An integrated classroom can teach a healthy, positive understanding of individual likenesses and differences. Young children learn through play. Children learn by interacting with objects and people in their environment, asking questions, and receiving positive feedback. For optimal social development, it is important that children receive positive and honest answers to their questions.
From the very beginning of an inclusive program, parents of normally developing children will ask, "How do we answer our children's questions about ?" the response is, " Be short and brief, positive and honest." This theory is supported by H. James Holroyd, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and advisor to Mattel, who stated, " It's just like questions about sex. Answer the immediate question; don't explain the universe."
Sometimes children ask questions and sometimes they don't. Very young children (2 1/2 to 3 years) often watch and observe rather than ask questions. Older children (3 to 5) are more able to express themselves verbally and to formulate their observations into questions. Children at every stage are developing and refining their understanding of feelings. They need to know that questions are okay. It's important never to hush a question or ignore it. This could cause a child frustration, embarrassment, and confusion.
Questions seem to occur in one of four contexts:
A child asks a child. Often children answer each other's questions in a more satisfying and understandable way than an adult would. One child with an ileostomy was asked by a peer, "How come ya' still wear diapers?" The child's response was, "The doctor told me to." No adult interference was necessary. The question was answered briefly and to the point, and the questioner was satisfied.
A child asks a child and an adult intervenes. At other times, adults may feel the need to step in and reword questions or guide answers. For example:
Susie: "Johnny, clap your hands!"
Kathy: "He can't clap his hands."
Susie: Why not?"
Teacher: "He can with help. Maybe we can help him."
Stepping in with a positive answer and a solution will help children see similarities between themselves and the child who has a disability. (Johnny can clap like me, even if he needs help.) The child with the disability will feel similar to, rather than different from, the other children. (I can clap like they do, even if I do need a little help.)
Another strategy might be to give the child an alternative to clapping, such as banging on the table with his hands. The other children may learn that people can participate in an activity together and enjoy being in a group, even if they participate differently.
A child asks an adult. Some questions will be directed at adults in the classroom:
Q: "How come Johnny can't walk?"
A: "His muscles aren't strong enough."
Q: "Why can't Susie stomp her feet?"
A: "She can if she sits down, or if we help her."
Q: "Why does Leroy use that switch?"
A: "So he can take turns with the computer, too.
These examples illustrate positive problem solving. Keep answers short and pertinent to the situation at hand. Taking turns with the computer is not the only reason why Leroy uses a switch. Perhaps another child would continue to question, " But why doesn't he use his hands to push the keys?" The teacher could continue by saying, " Because the switch works better for him."
A child asks a child and then an adult. One child may ask another child, not receive an answer, then look to an adult to answer. You may help the child who was originally asked to answer the question. For example, Bill, a child with a mild physical disability, had his pant leg rolled up, exposing his brace. Sarah asked, " What's that?" Bill looked at the teacher for help, and the teacher said, "Go ahead and tell her." He said, "It's my brace." Kara, another normally developing child, asked, "What does it do?" Bill replied, "It hurts." Then the teacher whispered to him to say, " It helps me walk." That statement satisfied everyone. Bill's answer was honest, but it was also important that the teacher help him continue his answer to include the positive function of the brace.
Inclusive classrooms are catalysts in bringing together two groups of children in a setting where likenesses are reinforced and differences are accepted. Within these classrooms, children evolve, develop, and change their ideas. By fostering social interactions among preschoolers, teachers break down barriers of prejudice at an early age.
This page is adapted with permission from: Early Education Team, the Capper Foundation (1990). Project Kidlink: Bringing together disabled and nondisabled preschoolers. Tucson, AZ: Communication Skill Builders.