An Early Experience with Learning Tolerance


My elementary school mainstreamed children living with disabilities, and I remember interacting with these children each year of my elementary school life. In my fifth-grade class, we had a girl with Down syndrome (we’ll call her Abbey) who was picked on a lot. I don’t remember the things we said or did to her, but we taunted her because she loved everyone, and we couldn’t believe how she could so easily like the kids who were mean to her and be glad to see us the next day. I often felt thankful it was her, not me, who was being picked on (I was also bullied at school frequently), and I wasn’t confident enough to speak up on her behalf.

One day, after a week in which we’d been particularly mean to this girl, her older brother—a middle schooler at the time—came in and spoke to us. He talked about his own struggles growing up with a sibling whom the world saw as “special,” and also the joys that came with it. He talked about ways he’d learned to interact with her, and how it made him feel to see her come home from school sad so many days. I don’t know why he, rather than a parent or school psychologist, had been selected to talk to us about his sister. Maybe the adults thought we’d relate to him better than to yet another adult telling us how to behave. Maybe he volunteered himself.

I do know that, after this talk, we were nicer to Abbey. We’d been given tools to understand how to help her, how to be kinder to her, how to understand the way she functioned in the world. We’d been sat down as a community and asked to support her—in other words, given the opportunity to make our own decisions about how to conduct ourselves after being advised on what tools worked best.

I think about Abbey from time to time, and the service her family provided—to her and to us—by sending her brother in to speak to us. His presentation was a form of disclosure meeting, a communication designed to nurture our compassion by informing us and helping us connect with the emotional pain Abbey felt when we bullied her. It was appropriate for our developmental space.

As an educator in nontraditional environments, I work with students of varying abilities. Sometimes families disclose to me their children’s needs and abilities, but I also see parents, guardians and siblings who are in denial that their children are different or who want their children to be treated like everyone else (for better or worse) so that they aren’t called out for being “different.”

I do what I can to build relationships with all families because, as with Abbey, the more I know about how my students’ differing abilities affect them and what circumstances trigger strong emotions, the more compassionate and effective I can be as their teacher. Often it’s a matter of observing and asking questions again and again. “I’ve noticed your child works well with one-on-one attention.” “How do you de-escalate your child when he’s beginning to threaten other youth?” “Your child seems to like to move around a lot while learning. Are there particular physical activities that help her refocus when she get upset?”

These questions, so far, have shown families that I want to see their children succeed. I’m fortunate to work in an environment where my co-workers and I can disclose information to one another about the youth we work with, where we can come together to provide the resources and skills we each have to help our students, and one another, succeed.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.