Category Archives: Articles

How to teach tolerance in the classroom – the case of Meeting Matthew

Don't let ignorance be your disabilityIn an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette this past week, I argued that effective bullying prevention requires, among other things, the teaching of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

It sounds like one of those obvious statements that should just be a given. Of course we need to be accepting of those who are not like us! Who would argue with teaching our kids about civility and respect?

Well, lots of people actually. Like those in the current Quebec government trying to enact a law preventing public workers from wearing a turban, hijab or yarmulke or any other religious symbol (except possible a cross). Or those who believe homosexuality equals sin. Or those who believe the colour of one’s skin and choice of clothing makes them inherently more dangerous.

But I digress. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we can all agree we want to teach our children to be respectful of differences (and hope this will some day be true). We’d like to think that parents will do this at home, of course, but whether they do or not, we’d like to see it reflected in their schooling.

So what does teaching tolerance actually look like? What does it mean on the ground for the teacher with 32 grade schoolers sitting in rows in front of her (or his) desk? What can she say? What does he do?

One of the best lessons I’ve read about what teaching tolerance actually looks like comes from a magazine with that exact name. The Southern Poverty Law Center‘s fabulous biannual magazine, Teaching Tolerance, featured an award-winning feature by Paul Roud called “Meeting Matthew.”

The situation? A new 7th grader coping with Asperger’s Syndrome. The otherwise bright and friendly boy picked his nose constantly, yelled out remarks in class and said things to other students that came across as mean and aggressive. The other students perceived him as “strange,” because he’d walk down the hallways with books piled on his head.

Let’s be honest: students like this can test the patience of teachers as well. These kids aren’t always so sympathetic, and the classroom disruptions and socially inappropriate comments can start to feel personal. Teachers are human too. As the writer points out, any student who stirs negative emotional reactions in their teachers is likely to do the same in the other students. In this case, the principal noticed that the boy was starting to be socially isolated by his peers.

Because Asperger’s is a hidden disability, it can be harder to engage the understanding and tolerance of others. Individuals appear perfectly normal and typically have average or above average intelligence. However, their communication skills are not typical. They can have great difficulty making sense of the social cues most of us take for granted, such as facial expressions, common social protocols and body language. It can be harder for them to understand or show empathy to others. Kids with Asperger’s are therefore at very high risk for bullying by their peers.

The solution? A “disclosure meeting.” With the support of Matthew and his parents, the principal decided to explain his situation in a meeting with classmates. He explains his reasoning:

The disclosure meeting was based on the belief that we could nurture the middle schoolers’ innate compassion if we could help them to connect with Mathew’s emotional pain. As a psychologist, I have long been intrigued by a phenomenon that psychotherapists experience all the time but rarely talk about: Therapists don’t necessarily care about new patients who first walk into their office. Yet in nearly every situation, after the patient begins to talk about his or her deep suffering, something magical happens. The therapist quickly comes to care, and often times care a great deal, for this person. […]

But adolescents are famous for their self-centeredness. Were we hoping for too much from his classmates? Martha Snell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, suggests that due to their stage of development, middle schoolers can barely help themselves from making fun of anyone who is different. She believes that those with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

However, my own experience with adolescents (and younger children as well) has shown that they tend to demonstrate great compassion to a child who is blind, in a wheelchair or has cancer. Their reactions are most likely to be insensitive and even brutal when the disability (such as depression or anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar, Tourette’s or Asperger’s) is hidden and misunderstood.

In bringing the hidden aspect of Asperger’s into the light and explaining how Matthew’s communication patterns worked differently, this principal hoped to teach his students an important lesson. The details of this “disclosure meeting” are beautifully written, carefully conceived and powerful, and I urge you to read them here.

The takeaways are just as critical. The principal describes important changes which continued to persist a whole after the meeting. The students were able to appreciate Matthew as a peer. They were instructed how to intervene in a sensitive manner when he inadvertently disrupted discussions in class, picked his nose or took up too much air time in a conversation. But now,  according to Rood, “the students’ intention was to help rather than harass him. This enabled Mathew to stay open and consider whether he wanted to change his behavior.”

Just as importantly, the other classmates’ behaviour changed as well. Matthew no longer ate alone in the cafeteria. The students took satisfaction in helping him find his way, rather than outing him for being different. Rood writes, “They had strengthened their connection to one another by establishing a new social norm: Acts of compassion were viewed as a sign of strength and character.”

Rood urges teachers not to attempt disclosure meetings such as this one on their own. They should be done only with the informed consent of the student and the his/her parents, as well as the active intervention of a school psychologist, guidance counsellor or social worker. Without proper handling, it is conceivable that a disclosure meeting could result in further isolation of the student in question. For more information, I would suggest the excellent accompanying toolkit for planning disclosure meetings.

Want to know more about disclosure for young people with disabilities and those who work with them? You can also download this comprehensive expanded resource The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities.

Understanding the difference between bullying and normal misbehavior

Boys fightingThe two boys who come to blows after disagreeing about whether the ball landed on the line or out of bounds.

The only girl in the class not invited to the birthday party.

The outstretched foot in the aisle of the schoolbus that trips the new kid.

Bullying or not?

It can be a tough call. And teachers and school personnel are already so busy doing their jobs that it’s a lot to ask them to also play judge and jury with every incident that comes to pass.

There’s so much attention given to bullying these days that we run the risk of lumping all forms of misbehavior under the same category. Parents and kids know the power of the “b-word,” understanding that any hurt or misdeed may be taken much more seriously if we call it bullying.

But this rhetorical backsliding can have a serious practical impact. Labelling any school-related incident as bullying tends to set off a process involving paperwork, meetings with parents, recording of details in files and issuing consequences. This is certainly true in Quebec schools given the passage of Bill 56 (the anti-violence and anti-bullying legislation).

It’s critical to understand the differences. Kids can misbehave for a whole variety of reasons, including testing limits, being hungry, tired, frustrated or overwhelmed. And while there need to be consequences for those misdeeds so they learn from their behaviours, there are critical differences between these and the social manipulation implicit in bullying.

Some of the key things to look for include a lack of remorse, blaming the victim, unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions, and lack of emotional reaction.

You can read more about these and other differentiating features in this Montreal Families Magazine article.


Things never to say to twins (or their parents!)

Montreal Families Magazine November 2012 coverAs a parent of 13-year-old daughters, I’ve watched with both awe and occasionally consternation at their unique relationship and how they are received by those around them. Their striking similarities and bond ignites our curiosity and admiration, and our cultural responses to multiples means we’ve gotten some pretty strange questions over the years.

Sophie and Alex have written about these sometimes silly, sometimes awkward questions in this article in the November issue of Montreal Families Magazine (yup, that’s them on the cover!). And I contributed my own sidebar on the questions parents of multiples often get from curious strangers and friends.

A fellow mom of twins pointed out that I had inadvertently left out what is possibly the most annoying question of all: are your twins the result of fertility treatments? I never understood how people could ask such an insensitive question. When did infertility go from being an intimate, and often painful, personal issue to a casual topic of conversation? And I wonder if the askers recognize the underlying assumption in their question is that the multiples conceived from fertility treatments are somehow less authentic or miraculous than those made the old-fashioned way. Their parents still did double duty (or more) on night feedings, diaper changes, temper tantrums, hugs and kisses. It doesn’t change how the world sees them, or the relationships they may have with each other.

On the whole, however, our articles are celebrations of their twinness – both for their similarities and their differences. I am proud to be a twin mom (and equally proud of my youngest daughter, who calls herself a “singletwin”), and like any mom I appreciate the kind words people offer.