At some point in your child’s schooling career, they’ll have a classmate with a disability. While physical disabilities are obvious to children, it’s the less apparent impairments or disabilities that make things a challenge when explaining to your child why their class mate may seem a little different.

Much about how our children treat their peers with special needs starts at home. Behaviour hinges on parents’ attitudes and how they teach values of kindness, empathy and inclusivity to their children. Just as you nurtured your son or daughter when they began to make friends, you can encourage your child to learn about and become friends to special needs children.

  1. Encourage curiosity

Children are naturally inquisitive and can be encouraged to find out about the differences and similarities of their potential new friend. Openly discuss questions that are raised by your child if they’re curious. Not only does this teach your child that it is normal to notice physical differences, but it also teaches them that it is acceptable to talk about them. Talk about the things your child and the special needs child have in common, such as, “Do they both have eyes?” “Do they have hair?” Or even, “Do you think that little boy/girl has feelings?”

  1. Teach your child to reach out

Teach your children to smile and to say hello, instead of telling them “not to stare”. Encourage them to do so without expecting a response – reassure them that it doesn’t mean their act of reaching out went unnoticed or was unwelcomed. A gesture that may seem insignificant could mean a great deal to a special needs child who is often unintentionally overlooked by able-bodied people, in their efforts to be polite.

  1. Motivate your child to be accepting

Talk to your children regularly about their friends at school. Children are brutally honest and most love to share what they know about their friends, which may give you an idea if any of their friends have a disability. If your child wants to have a play date with a special needs child, encourage it and extend an invite to their parents – such interactions will facilitate a friendship that could blossom.


  1. Take action against bullying

Bullying in schools is rife and it’s often the special needs children who bear the brunt of it. Sometimes all it takes to end a pattern of bullying is for a strong person to stand up and say something. Take action against bullying by encouraging your child to be the better person – to reach out and be a friend.

  1. Lead by example

Our children watch our every move and can sense mom or dad’s feelings. Acting awkwardly or nervously in the presence of children with disabilities can have the same effect on how your children feel and behave. By responding positively and lovingly when engaging with a special needs child, your son or daughter will follow your lead and do the same.

  1. Keep things simple

Don’t overcomplicate things by using big words or by being too descriptive. Try to use clear, respectful language when talking about someone with disabilities. Parents can provide age-appropriate knowledge and explanations that children won’t necessarily be taught outside of home. Keep explanations simple, such as, “She uses a wheelchair because a part of her body does not work as well as it could.”

At Sunshine Centre, we support children with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, their families and communities. The idea of the centre was born in 1976 and since then, various dedicated and remarkable men and women have given the Sunshine children the best possible start to life and have helped them grow to their greatest potential.

For more information about the Sunshine Association or to find out how you can make a difference in the life of a child with special needs, please contact 011 642 2005 or send an email to info@sunshine.org.za.