The Movie "Wonder" Demonstrates the Power of Kindness

Here are five tips to teach your children to accept those who are different.

Posted Dec 11, 2017

By guest contributors Jonathan Emmons, Michelle Demaray, Christine Malecki, and Julia Ogg

Children who have disabilities inevitably encounter unique and difficult challenges while growing up, but bullying shouldn’t be one of them.

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Source: Thinkstock

As a parent, you can do something about it by ensuring that you instill the quality of kindness in your own children.

Some disabilities might be visible, as highlighted in the new cinematic drama “Wonder.” It’s based on the New York Times bestseller by Raquel J. Palacio about the first mainstream school experience of Auggie, a fifth-grade boy with a craniofacial disorder. Craniofacial disorders may cause significant health problems for youth, but most noticeable to peers is the different facial appearance.

Disabilities that are visible in a person’s physical characteristics, or through their speech or behavior, can lead other students to bully them, as is the case with Auggie. Other disabilities are less visible, such as a learning disabilities or behavior disorders, but might still result in bullying. In fact, children with disabilities are bullied in schools and online about twice as often as children without disabilities (Rose, Simpson, & Moss, 2015).

Being a victim of bullying can have negative effects for students with disabilities. For Auggie and others, isolation may seem like the only way of escape. For example, Halloween was Auggie’s favorite holiday because he was able to dress up and hide his face. Studies also show that being bullied can lead to anxiety, depression, reduced self-esteem, and lower levels of engagement at school for children with disabilities (Rose, Monda-Amaya, & Espelage, 2011).

However, there are proven ways to prevent bullying and the associated negative outcomes. One method is by helping children develop the skills to support peers who may be perceived as different. This can encourage an overall environment where being kind is the norm.

Some tips for parents on how to develop these skills in children include the following.

1. Model kind behavior toward others who are different. This is the best way to teach your children how to treat others. Teach your child that we hold power in our words and are responsible for using them wisely. Choose your words carefully and be aware that some language related to disabilities might carry negative connotations and stigmas. For example, always assume children are listening if adults say things like “that’s retarded.” Avoid such language yourself, and correct it in your children if you hear it.

2. Find common ground. Just because we are different in some ways doesn’t mean we can’t be similar in other ways. Help your child find common ground and interests with those who have different abilities and skills.

3. Help children build empathy for others who are different. Building empathy means helping your child take another’s perspective—to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes.” Teaching empathy will make it more likely that your child will stick up for others when they see mean behavior. To encourage empathy, discuss the impact of your child’s behavior on others and practice perspective-taking. This may help children understand what it feels like to be mistreated.

4. Encourage open communication with your children. We can’t prepare our children for every possible situation, so make sure they are comfortable talking to you or another adult about what they see and hear at school and in other environments, and how to help those who are targeted. Parents can also use news stories or movies, such as “Wonder,” to spark discussions about how we should treat others who are different.

5. Keep the conversation going. To make a difference, we need to make ourselves and others aware of important resources. We encourage you to share these tips with others and explore ways to impact your community. Finding out information about local school-wide efforts to address bullying or discovering online resources for ideas on how to promote kindness can be a great place to start. Excellent online resources include Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services' StopBullying.gov.

We all have a role to play in protecting and empowering others. Helping children understand, accept, and appreciate differences provides them with an important set of skills that will serve them well as adults.

Jonathan Emmons, M.A., is a first-year Ph.D. student at Northern Illinois University. His research interests include social and cognitive factors involved in learning, the role of social support resources in the academic environment, and promoting positive psychological outcomes for students.

Michelle Demaray, Christine Malecki, and Julia Ogg are faculty within the school psychology program at Northern Illinois University. They have been awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Education for Project Prevent and Address Bullying, which focuses on strategies for addressing the bullying of youth with special needs.

References

Rose, C. A., Monda-Amaya, L. E. & Espelage, D. L. (2011). Bullying perpetration and victimization in special education: A review of the literature. Remedial and Special Education, 32, 114-130. doi:10.1177/0741932510361247

Rose, C. A., Simpson, C. G., & Moss, A. (2015). The bullying dynamic: Prevalence of involvement among a large-scale sample of middle and high school youth with and without disabilities. Psychology in the Schools, 52, 515-531. doi:10.1002/pits.21840