Wednesday, December 1, 2021
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A Special Life: Teachable Moments

We are very happy to introduce our latest monthly blog feature called “A Special Life”. We have a few parents on board to contribute (from both our city sites) and are looking forward to reading their insight on raising a child with special needs.

Our first blog comes from Julie Brocklehurst, and is all about Teachable Moments…which may just teach us all a little something. Welcome Julie and the other parent contributors and thanks for opening up your life for us!

As an Early Childhood Educator, I am big on ‘teachable moments’. A teachable moment is an unplanned event during the day that adults can use as a learning opportunity. When a child displays an action or behaviour that can be used as a learning tool, parents and caregivers should capitalize on the moment, and provide the opportunity to expand the child’s learning.

It’s all about timing. The ‘unplanned’ part is essential. It’s about speaking in the moment, answering questions and addressing the interest of the child.

Why am I talking about this??

So often, I encounter what should be teachable moments, directly related to my child and his disability. My son, Brennen, is nine years old. Brennen has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair for mobility. I can’t count the number of times we have heard a child ask a question, only to hear their parent divert the attention, give a false answer, or totally ignore the question.

Here’s an example: Most evenings, we go out for a ‘family walk’ around our neighbourhood. Our family includes myself (Mom), Andrew (Dad), Brennen, and our big Greyhound – a retired race dog named Rumble. On several occasions, we have encountered the same family also out for a walk. As they approached us one evening, a young girl (probably 7 or 8 years old) exclaimed “A baby!”

Now.. I know she was talking about Brennen. They know she was talking about Brennen. Yet, the mother replies, “Oh, no that’s a big dog!”

Lady.. your daughter is not stupid. She knows the difference between a dog and a baby! She was talking about my son. All you had to do was explain to her that he is a little boy in a wheelchair. She obviously has had no exposure to people in wheelchairs, and that’s ok. She’s young. But chances are, she will encounter individuals with various disabilities throughout her lifetime. Prepare her for this! A few brief words about how some people have trouble walking and need to use wheelchairs would suffice. Maybe explain to her that it does look a little bit like a stroller, but it is actually a wheelchair, for older children. It’s not rocket science.

close-up on hand of handicapped child in wheelchair
I get that perhaps she felt embarrassed (it was obvious that we’d heard her child say “A baby!”), and maybe she didn’t want us to feel bad, or perhaps she just didn’t know what to say. But you guys, please don’t lie to your children. Parents are (or should be) their child’s greatest influence. They listen to what you say and they hold it to a high regard. They believe what you say is the truth. This lady implying to her daughter that Brennen was a dog is just confusing! Your kids are smarter than that. They deserve better than that.

Children will say funny things, and they will ask strange and often embarrassing questions, but that’s all a part of childhood, and all a part of learning. It is our job to answer their questions truthfully, with as much or as little information necessary to satisfy their curiosity.

Some children have great questions! A little boy recently asked me “If Brennen is in a wheelchair, how does he get in bed?” Excellent question. I told him that “We help Brennen out of his chair, help him get his pyjamas on and then tuck him into bed, just like your Mommy and Daddy tuck you in at bedtime!” He was happy with that answer, and went on to what he was previously doing.

Another little boy came over to Brennen in the swimming pool one day and asked how old he was, to which Andrew replied that he was nine. The boy thought for a minute and said “He’s small. Is he strong?” Great question. Andrew said “He’s probably not as strong as you are!”

A young girl came sauntering over shortly after and asked “What’s wrong with him? Is he tired?” Andrew calmly replied that he wasn’t tired, he was just relaxing in the water, to which the girl retorted, “Why is his mouth open?”

The little boy from earlier piped in and said quite matter-of-factly, “So he can breathe!”

I love that kid.

My point is that children are naturally going to be curious about anything that is ‘different’ or new to them. It is our job as parents to educate our children and to prepare them for life and the great big world out there. We must equip them with the tools and the language to be able to ask their questions without being offensive or rude.

When your child notices or asks questions about a person who has a disability, it is an opportunity for you to talk about individual differences. Your response will shape your child’s future attitudes and actions toward people who live with disabilities. Explain that there are actually lots of ways that people are different, but there are also many ways that they are the same.

Teaching your child to be respectful and inclusive of all people is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Treating others as you would like to be treated is always good advice.

Julie is a writer, an advocate and a mother to a little boy with cerebral palsy. She created her blog, Tiptoeing Through, as a place to share some of her thoughts and feelings about life, love and the unexpected journey that is raising a child with special needs.


  1. I love this! I find this to be an extremely difficult thing to deal with with young children. I want my child to feel more comfortable with differences than I do. I often find that when I pass someone who is different on the street I feel very uncomfortable because I am worried that if I look too long or not long enough they will be offended. I know this is completely unfounded, however, I was brought up in a world where we were told not to stare and not to ask questions because that is rude. However, I know that if I was different I would much prefer someone ask me a question, child or adult, than have them looking at me awkwardly trying not to offend me and wondering the entire time about whatever question they might have. But, since I was brought up with the don’t stare and don’t ask philosophy on the matter, I don’t really know how to begin a dialogue with my children. Luckily, I have not yet had to deal with that situation. But, I would love to hear from you some things that might be appropriate to say and maybe an idea of when it would be appropriate to direct my child’s questions to the person/family that she/he is curious about. My questions are as much for my children as they are for those we may pass, if they are comfortable asking the questions they will feel more comfortable passing people who are different which will also make those people feel more comfortable.

    • We tell our children that every single person is a different person, even though they may all be in the same family. Our conversation stems from discussion around our family rules for behaviour and how rules can be different for different kids because their families have different rules. But it translates to the fact that every person is different. Some are tall or short or big or small or in wheelchairs. Everyone has incredible things about them to celebrate, despite their differences.

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