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In my early college years, I took a course called, “The Psychology of Prejudice.” Prejudice is an incorrect attitude about someone based on their membership in a group. I feel like there is an awareness of religious and racial prejudice, but there seems to be limited awareness about prejudice against individuals with disabilities. This limited awareness may make it more difficult when teaching children acceptance of differences. In our society, I find that racial slurs are not tolerated -at least not publicly; however, slurs against individuals with disabilities may not be given a second thought. Calling someone a “retard” or a situation “retarded” should be just as offensive as any other derogatory term.
Although I do not remember specific sources, I do remember my instructor explaining that prejudice is a learned behavior. My class focused on racial prejudice and how to remediate this kind of bias. I believe the same concepts can be applied to prejudice agains any specific population and also be used for teaching children acceptance of others.
4 Tips for Teaching Children Acceptance
The following tips are based on my own understanding and experience of bias and how to teach children to accept differences. I also surveyed a few Facebook groups. Although few people responded, their input was valuable. The input received from other parents is also weaved into the tips below.
1) Be aware of and check your own bias
Everyone has some kind of bias. Be aware of your personal prejudice. Once you honestly recognize your own bias, you can take steps to minimize and hopefully eliminate personal prejudice from your attitude and language.
2) Provide accurate information about differences
I think it is a human tendency to fear differences. That fear can be removed through understanding. Be open with children about differences. Explain learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, autism, physical disabilities, and anything else that might come up. Provide accurate information. When possible, link this accurate information to a child’s personal experiences.
Explain that we all have things we are good at and things that are hard for us. It is okay to learn at different times and/or at different rates. For example, one child may pick up playing the piano with minimal effort, but another child may struggle with rhythms and reading music. Similarly, one child may learn to read with minimal effort, but another child may spend years struggling to decode words.
3) Be an example of acceptance and love
Some people believe human worth comes from God. Varying populations may have different beliefs about the source of human worth. Regardless, we are all part of the human family and can teach our children to accept others. Children will learn from the examples of the adults around them. If adults are fearful of differences, children will probably be too. If adults make shaming comments about others, children will learn that this is acceptable. In contrast, if adult comments and actions are compassionate, children will also learn to be compassionate. If adults are accepting of others who are different from them, children will also accept differences.
4) Provide exposure to those with differences
In my psychology of prejudice class, the instructor explained that one of the best ways to reduce prejudice was to have exposure to others in a neutral community setting. If children are exposed to children with differences (learning, behavior, or otherwise) from an early age, these differences will not be feared, they will be normal. Exposure can occur at church, in other community settings, or in inclusive classrooms.
When I taught public school, a few children from general education classes would come up to me and ask me about my autistic students. I would explain the things that some of my students liked and didn’t like. I would then ask the children what they liked and didn’t like. There were similarities! This inclusive environment of recess promoted a situation where the children could ask about my students. These same children were then interested in playing with my students.
In the video below, Amythest Shaber talks about “passing.” Later in the video, she explains how to normalize autistic behavior by exposing others to it. I find this video an excellent description on how to promote acceptance of others.
Summary of Teaching Children Acceptance
In summary, bias for individuals with difference, be it learning, behavior, physical, etc., may not be recognized as prejudice in the community. Shaming comments are not only hurtful, they also promote prejudice against populations with differences. Incorrect attitudes can be remediated by providing 1) accurate information, 2) examples of tolerance and acceptance, and 3) opportunities for exposure and interaction.