by Dr. Richard Selznick~I have a distant memory that has always stayed with me. I was about five or six years old. My father was the director of a summer camp in the Catskills Mountains. There was a boy in the camp, named Marc. Marc was blind.
Marc rarely had the opportunity to interact or play with other children because of his disability. My father, being the child advocate and protector of the “underdog” that he was, made sure that Marc had a summer experience like all the other kids.
One example was free swim. When it was time for all of us to get in the water, with my father’s support, Marc got to horse around with the others, getting splashed and having wild fun. Marc was in there like the others.
Even at my young age I saw the glee and the unbridled joy of belonging – of being in the water like everyone else, of participating, of not feeling like an outsider, of not being picked on or bullied.
This was long before anyone ever heard of 504 Plans or IEPs. Yet, my father was able to intuitively accommodate Marc and give him access in a way that he rarely experienced.
Having lunch at the Principal’s office
Years later, my dad was a school principal on Staten Island. When I was a fledgling school psychologist I was often in his school. The school was an exuberant place. Typically, there was all kinds of commotion in the school. There were times when I observed certain kids going in his office to freely use his bathroom. Sometimes they would come in with their lunch and sit down in his office and eat there.
I would question my dad why the kids had such free access to his office. “What kind of show are you running here,” I asked. “How come these kids are trucking in and out like they own your office?”
He explained, “Well, some kids can’t handle lunch. There’s too much commotion and they need a safe place to decompress. Plus, they might get picked on in the lunch room. Same thing with the bathrooms – it’s intimidating for some kids. They need to feel safe or else they would hate school.”
Targets of Bullying & Surveying the Landscape
Special needs children are often the target of bullying. They are excluded, ostracized and ridiculed more than other children. While 504 plans and other safeguards can be helpful, what they need above all are compassionate adults who can take an appropriate action and recognize what the child needs to be a part of the mainstream. They need adults who have the instinct and understanding that my father showed the kids that were under his care.
To help kids who are likely to be ostracized or targeted, the adults (i.e., teachers, parents ) need to survey the landscape and see what’s what. Who’s likely to be picked on? Where are the hot spots? What are the situations that will contribute to a child feeling ostracized, overwhelmed , humiliated, embarrassed?
Reducing the Odds/Leveling the Playing Field:
Once the adult identifies those problem areas, then key questions can be asked. What can be done to level the playing field for the kids or reduce the odds that they will be bullied, ostracized or embarrassed? What can be done to give that child more complete access? What can the adult do to intervene to make sure that those things do not happen?
These are the fundamental questions.
For the kids who have trouble protecting themselves or who can’t easily fit in the mainstream, these are the questions that should be asked recognizing that the solutions are never easy.
Asking the key questions is a great step in the right direction.