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Easing the school experience for children with disabilities
Back to school can be a stressful time for children with disabilities and their parents.
Even though it may seem like common sense to an adult, children don’t always know that it’s impolite to stare at someone in a wheelchair or make fun of a child with a speech impediment.
The good news is that parents and educators can work together to make schools more hospitable environments for children with disabilities.
Education is key
As director of education at the Epilepsy Center at Rush, Jill Gattone has been teaching children and educators in the Chicago area about epilepsy for three years. Gattone’s involvement stems from firsthand experience: When her son, Philip Jr., was in second grade, his classmates isolated him because his epilepsy medication made his behavior different from that of the other children.
After Jill and her husband, Phil, visited their son’s classroom to talk with his classmates, the children started to connect more with Philip Jr. Inspired by their experience, the Gattones have made epilepsy education a part of their life’s work. “Even though my focus is on epilepsy education, the outreach helps young children relate to classmates with many types of disabilities,” Gattone says.
Circle of friends
One of the ways Gattone teaches children how to respond to people with epilepsy is to use a technique she calls “circle of friends.” She has children get in groups of four or five, asking each group to think of ways they can be a better friend to a child with a disability. “The ideas they come up with are amazing,” Gattone says. “They’ll say things like, ‘If Sally’s out playing by herself, we can go ask her to play with us.’”
“The discussion always comes around to disabilities other than epilepsy,” she continues. “A child will say, ‘My sister has asthma’ or ‘My uncle has diabetes,’ which helps promote acceptance of people with disabilities in general, not just epilepsy.”
Partnering with schools
Gattone offers these tips for parents of children with disabilities:
- Work as a team with your child’s school. “I try to encourage parents to stay very involved and work with the school to form a cohesive team,” Gattone says.
- Approach your child’s principal to see if your child qualifies for an individualized education program (IEP). The IEP creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities.
- Join a support group or a local foundation. Talking to other parents can uncover many different helpful ideas, Gattone suggests.
As they grow, few children want to be seen as different, but through education, children with disabilities — and their parents — can help classmates appreciate difference and see how many things in common they share.