According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11% of children aged 6 to 14, about 4 million children, have a disability. Although many of these students attend special schools, with the legislation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2007, more and more students with special needs are now being included in the “regular” classroom.

The bill covers a lot of ground. "Disabled" students may have anything from a learning disability to a physical disability that requires special equipment such as a walker or wheelchair. Students with special needs may require accommodations or modifications to classwork (like shortened assignments, large print books, notetakers), special presentations (such as sign language), or one-on-one assistance from special education teachers and assistants.

As a special education teacher with over twenty years experience, I know that no kid wants to feel different. For the student with special needs, all this attention can be embarrasing, let alone having to leave the classroom for instruction in special education. What's more, non-disabled peers may be reluctant to include them in conversations or in activities on the playground. In some instances, lack of understanding can result in hurtful remarks. So how can parents guide their kids to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of their classmates with special needs? Here are some tips:

  • Encourage them to find common ground. No two people are alike, but everyone has something in common. Regardless of differences, it's important to encourage children to look for things that they can relate to in others. Do both students adore the classroom hamster? Are both great basketball players? Finding common ground builds character and strengthens interactions between children.

  • Teach them to ask questions. It's almost always okay to ask about the experience of a disabled peer. The key is to be considerate and respectful of when, where, and how those questions are asked. Everyone wants to be understood. When children learn to see beyond the mystery of a disability, communication and understanding can blossom.

  • Ask them to lend a hand.  When a child leaves for a special session outside the classroom she can miss important information. Encourage your child to show responsibility in assisting the returning student. Ask your child to think about a time when he missed school because of sickness. The teacher and other students probably helped him catch up on material he missed. Ask him to return the favor, by sharing notes or assignments with a child who's been out of the classroom.

  • Don't just discuss weaknesses, point out strengths. Each person has his unique strengths and weaknesses. The boy who leaves for special education instruction may also be the top soccer player in the class. The girl with the walker may be the best artist. Encourage your child to seek strengths in his classmates and to respect each person for who he is.

  • Lead by example. Parents always have the opportunity to teach by example. How do you feel about your child’s enrollment in a class with special needs peers? Do you welcome the thought of smaller class size when some students are away? Do you remember the total head count when planning for class treats? Your actions and words will tell your child how to respond to his classmates. So lead the way!