When new children are about to start the year at Willard Elementary School in River Forest, Ill., they receive welcome letters, introductions from their teachers … and an email from a mother at the school explaining why her son looks different from other children his age.

“I explain that Conrad is our biological child, that he has a genetic mutation,” said Molly Grant of her 7-year-old son, who has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. “We discussed that using the term small stature or little person is accepted and respectful, but midget is not respectful.”

For children with disabilities, dealing with bullying, teasing and even whispering can make the first days of school or camp more difficult than regular first-day jitters. Parents like Grant are tasked with coming up with ways to help other children understand and accept their child’s differences.

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Grant said she initially sent the letter to parents at her son’s preschool after she got the idea from the Little People of America website, a nonprofit that provides information and support to people of short stature and their families.

Parents at Conrad’s preschool approached Grant to thank her for the letter and ask questions about Conrad’s condition. She gained the confidence to send a letter to all the kindergartners and their parents the following year. But it didn’t stop there.

When Conrad entered first grade at Willard, Grant asked the principal to send the letter to all incoming kindergartners and to any new students who may have transferred to the school.

“Many kids with disabilities can’t be their own self advocates, so it’s up to the adults,” said Barb Ziemke, a senior advocate at the Minneapolis-based PACER Center, an organization founded by parents of children with disabilities.

Ziemke has a son with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She said that when he was in elementary school, she would use story time in his class to talk to students about inclusion and how her son has a family just like everyone else.

“When he got older, he would have his deaf and hard-of-hearing (services) teacher go in and talk about why he wore his FM amplification system,” Ziemke said. “It’s a good example of something that’s going to look different, but when the other students would understand, they wouldn’t tease him.”

If a student didn’t comprehend her son’s situation, there would be a host of kids who were there to explain his condition to newcomers, Ziemke said.

The reason children are teased and bullied at school frequently comes down to kids being frightened by differences, said Meri Wallace, a New York-based child and family therapist, and author of “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old.”

Being able to interpret differences is a way to combat this issue, says Wallace, agreeing that a letter describing a child’s condition could be helpful if a parent feels comfortable with the idea.

Wallace said the letter should also focus on the child’s similarities. For example, emphasizing: “Yes, I’m small, but I can still climb trees,” is a way to show the child may be different but still is able to do what other young children can. She said the most important thing is that “the class get to know him as just a kid.”

Children are naturally curious about differences and will have questions.

“Parents need to work with their child on how to answer questions, how to explain what’s different about them and to tell them, ‘Child, listen, everyone is different. Some people wear glasses; some people wear braces,'” Wallace said.

The key, Wallace said, is answering those questions in a friendly, nonconfrontational manner that will effectively put their minds at ease, so that the children can look past the differences.

Learning to accept and understand differences isn’t solely the responsibility of parents and their children. School counselors, teachers and principals also are responsible for helping students with disabilities transition into school.

Durenda Johnson Ward, a school counselor at Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., said being prepared is important.

Ward said students with disabilities can gain confidence by attending their new school’s orientation or open house, so they’re familiar and excited about it.

“They should get their schedule, meet their teachers and walk through the building,” Ward said.

Meeting with individual teachers is a good way to address any potential problems.

For example, if a student finds that noise is overwhelming, the parent can ask the teacher if the child can have a pass to walk out of class whenever the noise becomes too much.

To help with uncomfortable situations outside of school, Ziemke’s friend carries around 3×5 cards explaining her son’s Angelman syndrome.

“It has a picture, and it was easier for her to hand it out as needed instead of explaining every time,” Ziemke said. “It depends on the family, their need and the child.”

© 2016 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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