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Difficult conversations: “Why does that man use a wheelchair?”

by Miki Henderson and Nancy Stockall


Ms. Jones and Mr. Quiñones sit with eight preschool children and a parent volunteer as they eat their sack lunches. Every year they come to the San Diego Zoo during the spring to see the baby animals.

The children are chattering about all they had seen so far that day. Out of the blue 4-year-old Thomas stands up, points to another table, and asks loudly, “Teacher, why is that man in a chair with wheels?!”

The parent volunteer immediately puts a finger to her lips, “Shhh!” and gestures for the child to sit down.

Ms. Jones and Mr. Quiñones look at one another in silent communication. Ms. Jones gets up and walks over to the child, who is looking a bit disgruntled. She sits down beside him: “Thomas, many people who cannot walk use chairs like that to get around. They’re called ‘wheelchairs.’”

“I know,” he says, and watches her expectantly. “But why is he using it? He looks like my grandpa. Do grandpas have to use wheelchairs?”

Understanding begins to dawn for Ms. Jones, and she thinks carefully about her response: “Not all older men and women need wheelchairs. Some people, young and old, do use them to get around.”

Thomas looks thoughtful and then smiles, “If my grandpa gets one, we could go for walks together.”



Conversations with curious preschoolers can be difficult, crucial, challenging, awkward, important, and often insightful. Many times teachers know they should talk to a child about a difficult or awkward subject but don’t follow through. Maybe they’ve tried before and it went badly. Perhaps they fear that talking will only make the situation worse. However, children rely on the adults in their lives to assist them in making sense of the world where everything is so new to them. Answering their questions supports their need for initiative (Elkins 1987) and helps correct misconceptions and misunderstandings (Montessori 1995).

How teachers respond to a young child’s questions or reasoning about a developing concept will depend on the particular child’s developmental level and the type of question asked. Young children view the world from an egocentric perspective often believing that everyone thinks and feels the same way as they do. According to Jean Piaget (1954), egocentrism is the way children comprehend their environment in terms of their own perspective. Their level of egocentrism is directly related to the child’s level of cognitive development. This means preschoolers are typically learning to represent the world to themselves in symbols and images but are not yet able to separate their point of view from that of others. Kindergarten and primary children, however, have greater cognitive abilities and may be capable of seeing a situation from another’s point of view.

Children begin to notice people and differences as their level of egocentrism drops and they develop higher level thinking skills. This gives teachers of young children many opportunities for discussions that will help shape the child’s identity and character.

This article focuses on conversations with children about people with disabilities. Often these questions and observations present unique challenges to teachers who seek developmentally meaningful ways to explain a complex world to young thinkers. The following suggestions are intended to help teachers have more enjoyable, successful conversations about this difficult topic with the children in their care.


How do I build on young children’s questions about intellectual disabilities?
Children are curious about people who seem different from themselves. While they may not recognize that a child has an intellectual disability, they may notice and comment on outward signs, such as behaviors or physical appearance that accompany the disability. “Children can learn that people are more alike than different, and that all people (no matter what color, size, ability, or age) want love, joy, and security” (Erwin and Soodak 2009). This should be primary in the minds of teachers who need to react to children’s queries in a respectful, thoughtful, and intentional manner. Here are some simple guidelines to help manage conversations—and share information—with children:
When a child has a disability, get to know the child and the child’s unique needs.
Find out what the child’s strengths and interests are, and emphasize these in the classroom as often as possible. A physical disability does not imply a cognitive disability and vice versa.
Help children understand that a person can be born with a disability or become less able because of an accident or illness. Disabilities aren’t contagious.
Prepare yourself in advance by being mindful of the way you speak about people who are different from yourself.
When children ask questions about people with disabilities, respond in a way that models the respectful words and tone you want others to use.
Teachers have many options for supporting and extending children’s learning by using their questions to develop a curriculum based on their interests and questions. Choose literature, media, games, and activities that build upon children’s relevant questions (Elkind 1987). Strive to include materials that show people with diverse abilities in real-life situations as well as the fantastic and imaginary. (See resources for children at the end of this article.) These items may answer the children’s questions and lead to more as they begin developing connections between the literature and the world beyond the classroom.


How can I have respectful conversations about assistive devices including service animals?
Assistive devices can include wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and even service dogs. People using assistive technology often benefit in different ways, such as experiencing more environmental control and greater independence (Campbell 1991; Mistrett 2004; Stremel 2005). People who use assistive technology have also reported improvements in psychosocial factors, such as social interaction and self-esteem (Lane and Mistrett 2002).

While the use of assistive devices benefits people with some disabilities, the devices can be disturbing to young children. Having open and supportive conversations about assistive devices and their role in helping people can alleviate many of the potential worries of young able-bodied children.

