how to become part of aaron’s village

IMG_4522I had a super response on Twitter after the Hopeful School post. One of the dads at Aaron’s school replied to me: “We would be happy to be part of Aaron’s village.”

I was thinking about before Aaron was born, and how I would have had no idea how to approach a child with some sort of disability or difference. There was a girl with Down syndrome in Ella’s grade one class when I was pregnant with Aaron. I remember being nine months pregnant and volunteering in class, and this girl sitting in my (limited) lap while I read to her.

But did I chat with her mom in the hall? Did we invite the girl over to our house for a playdate? I am ashamed to say no, I did not. And why was that? It wasn’t spiteful or mean – it was worse than that – I never even considered including her or her mom in my world. I totally overlooked them. I was afraid – afraid that I’d say the wrong thing, afraid I wouldn’t understand the little girl when she spoke, afraid that I wouldn’t understand her needs if she came over. My own fear made her invisible to me.

Now, I’m not trying to force kids to be friends with my son. But I think we could always nurture more kindness and acceptance in our communities. Sometimes kids need reminders to include kids who are different, because differences can be scary to them.

Falling in the category of, “if I had known then what I know now” – here are some friendly suggestions for other parents and kids in Aaron’s school to join his village:

In the hallway or playground:
1. Smile!
2. Say ‘Hi’ to Aaron
3. Use his name.
4. High five.
5. Introduce yourself if he’s forgotten or doesn’t know your name.

Smiling and saying ‘hi Aaron’ means a lot, and nurtures a kind community.

In the classroom, think about:
1. Slowing down to walk with Aaron (he’s often at the end of the line).
2. Volunteering to sit with him or be his partner or be in his group.
3. Finding out what you have in common with him and talk about it! Aaron loves many of the same things as you do: Minecraft, Xbox 1, sports.
4. Sitting with him on the school bus at field trips.
5. Also, if you can’t understand what he’s saying, ask him to repeat himself or to show you what he means.

At recess, you could:
1. Figure out what sports and games he can keep up with, and consider playing those every once in a while.
2. Invite Aaron to play with you. If he’s says no, that’s no big deal, you can try again tomorrow. Sometimes he’s shy and needs help to understand how to be a good friend.

For parents:
1. Explain to your kids that some kids learn differently than they do, and that’s OK. Some kids are born that way, and they need extra help. I believe in talking about this stuff, and not ignoring it and pretending that everybody is the same – because we aren’t.
2. But also emphasize how other kids are the same as they are, as opposed to always talking about weaknesses or differences.
3. Model kindness and acceptance in your own life of people who are different.
4. Invite questions from your kids. Us parents are happy to answer questions, too – just ask!
5. Ask your child to consider inviting other kids over for playdates or to birthdays. We will let you know what kind of adaptations our child needs, or we will help with supervision if required.

The research tells us this:
“Adolescents who had social experiences with peers with severe disabilities perceived that as a result of these interactions:
• their self-concept improved;
• they grew in social cognition;
• they were more tolerant of others;
• fear of human differences was reduced;
• they developed personal principles; and
• they developed relaxed and accepting friendships.”
-Peck, Donaldson, and Pezzoli (1990)

I wish that I had encouraged diverse friendships for my older two kids when they were little. I know that their little brother has taught them about differences and acceptance.  I think there’s a great chance for all kids to learn about kindness and tolerance right in their own school communities.

I’m grateful to all those who share an interest in joining Aaron’s village. It starts with something as simple as a smile and saying ‘hi’ in the hall. We welcome you with open arms.

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