Sonya Stemkoski, one of Woodland Intermediate School’s special education teachers, along with her colleague Felicity Ottis, an occupational therapist for Woodland Public Schools, taught parents from the Woodland Co-Op Preschool lessons to educate their children on ways to respect and treat people with disabilities.
Sonya and Felicity taught parents the importance of recognizing differences without specifically focusing on them. “Instead of focusing on what’s ‘different’ about someone, explain to your child why someone needs assistance,” explained Sonya. “For example, if someone is in a wheelchair, simply tell your child that the person needs the wheelchair to help them walk just like we need our legs to walk.”
The presentation also covered the importance of knowing that every person is different – even those who share the same type of disability. “Just because you know one child with autism doesn’t mean those views can be expanded to all children with autism,” said Sonya. “Making sure our kids understand that everyone is unique is an important step to recognizing how each person contributes to making our society interesting – we’re all people.”
The pair offered suggestions of different vocabulary for parents to use when talking with their kids about disabilities. “For instance, use ‘typical’ instead of ‘normal’ and discourage the use of negative words like ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ – keep the conversation positive,” said Sonya. “Selecting our words carefully is a very small change in our behavior, but using different words carries entirely different tones and meaning.”
Following the presentation, parents took part in role-playing exercises to prepare for conversations with their children about respecting differences
Sonya and Felicity also discussed the differences between fair and equity. “Making sure something is fair isn’t necessarily what we all need,” explained Sonya. “Equity is the approach of ensuring those who need more receive more – everybody is different – just because Jimmy needs a bandage doesn’t mean everyone in class gets a bandage.” Following their presentation, the two guided parents through role-playing exercises so parents could practice for when their children ask them questions and provided a reading list of books so parents could learn more.
Now entering her sixth year as a special education teacher for Woodland Public Schools, Sonya discovered her desire to work with children with disabilities in high school. Kim Donald, the president of Woodland Co-Op Preschool, invited Sonya to give the presentation for the cooperative’s parents. “When Kim asked if I would come speak, I jumped at the chance,” said Sonya. “I love that these kinds of activities are happening in Woodland because they help spread awareness.”
Felicity realized her passion working with children while doing field work in a district as part of her occupational therapy training. “I enjoy working with people of all ages, but it wasn’t until my time in schools when I realized I wanted to focus entirely on working with children.”
The presentation was part of ongoing parental education by the Woodland Preschool Co-Op, an independent program from Woodland Public Schools. “As a district, we’re always looking for ways to reach out and support our community by offering educational programs like this one,” said Jake Hall, Executive Director of Learning Supports and Alternatives for Woodland Public Schools. “Presentations like these support Woodland Public Schools’ vision of partnering with families and the community to create an educational system that serves and supports all children.”
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