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 3 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.

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