, many extracurricular interests, and a love for all things science and Disney!  Ella's mom is my sister, Jennifer, who has always loved books, writing, and teaching.  By day, Jenn works as an English professor at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and by night, she races to bring her girls to after school adventures, work on homework, and then get dinner on the table for her family.  Jenn has an incredible support system comprised of a mix of family, neighbors, and educators who work cohesively in providing care for Ella and her younger sister, Abby.  I have learned so much from this network over the last decade as I watch their tireless efforts in caring for and enhancing Ella's overall development.  One thing that I really wanted to share with my followers, was a presentation that my sister put together for Ella's elementary classroom a few years ago.  Jenn's intent was to help young children develop empathy towards a child with processing challenges and low tone.  These lessons were executed with great success and as a result, Ella developed lasting friendships with many of her peers.  If you are a parent, educator, or specialist working with young children, then the activities described so eloquently in this post by my sister can easily be adapted for many populations, so by all means, please share and pass these ideas along!!  Thanks to Jenn for taking the time to write about her presentation and experience in raising a rock star with Down Syndrome!

After six years of worrying, I found myself in a unique situation. My concern was that my child would have difficulty making friends because she has a disability. She does not have the same language skills as the typical six or seven-year-old. Despite that, we were lucky enough to move to a town that was populated with kiddos who not only took an interest in getting to know my child, but also went above and beyond to be her friend. While that all sounds wonderful, it can also be overwhelming for that same child who is constantly approached by her peers and does not know how to communicate that she needs space. So I took it upon myself to help my child’s peers understand her. What better way to do that than to have them “walk a mile in her shoes.” I spoke with her teacher, who allowed me to have time in her classroom to run two activities with the kiddos to help them better understand my girl. Here’s what we did:

First, we divided the class into groups of four. Within each group, someone needed to volunteer to stand in the middle. The other three remaining participants were each given a slip of paper with a different piece of information on each: birthdate, my favorite meal, and my favorite toy. The goal of the exercise was to have each of the three participants try to tell the person in the middle the information that was written on the paper they received. They were all trying to talk to the person in the middle at the same time. After about a minute of this exercise, we stopped and asked the children how they felt trying to communicate and listen. Those in the middle commented that it was difficult to listen to everyone, and they felt overwhelmed. It was equally frustrating for those who were trying to share their information to the person in the middle. I then transitioned to discuss how this exercise could apply to my girl. We talked as a group about how sometimes she would respond with an automatic “no.” Sometimes she would push people away. I asked the group what did they think they could do to help lessen these behaviors. And the children had some insightful answers. “Approach her one at a time.” “If she does say ‘no,’ then just say ‘OK,’ but wait for about five minutes and then go back to see if she wants to play then.”

The other exercise I did with them was a practice used by the Down Syndrome Society of Rhode Island. After making sure no one had food allergies, I handed out large marsh mellows to the children. I cut the marsh mellow in half because they were so large. I asked the children to put the marsh mellow in their mouths and had them store it in pocket of one of their cheeks. Then, they try to speak to one another and quickly discover how difficult it is to both speak and understand one another. After allowing everyone to eat the marsh mellow, we again talked about how it is sometimes difficult to understand my girl because she has low tone. When asked what they thought they could do to help understand my girl, some responses were, “Have her repeat what she says” or “Ask her to slow down a bit when she talks.”

Overall, I was so happy with the way these exercises went and the children’s responses to them. I knew these exercises were effective when a parent approached me at the end of the year and said that her son had come home the day we did them and with enthusiasm, told her that he now knew how to talk to his friend at school. The fact that he offered this information freely, gave me the sense that he was listening that day. If these exercises helped him to communicate better with my daughter, then it was not only a fun venture, but also an effective one. 

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