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Breaking Ground 101 - Teaching Empathy: Helping My Daughter’s Classmates Learn about Disability

By Alison Bynum, Council on Developmental Disabilities, Mid-Cumberland Development District and 2018-19 Partners in Policymaking® Leadership Institute graduate
a teacher with blond hair sitting down in a classroom while she puts a hand up to her ear, as if to tell her students to speak up – she holds a book showing a photograph of a gorilla in a jungle. Next to her is Charlotte Bynum, Alison’s daughter, who is a young girl with pig tails and bright yellow scrunchies in her black hair, glasses, a colorful pink handkerchief around her neck and a smile as she sits in her wheelchair. Caption: Charlotte Bynum’s teacher interacts with her as they read together with her class
Charlotte Bynum’s teacher interacts with her as they read together with her class.

My daughter Charlotte is 11 years old. She loves riding horses, the movie Frozen, and going to church. She doesn’t communicate by speaking, and while she is learning to use an eye-gaze computer, she currently uses facial expressions to let us know how she is feeling.

Her multiple disabilities and complex medical needs are very different from the needs of most of her peers at school. Charlotte has been enrolled in public school since she turned three. Her first experience was an integrated classroom, full of students with special education needs and peer models who did not have special education needs. When she transitioned into elementary school, her time around peers without disabilities decreased dramatically. She now spends most of her day in the self-contained special education classroom, joining the students without disabilities a few times each day. 

I am not here to debate placement for every child, as that is a more complex topic. From what I saw, however, during Charlotte’s inclusion in the general education setting, I sensed a lack of connection between my daughter and her peers. She popped in and out of their classroom, but did not seem to be part of the group. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. She was present. She was THERE. 

Inclusion is not just about being near your peers. A seat at the table is just a seat at the table if no one talks to you. We have all had that experience of being present but not being a part. If only the other students knew all the things about Charlotte that she was not able to communicate without support, maybe things could be different. I wondered: What if I could just talk to them?

I approached Charlotte’s fourth grade teacher with an idea for a training at the beginning of the school year to help Charlotte’s classmates learn about her and her disability. I believed teaching the students about my daughter and her needs openly and honestly would promote empathy, or compassion and understanding. They would think about how it felt to be Charlotte.

The teacher was more than willing for me to come and spend 20 minutes with the class, leading group discussion on being alike and different, and what it means to be a team. Then we transitioned into empathy exercises to show specific physical challenges for their classmate.

We covered topics such as how her arms and wrists are drawn tight to her chest and had them role play this. We practiced not being able to extend your arms to pick up a lollipop in front of you, and how a partner could support you to achieve your goal of reaching the candy.

We talked about how muscles also control swallowing. We showed the suction machine that Charlotte uses so that it would not be alarming if it came on during their time together. We discussed: if swallowing isn’t an option, where does drool go? The students understood why Charlotte wears a scarf to protect her clothing and skin from getting wet.

To end our time together, I opened it up for questions and drove home the point: asking questions TO LEARN is always okay. Asking questions to be mean is NEVER okay. The students asked questions and listened for the answers.

This small investment of time in the beginning of the school year opened the door to many positive experiences for Charlotte over the year. Her friends were more engaged with her each day at school. A friend even became so concerned about there not being a way for Charlotte to use the playground that she wrote a letter to her principal asking for a new piece of inclusive playground equipment. Advocacy was an outcome I did not expect, but it was even better than I had hoped.

The concept of empathy training about a student can be duplicated in many settings by using these four steps. 

  1. Discussion Questions: What does it mean to be alike/different? What does the word “disability” mean to you?  What does it mean to be on a team?
  2. Student-Specific Education: Share how the student with a disability is alike to and different from their peers without disabilities. Share age-appropriate information about the student’s disabilities with permission.
  3. Empathy Exercise: Choose some role-playing empathy exercises that relate to the student’s disabilities, as a way to build understanding.
  4. Questions & Answers: Allow students to ask questions until they understand. Teach how to ask respectful questions.

At the beginning of fifth grade, I made the same request of Charlotte’s new teacher: an opportunity to do an empathy training. There were a few students who remembered the exercise from the previous year, and they became my assistants. The students asked more in-depth questions.

The level of support and friendship the students have offered has also increased with their maturity and growth. This year, Charlotte’s peers have worked with her as communication partners on her eye-gaze device. They have read books to her and even supported her by working hand over hand to complete tasks. On field trips, they have chosen to sit in areas that her wheelchair could also access and have brought materials to her so that she could touch and see.

The students asked their teacher if they could plan a surprise birthday party for Charlotte, because her birthday was happening over fall break. They brought items from home and assembled them as decorations. They wrote encouraging notes to Charlotte and put them in a gift bag, and they donated some of their “Bolt Bucks” earned through their own good behavior so that she could shop in the school store and choose a gift for herself! The smile on her face when she saw what they had done was one of sincere love and appreciation.

Through empathy trainings, my daughter enjoys being supported by her peers and has increased her self-worth and self-confidence. She engages in class more and contributes to her community. She is more awake and alert and even has improved school attendance during the last two school years. I hope sharing this simple exercise will help other students experience these same kinds of positive results, build empathy and understanding in schools, and more!

Alison Bynum is a freelance photographer and marketing consultant based in Smyrna. She and her husband, Brad, are active members of LifePoint Church, Stewarts Creek Campus.