We human beings find our identity as part of a group.
As much as we want to fiercely believe that we are independent, individual and not led by the crowd, the vast majority of us strive to fit in. We’re a business person, a parent, a certain socio-economic status. We’re a blue-collar worker, a student, the sporty type. It’s comfortable, so we predominantly keep within the social confines of those groups. But what do we do when we encounter someone who is different – a minority?
Most kiwis like to believe that we’re pretty accepting of people from diverse backgrounds: we’ve embraced ethnic cuisine, we encourage our kids to join a school cultural group or we may donate to charities that support people with disabilities.
But CCS Disability Action disability leadership coordinator for the southern region Prudence Walker says that raising kids to go a step further than acceptance and to start to include others who don’t fit the same cookie-cutter mould is essential for them, and for those who need to be included.
“I think it’s about realising that we are all different in society. Even if we fit into the mainstream or the norm of society, we are all different anyway.
“Having an impairment is just another difference. There’s often a bit of fear that goes around people who have impairments, so it’s really important for kids to realise that it’s just another difference – it’s not a big deal, it’s just people.”
The heartbreak of kids who experience exclusion has been covered in newspaper stories and social media posts in recent times.
Take for example the Nicastros’ story: their 8-year-old autistic son insisted on inviting his entire school class to his birthday celebration for the third year in a row, although he had never received a single RSVP. His parents couldn’t bear to see his tears again, so they invited his heroes – the local police department – to his birthday instead.
What resulted was a very happy child, according to Today.com. However, Walker says it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of being included by peers.
“If you already have a difference that’s judged in society or you are marginalised, then it’s even more important to feel included with your peers because it’s reflecting that you’re okay; you have value.”
Inclusion – it starts early
Research shows that 3-month-old babies can notice differences in appearance.
Developmental psychologist Kristina Olson said that was completely normal for kids. Her research into race for Yale University deduced that the important thing was how parents taught their children about those differences.
A vast majority of parents avoided the subject, according to Psychology Today, so their children were left to determine that meaning on their own. The parents’ objective was usually to model that race and skin colour were not important, but the opposite conclusion was usually reached according to Olson.
“Children often learn very quickly that simple questions or comments about these observations are shut down, stopped, and hushed with incredible velocity. Children become aware that this topic must be important because unlike their other questions, these ones go unanswered and leave their parents with looks of worry.”
A model for inclusion
Inclusion of others who are a minority – whether it be a physical or intellectual disability, race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status – starts in the home according to Olson’s research.
“Four to 5-year-old children of parents who have more diverse friends show less racial bias than the children of parents who have less diverse friends.” She wrote. “What is more, a study done by Bar-Haim and colleagues in 2006 showed that growing up in a multi-racial environment versus a mono-racial one produced differences in race-based responding in children only 3-months of age.”
Inclusion in education
New Zealand schools are also starting to intently focus on encouraging inclusion.
Cobham Intermediate is “very much a multicultural school,” according to international homestay coordinator Bronwyn Shalfoon.
The school currently hosts nine full-time international students and has hosted as many as 25 in the past. They also host short-term international groups and have many migrant children from a range of countries as well as students with Maori and Pasifika backgrounds.
Cobham makes sure every international student has a local buddy, and actively facilitates including them into school life. The most important thing for internationals, Shalfoon said, was that they didn’t want to be seen as internationals. They just wanted to belong.
Shalfoon believes that hosting international students is beneficial Kiwi kids and their families. They learned about other cultures and how to assimilate with a range of people.
“Students are starting to hear more and more that they are going to grow up to become global citizens. To help prepare our students, we need to ensure that they are effective communicators who care about our planet and display a range of values such as respect and kindness.”
Those thoughts are echoed by CCS Disability Action disability leadership coordinator for the southern region Prudence Walker.
“There are always different opinions about inclusion. When you have specific needs there are always plusses and minuses to that. But everybody is a person and everybody has the same value as having human life. Why would we ever think that people should not be included?”
CCS Disability Action recognises that it’s not always easy to include kids with disabilities in schools, but that there is help available. Its philosophy is that it’s good for children and young people to learn together. That way, they can learn to make friends with others who are a minority and to respect differences, rather than be afraid of them.
We’ve got parenting covered at Family Times. Check out our parenting section for more articles.