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Friday, March 26, 2010

Building empathy

One of the things I discuss with my trainee teachers is the importance of promoting empathy rather than sympathy when including a child with a disAbility. An issue that brings about the most debate in this context is, when a student with a disAbility first joins our class, whether we should talk to the class about that child's disability.

What children want

Chadsey and Gun (2005) interviewed a group of middle school children, asking them to explain the things that help them develop friendships with their peers who have a disability. Here are some of the key things they said:

  1. Segregation is unfair
  2. Teachers should come into classes to give us more information about students with disabilities
  3. Don’t let students make fun of students with disabilities
  4. Create programs where both students with and without disabilities can hang out with each other
  5. Use volunteer peer partners (eg in buddy systems)
  6. Group students with disabilities into our social networks
  7. Have students with disabilities tell us about their disabilities
  8. Clubs or after school activities should include kids with disabilities and should be of interest to everyone
  9. Let students with disabilities take the same bus as us


"the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another
person's feelings" (Collins Concise Dictionary)

Understanding and relating to each other's experiences is an important part of developing relationships and respect. However, the way we help our students understand others' experiences will influence how they perceive that person.


synonyms: compassion, pity

A relationship built on pity or compassion is an "unbalanced" relationship, a relationship where there is not an equal balance of power or status.

For example, I want to share with you the story of a little girl with Down Syndrome - lets call her Sally. Before Sally came into the class the teacher talked about Sally's difficulties. She suggested that Sally would need help doing certain things.

The intention of the teacher was great - to promote understanding and a smooth transition. And when Sally came into class, it seemed like this is what had happened. However, on closer inspection the children were treating Sally differently. They were using baby-language to her, they were shepherding her around the school without really listening to her, they were mothering and smothering her.

What is the alternative?

Avoid talking about the child when they are not in the room. To those who ask, "Why?", think about how you might act if you have just had a "lesson" on fellow student and then the student walks into the room. First, you probably have developed an expectation of how that person will look and act based on your understanding of the teacher's words. Secondly, you will probably turn and stare - not being intentionally rude, but because you want to "see for yourself" this new person. For a child who needs a sense of belonging, to "blend" with the crowd, this can be very distressing. Even if the reactions are positive or compassionate, the child is starting off being seen as different.

If you want to share, share together. Rather than talking about one child, get everyone to talk about themselves. This way you are building a sense of similarities, and fellow-feeling, rather than setting one child up to be separate. Using "ice-breaker" or "get-to-know-you" activities at the beginning of the year (or any time during the year if there are indications that students may be at risk of bullying/being bullied) can be really effective.

Here are some ideas:

  • Sit/stand in a circle. Have a bean bag/ball to be passed around. Have a theme eg. I am good at... but am not so good at .... The person who is holding the ball/bean bag has to complete the sentence, then call someone's name and pass the ball/bean bag on to them.
  • Paint and/or collage a self-portrait using words, pictures, phrases, little biographical stories, photos and so on.
  • Have each child write and share their "bio" - a short story about themselves.

This means that when you are sharing you are focusing less on the label, more on the person. You are also conveying a sense of similarity and belonging to all children, not focusing on what is making one child different to everyone else. Everyone is different - that is the value of diversity.

Talk about diversity, difference and individuality. Click here for a good article by the Children's on how to talk to children about recognising and valuing diversity. We have become very good at incorporating books that reflect diverse cultures, non-traditional gender roles and different families into early childhood, primary and secondary education. We should be increasing the range of books we use that portray people with disabilities. We should be incorporating units of work on disAbilities into our curriculum - from looking at sporting heroes, to musicians, to works of fiction aimed at promoting understanding about Aspergers, Autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD, Hearing impairments and so on. Empathy exercises can also be used - eg. we don't have to wait until we have a child with a vision impairment in our classroom before we get children to experience what it might be like by getting them to complete an obstacle course fully or partially blind-folded.

Decide what peers may need to know, and address the issue. Some children with disAbilities will be overwhelmed by emotions at times to the point that they may have a melt-down. We need to ensure that we have processes in place to ensure the safety of the child and their peers. If you are including a child who is at risk of having a melt-down in the classroom, you don't have to talk about the child, but you should talk about the behaviour. Have a discussion that is focused on helping children relate to the experience and problem-solving. For example, address:

  • How would you feel if.... (lead children to talk about what makes them frustrated, angry, scared)
  • What would you do if you couldn't say what you feel?
  • What should we do if... (lead children to design a set of steps to follow if they are afraid someone is going to hurt themselves or others)

You could use a similar process if you need to build awareness of health issues such as epilepsy.

Let the child and parent control the information sharing process, or use rules. In some cases it will be important for the child to share specific things about themselves. For example, a classroom including a child with low vision will need to keep things in the same place and keep the floor clear of obstacles. In this case, you could have rules to this effect in your classroom. You could talk to the child prior to designing the rules to see if they want to share a little of why they need these measures in place. Some children may not want to share information with their whole class, but may want to have the opportunity to share it with a smaller supportive group of peers. For young children, it is the family (parents/caregivers) who should decide what, when and how information about the child is shared.

Be prepared. Especially with younger children, and if a child has a disability that makes them visibly different, you might get questions such as "What's wrong with Johnny?" Brushing off these questions, or treating them as inappropriate behaviour, can make children feel like there is something "bad", "wrong" or "secret" about the child with a disability. Instead, we should answer them as openly and honestly as possible. Teachers should discuss possible answers with the family and/or child before these questions come up. Families have often had much practice in answering these questions.

In the case of the question, "What's wrong with Johnny?" you might say, "There is nothing wrong with Johnny. It is just that his legs don't work the same way as yours so he has to use crutches to help him walk."

The aim should be:

Helping children relate to each others' experiences. We all have things in common, but we are also all unique.


Chadsey, J., Gun Han, K. (2005). Friendship-Facilitation Strategies: What Do Students In Middle School Tell Us? Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(2), p52.


Lora March 29, 2010 at 11:10 PM  

Excellent info. as always! After reading this I have a new perspective on things that I thought that I already had an open mind about. You always tend to do that for me....Thank YOU!!! I just love your blog and wish that I had time to visit more often because it is so informative and enlightening.

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