Working with Siblings
of Children with Learning Challenges
by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D.
A teaching professional wrote to Dr. Greenspan, asking the following:
A girl in my classroom, who is an all-around high-functioning child,
has great difficulty sharing the limelight. She likes to be the center
of adult attention and always wants to be the leader in play. I've been
wondering whether the fact that this 5-year-old has a developmentally
delayed 3½ year old sister has anything to do with her behavior. Could
it be that she feels neglected since so much family attention goes to
her sister? Is it also possible that she expects to boss other kids around
the way she does her sibling?
Before answering your questions, I must make it clear that not all siblings
of children with special needs strive to be the center of attention. In
fact, there are many ways a normally developing sibling may react to having
a brother or sister with learning challenges. Some children become very
protective and like to take care of a younger sibling with such challenges.
Some feels bad about their family situation. Others may get hostile, and
still others integrate the sibling into their lives without any special
reaction. They simply treat their sibling the way most kids ordinarily
treat siblings - sometimes being nice, sometimes a little mean. So it's
important to recognize that there is every type of pattern in families
with one child who has special needs and another who does not.
It's also important to remember that there are many different reasons
why children seek to be the center of attention. For example, an only
child who is the focus of parental attention at home may seek the same
exclusivity in school. On the other hand, the child who feels he needs
to work hard to get his parents to focus on him may seek special attention
at school. Having said that, though, the teacher's hypothesis about this
particular girl's behavior is a reasonable one.
Any child who behaves this way is probably telling us that she has two
unmet needs: to feel more nurtured and cared about and to have a better
understanding and appreciation of other people's feelings.
Here are some very concrete things a teacher can do in school to help
this child feel more nurtured and secure and more able to limit her demands
and consider other's needs.
- Look for opportunities throughout the day to provide appropriate recognition,
either through one-on-one involvement with the child or be including
her in small work- or playgroups of other children. A child who has
behaved the way this 5 year old has is likely to be a bit isolated because
she has annoyed other children with her bossiness.
- When children are on the playground, move in and create a game that
enables this child to be involved and feel more nurtured by her peers.
- Be alert to opportunities to teach this child when and how to exercise
patience and respect for others' feelings. Let's say the child is trying
to enforce her ideas about who is going to play what role in dramatic
play. There is a perfect opportunity to move in and say, "O.K.,
I see you want to be the cook. But does anyone else want to be the cook,
too?" Two other hcildren say they do. Ask, "What are we going
to do, Melissa?" Then ask the other children the same thing and
get a little debate going. You can do a little conflict resolution,
resulting in the decision that they will take turns being the cook.
- If the child verbalizes angry feelings towards her sibling at school,
be a good listener. Teachers can also encourage parents to gently draw
their children out and give them lots of nurturing and practice with
whatever they need, whether is be expressing feelings or limit-setting
if they are too aggressive.
- Try "modulation" games, in which you practice doing things
fast, slowly, then super slowly, to help regulate motor behavior and
control impulses. The child who is inclined to be aggressive needs to
learn to put her angry feelings into words. Both at school and at home,
we should be working hard to balance nurturing with limit-setting.
CONTENTS (except as noted) ©2003-8
by Pediatric Services
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