Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Parents and Teachers Can Turn Valentine's Day Into ValenKIND Day for Children with Autism and Other Special Needs

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Photo of decorated Valentine's Day cookies

Make inclusion and acceptance a priority this Valentine's Day. Photo by Amanda CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion for parents and educators to teach children with disabilities and their typically developing peers some valuable life lessons about kindness, inclusion and acceptance.

Everyone wants and deserves to feel respected, valued and welcomed. This Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for parents, teachers and other influencers in the lives of children, teens and young adults to positively impact some of the most vulnerable members of our society and to make our world a better place by engaging in a few small but powerful acts that can have a long-lasting positive effect.

Parents, you can start this Valentine’s Day off the right way making sure your child takes enough of whatever special tokens or treats they intend to take to school for their entire class. Explain that exclusion is not nice and that it hurts to feel alienated, excluded or left out. Tell your child you want them to make everyone they encounter feel respected and valued.

Plan ahead to make sure your child is equipped to engage in inclusive interactions with their fellow students. If you aren’t sure about how many classmates your child has (after all, class rosters do change to some extent throughout the school year), ask your child’s teacher for a list of names to include on Valentine’s cards and a count to make sure you provide enough treat bags. Remember, that some of your child’s classmates may spend some part of their school day in special classes. Make sure your child includes all of their classmates in their celebration plans, even those that don’t spend the entire day in a general education classroom. Be sure to familiarize yourself with and fully comply with all classroom and school rules regarding sending edible treats.

Teachers, make the most out of this important opportunity for teachable moments about diversity, inclusion, acceptance, tolerance, compassion, respect and kindness. Teachers, and their students, encounter all kinds of differences on a daily basis. It is absolutely critical to reinforce the importance of treating every human being with kindness and making everyone feel welcomed at all times. You can do this on Valentine’s Day by bringing extra cards, stickers, treats and supplies for making treat bags for students who may not have included all of their classmates on their distribution lists or who may not be able to afford to bring their own goodies to share.

Teachers can also incorporate books that promote acceptance, inclusion, tolerance and kindness into their curriculum as bibliotherapy, read alouds during literacy instruction or as part of character education. Some great books for teachers (and parents) to read and discuss with children around these topics are:

Accept and Value Each Person by Cheri J. Meiners

A Rainbow of Friends by P.K. Hallinan (available in an English and Spanish Edition)

Be A Friend by Salina Yoon

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller

Be Good to Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming

Extraordinary Friends by Fred Rogers

Say Hello by Jack Foreman

Two Speckled Eggs by Jennifer K. Mann

You Me and Empathy by Jayneen Sanders

I highly recommend that teachers who work with students on the autism spectrum in an inclusion setting read Making Inclusion Work for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders:An Evidence-Based Guide by Dr. Tristram Smith. Chapter 11, which is about peer interaction, is particularly useful when developing strategies for creating seamless inclusion in the classroom. 

School leaders and educators can collaborate to make inclusion a core value for their entire learning community by having students participate in activities that will give them opportunities to act with peers. For example, students in general education and specialized classrooms can work together to create theme bulletin boards, create greeting cards and exchange them with students they do not typically interact with, create a peer ambassadorship program wherein exemplary general education students would “adopt” a friend with special needs and help them to navigate the social landscape and develop friendships with typically developing peers, and encourage general education students to spend time with students with special needs during lunch and recess. The idea here is to create a school culture, climate and environment where inclusion and acceptance is the norm.

School and district level leaders can learn some valuable lessons about creating integrated, socially just schools and districts in Meeting the Needs of Students of ALL Abilities: How Leaders Go Beyond Inclusion 2nd Edition by Colleen Capper and Elise Frattura. This practical resource contains specific strategies for creating environments wherein students of all abilities can thrive.

If everyone works together and does their part, Valentine’s Day can easily become ValenKIND’s Day. Even better, it could become the catalyst for creating an ongoing culture of kindness.

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