Talking with and about Children with Special Needs

Working with children who have special needs can be rewarding, and including children with special needs in your child care program can help all children learn. As a child care provider, you can set a tone of respect for all children by choosing your words carefully when you talk about children with disabilities.

Choosing Your Words Carefully

The words you use to describe special needs set the tone in your child care program. The children you care for will pick up the words you use, and will learn how to think about people who are different. The term “disability” or the phrase “special need” communicates more respect for a person with special needs than the word “handicap,” which focuses on something that is “wrong” with the person. In fact, many people like to speak in terms of children with “different abilities” rather than “disabilities.”

Here are some guidelines child care providers can use when talking with or about children who have special needs:

  • Use “child-first” language. When talking about a special need, always put the child first, before the disability. Talking about a “child with a special need” is more appropriate than a “special-needs child,” because it emphasizes that he or she is a child first.
  • Be sure to name or describe the disability, rather than label the child, when you talk about a child with a special need. Two specific examples may make this clearer.
    • Rather than say: “I have a Down’s Syndrome child” say “I care for a child who has Down’s Syndrome.” The first example tends to make others think of the disability first, the second example seems to say that the disability is just one characteristic of the child.
    • Rather than say “I care for a deaf child.” Say “I care for a child who doesn’t hear well.” The second example is better because children typically have a range of hearing loss. Every child is unique, and every disability impacts a child’s life a little differently.
  • Never ask, “What’s wrong with her?” Instead, ask, “What is her special need, and how can I help her?”
  • Talk about strengths and abilities. Children with special needs have many unique abilities. Their disability is only one part of their lives, and does not define everything about them. Be sure you notice and talk about the things they do well and the ways they are growing and changing. Talking about strengths sends the message that children with special needs are capable. Everyone needs to hear this message clearly — the child with special needs, the other children and the families.
  • Teach children in your child care program the appropriate words to talk about disabilities. Teach them how to speak respectfully to people with disabilities, and ways to offer help with courtesy. Encourage them to pay attention to what a child with a disability does well, instead of just the disability.
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