It occurred to me that being asked to address nurturing compassion was actually a Divine calling. After all, what is God's work about if not accepting human frailty and nurturing compassion?


Today more than 20 million families in the United States have a child with special needs.  What's more, two laws -- P.L. 99-157, passed in 1975 and P.L. 99-457, passed in 1986 -- state that children with disabilities have the right to a "free, appropriate, public education."  Therefore, more children with special needs are being mainstreamed into public schools. This can present problems.


First of all, too often, those without special needs feel uncomfortable around a classmate who seems out-of-sync or different.  They can translate their discomfort into ugly behaviors, such as verbally demeaning or physically hurting the individual with differences.  It's our job as parents to teach our youngsters to tolerate those with limitations.  Here are some specific ways we can help.


  • Emphasize that kids with physical or mental disabilities may appear different on the outside, but have the same feelings as everyone else.  Remind them that we all have challenges, but theirs are more apparent. 


  • Find a way to make your child feel grateful for his abilities. "It's important for the child to realize that he can and should help another who may not be as fortunate as he is," says Bonnie Senner, a licensed clinical social worker in Highland Park, Il..  "Remember that helping others is the best way to make you feel good about yourself."


  • It's normal for children, who are still developing emotionally, to erroneously fear a child who looks or acts different as someone who has a contagious disease.  Reassure them that the condition is not harmful.


  • Look for attributes that the child with special needs may have.  Maybe Johnny can't walk, but he can play an instrument.  A good example of this is world-famous, master violinist Itzhak Perlman, who had polio at age 4 that left him unable to walk.  He became a violinist.  Many children with issues have wisdom and insight beyond their years that helps everyone.  The key is to look for the person's strengths and point them out.


  • Give your child insight. Kids with special needs can behave improperly which inhibits friendships. Explain that often, kids with special needs who act out can't control their behaviors because of neurological or other problems.  To further help him understand the inappropriate behavior, say that Johnny is bragging or acting angry from his own insecurities and unhappiness.  The repeated and unfair rejections that Johnny has experienced throughout his life have left him feeling shaky and upset.  Understanding can breed acceptance.