There are many ways that teachers and school administrators can create a culture that fosters kindness and leaves no room for bullying. Tolerance is one of the key skills that schools can help instill in children.
Teaching tolerance can come in many different forms. You can create specific curriculums and events around disability awareness months, such as Down Syndrome month in October. Invite speakers in to classrooms to highlight individuals with disabilities who have made a positive impact in their community. Talk about bullying of students with special needs as a civil rights issue, and make connections to other civil rights. Talk about the R-word with students, and explore the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. Give students something actionable they can do, by asking them to call out uses of hateful or derogatory speech.
Keep reading for a few stories of real schools who are implementing Ability Awareness programs
In Pacifica, CA parents, educators and administrators have successfully implemented an Ability Awareness Day, dedicated to bringing awareness about students with special needs. The day is filled with educational programs culminating in an afternoon of experiential learning. In the afternoon, the students are able to touch, play and experience the world of switches and other technology that helps children and youth with various disabilities. Wheelchairs and other equipment are also provided and fun activities to do while using such equipment is demonstrated. The event has been offered for more than 10 years and is a testament to a strong collaborative partnership between parents and educators.
In Burlingame, CA an entire week is dedicated to Ability Awareness. Originally started by parents of children with special needs, the program has dramatically expanded since its inception. From the beginning the concept had tremendous buy in from the superintendent and administrators, helping to make it a true community program. Each elementary school has a “treasure chest” complete with books, reading lists and activities to promote ability awareness and respect. A Kids on The Block puppet show is performed in Kindergarten classes that center around a boy with cerebral palsy, who is proud and excited to show off his wheelchair to students. First thru third graders participate in hands-on activities provided by Community Gatepath that demonstrate what it might be like to have limited dexterity, speech and vision as well as an exercise in what it might be like to have a learning disability like dyslexia. Students discuss their feelings and despite the challenges they encounter many see that they CAN do things but they might do them differently and at a different pace. In the junior high, a collection of powerful videos are shown in class that demonstrate ability. A couple years ago, a sibling in high school produced a podcast about growing up with her brother—which was moving and captured the tween audience. An art poster competition is now also included into the event. Burlingame’s Ability Awareness week brings together the community—parents, schools and community partners and culminates into a “Spirit Night” at the middle school to celebrate ability!
Social and Emotional Learning Curriculums (SEL) are also a great way to teach tolerance
Social and emotional learning (SEL) assists children to develop fundamental skills to effectively handle school, relationships and personal development. Examples may include managing emotions, caring for others, decision making and handling situations ethically. New research provides dramatic evidence that social and emotional learning can be taught, just like geometry and Spanish.
High-quality SEL programs led to significant improvements in students’ social and emotional skills, in attitudes about self and others, and in classroom behavior. Programs were also associated with substantial decreases in conduct problems and emotional distress such as anxiety and depression—all of which are part of the bullying phenomenon. Academic scores also improved significantly—by as much as 11 percentile points. Educators realized that SEL doesn’t interfere with academic learning but helps it.
Because social and emotional components factor into why children bully other students, the ability to teach them behavioral skills, many of which are part of SEL, can reduce the incidence of bullying – no matter if the victim is a child with special needs or neurotypical student. Vreeman and Carroll (2007) concluded in a report that the most effective anti-bullying programs are those that take a “whole-school approach” such as SEL. Social awareness and relationship skills also aid in the prevention of bullying, either by the better understanding of a student’s differences or intervention by bystanders to support the victim.
For more information and ideas about teaching tolerance, check out the resources below
Starabella was created by the Fialco family based on the experiences of their daughter Tara, a self-taught pianist and composer who deals with autism. The audio-picture books follow the story of a courageous little girl with learning differences who expresses her thoughts and feelings and reflections of the world around her through music. Books one and two focus on Starabella at home and in her community. Book Three, "Starabella: Welcome to a Bright New World" offers a new way to deal with bullying, and can be used to teach school children about coming together as a classroom "family" to solve everyday social conflict situations.
The Autism Acceptance Book is an interactive, educational and character-building book that introduces children to the challenges faced by people with autism while also supporting their personal journey toward appreciating and respecting people's differences. The 62-page spiral-bound book offers educational information, conversation-starters, and engaging exercises that invite children to “walk in someone else's shoes” as they learn to treat others the same ways they would like to be treated themselves. This book is ideal for use in classrooms, camps, and other group settings. A free Teacher’s Guide is also available to help teachers maximize the impact of the book.