As early childhood educators it is important to teach tolerance, acceptance, and compassion. We must acknowledge differences in ways that are open, kind and respectful. When we do this, we help children see who people are instead of what a person can or cannot do. My children were raised with people with disabilities as part of their everyday lives. They also attended a preschool where differences were acknowledged and embraced. Thanks to these opportunities, my youngest son, Dylan, does not see “differences” as a barrier; he is able to adapt himself in order to cultivate relationships.
Although I did not realize it then, the teachers in Dylan’s preschool (myself included), implemented principles of universal design. Universal Design focuses on removing barriers and meeting people where they are. We, as a staff, highlighted and embraced differences. Children were not all treated the same. Rather, we adapted ourselves to remove barriers and create opportunities for each child to succeed. When Dylan was five, he transitioned into Kindergarten and brought these skills with him. That is where this story begins.
During his first two weeks of school, Dylan constantly talked about his new friend Lex. He was excited to attend parent night in order for his dad and I to meet Lex’s parents. Upon seeing each other that evening, Dylan and Lex ran to each other for an embrace while Lex’s parents trailed behind. I could see the apprehension in Lex’s mother’s face. Lex introduced Dylan to his family, and Dylan, knowing that Lex’s parents were deaf, instantly adapted in a way that created an opportunity for success and the beginning of a relationship…. He signed, “Hi, my name is Dylan.” The apprehension left Lex’s mother’s face, she smiled, her eyes lit up, and you could see she was excited for her son and Dylan.
Dylan and Lex’s relationship continued to grow and flourish. Lex is a hearing child of deaf adults, commonly referred to as a CODA in the deaf community. Because Lex lived close by and they were classmates, Dylan had more opportunities to practice his emerging sign skills. Two months into the school year I received a call from Dylan’s teacher saying we needed to talk. She explained that she valued the relationship they were developing, yet there were some struggles that were emerging in the classroom, “They are not talking, during “quiet time” however they are signing, and it is a distraction to others.”
As Dylan and Lex’s friendship grew, they came to realize how similar they were even though their families were culturally different. They shared the same birthday, neither were willing to have sleepovers for the same reasons, and quite honestly, they could have passed for siblings. There came a point in their relationship where Dylan felt uncomfortable “speaking” at all in front of Lex’s parents. He felt like it was rude to exclude them from the conversation, urging him to step further out of his comfort zone and sign more.
Although Dylan and Lex now live far apart, they have stayed in contact and are still good friends. Dylan’s ability to recognize and adapt to differences has been a consistent theme throughout his life. He is 16 years old, and I still have interactions with parents and teachers who are astonished and grateful for his compassionate nature. He was given this gift as a young child. We can, and should, offer the same gift to all of the children in our care.
North Central Region Professional Learning Facilitator