While it is important to explain assistive devices to young children, some simple guidelines can help teachers set up the conditions for a successful interaction.
Use People First Language when speaking about people with disabilities. Rather than saying, “Amanda is wheelchair bound,” we would say, “Amanda uses a wheelchair.”
Remind children that assistive devices can be expensive and are not toys. Just as they would not wear another person’s shoes, they cannot use another person’s brace, wheelchair, crutches, or walkers.
Instruct children not to help the child by pushing the wheelchair or holding onto a walker. The role of an assistive device is to help the person with a disability become more independent. Peers can assist by asking the person if they can hold the door or if they might carry books or supplies rather than assuming assistance is required.
Provide safe opportunities and support for children with disabilities to employ their assistive devices—wheelchair, braces, hearing aids, or eyeglasses—independently and appropriately. Seek training or work in conjunction with an occupational or physical therapist. When peers see that a child is capable of using the device as a tool, they come to regard the child as having greater abilities.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extended legal protection to dogs specifically trained for service to people with disabilities. Since then, the realm of assistance dogs has been expanding to include seizure-alert-and-response dogs and companion dogs for people with psychological disabilities. While assistive devices are often mechanical tools, we must also consider an assistance dog to be a tool for a person with a disability.

You can help young children show respect and appreciation for people who use service dogs (Delta Society 2012) by using these guidelines:
Explain that a service dog is not a pet. It is a working dog. A working dog must pay close attention to its owner. Therefore, children should not pet the dog.
Teach children not to stare at the dog. Staring is a sign of aggression and can be stressful for the animal.
Explain that it’s best to talk to the person rather than the dog.
Remind children not to make noises at or wave their hands in front of the dog. Just as we want to show respect and care for technological assistive devices, we also want to emphasize that the service dog needs protection and care from others.


How do I become an excellent conversationalist with young children?
The relationship you establish with children will open the possibility for them to ask thoughtful, not just impulsive, questions and promote future conversations. You will need to create an environment where children learn how to ask questions and know they will receive appropriate responses from a caring adult (Hillman 2012). Consider these guidelines:
Try to understand children’s thinking and empathize with their concerns.
Respect children’s ideas and contributions, though they may not always be in line with your way of thinking.
Keep an open mind and heart as children share questions and concerns, working to build a respectful and responsive relationship.
Be a patient listener.
Model conversation skills by speaking with children on their eye level.
Speak to persons with disabilities. Avoid talking about them when they are present.
Use People First Language. (See
Use wait time. Rushing children may frustrate them or cause anxiety, making the experience less pleasant for all involved. So wait and listen in order to show children that their questions are important and, in fact, illuminating.

Finally, if things take a turn for the worse and the conversation is not going well, you can always take a break. Use the resources you have at your disposal, such as the Internet, books, and colleagues, to do some research. Ask for advice from respected early childhood professionals, Early Childhood Intervention specialists, or the families of children in your care about how to answer sensitive questions. Allow yourself the chance to become a great conversationalist by recognizing and learning from your own mistakes.


Final thoughts
Having successful conversations with children requires thoughtful and knowledgeable responses to children’s questions. Above all, teachers need to create an environment of acceptance and belonging for all children. Children are aware of differences and teachers need to acknowledge that understanding.

Teachers can ask open-ended questions that can uncover children’s hidden assumptions about differences. This allows the teacher to address the fears or faulty conceptions of young children and provide accurate information. Such information includes descriptions and uses of assistive devices to thoughtfully address questions about service animals and other equipment used by people with disabilities. It’s important to explain the use of assistive devices as tools for independence in language children can understand. Be patient listeners to children’s comments and questions by giving them time to process their thoughts. We are teachers, but we are learners too.


Campbell, F. 1991. Aids and equipment for the disabled in the community. Nursing Times, 87 (5), 40-42.
Delta Society. 2012. Pet Partners. Retrieved at
Elkind, D. 1987. Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk. New York: Random House.
Erwin, E. and L. Soodak. 2009. Respecting differences: Everyday ways to teach children about respect. PBS Parents. Retrieved at
Hillman, C.B. 2012. The intangibles in the early childhood classroom. Exchange, 34 (2), 12-15.
Lane, S. and S. Mistrett. 2002. Let’s play! Assistive technology interventions for play. Young Exceptional Children, 5, 19-27.
Mistrett, S. 2004. Assistive technology helps young children with disabilities participate in daily activities. Technology in Action, 1 (4), 1-8.
Montessori, M. 1995. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Piaget, J. 1954. The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.
Stremel, K. 2005. DEC recommended practices: Technology applications, introduction. In S. Sandall, M.L. Hemmeter, B. J. Smith, and M. E. McLean (Eds.), DEC Recommended Practices: A Comprehensive Guide for Practical Application in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education. Longmont, Colo.: Sopris West Educational Services.
U.S. Department of Justice. 2010. Revised ADA Regulations Implementing Title II and Title III. ADA Homepage. Retrieved at


Resources for children
Niekerk, C.V. and L. Venter. 2008. Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome. Erie, Pa.: Skeezel Press.
Osofsky, A. and T. Rand. 1994. My Buddy. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Tyler, M. and D. L. Csicsko. 2005. The Skin You Live In. Chicago: Chicago Children’s Museum.


About the author
Miki Henderson, Ed.D., has been a preschool and kindergarten teacher for more than 25 years. She is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Nancy Stockall, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Sam Houston State University. She teaches classes in the special education program in the College of Education. She has published nationally and internationally and continues to give voice to her beliefs in the efficacy and social responsibilities of educating all children in general education classrooms.