Siblings and school
Today I had a conversation with a primary school teacher who has been running the SibworkS program for some time now in her school. The latest group had 12 children who all gained such benefit from meeting up with other students who understood what it is like to be the sibling of a child with disability.
If only all schools recognised the needs of siblings for support. But when there is no awareness or action from the federal government it is difficult to expect that schools will address this issue.
Under the More Support for Students with Disabilities initiative, the Australian Government is providing $200 million additional funding to government and non-government education authorities to support their work with students with disability and/or learning difficulties. This is a short-term initiative being delivered over the 2012 and 2013 school years. And it is a welcome initiative. However it would be nice to see some attention given to siblings and the impacts on them too.
When thinking about early child development it is imperative to consider a young child in the context of their family and community. If a child grows up in a family that includes a child with disability it is difficult to imagine the child NOT being impacted.
As I have written before, there are many millions of dollars put into support for parents, alongside the support given to the child with disability. And of course it is rarely enough, but at least there is recognition of the need for support by the child and parents. Not so with siblings.
I have long argued the need for each school to have a register of children who are siblings; not to highlight them or to pathologise their experience, but just to note that they may need extra support. I remember working with a school many years ago and, after a workshop for both parents and staff, the junior primary principal came up to me and said she could think of 4 children immediately that she would approach very differently.
One child might need support to finish homework at school if family life is disrupted. Another might be struggling to read, given a lack of opportunity to practice at home. Another might struggle to make friends or they might be teased. I remember working with a young girl many years ago who had an older brother with severe autism. She struggled with friendships as she had not learnt the usual social skills to interact with her peers. I also hear of siblings being called upon at school whenever there is an issue with their brother or sister with disability. This is overstepping the normal bounds of responsibility for a young child. I also hear of schools asking siblings to be friends with a child with disability as they ‘are used to' interacting with children with disability.
Most children with disability have a student support plan developed each year – the plan outlines what extra supports the child might need both academically and socially. Every sibling would be able to contribute to such a plan as they probably know their brother or sister better than anyone. But, ideally, there would be a plan for them too. The plan might support siblings academically and/or socially. The plan might also help to connect them to sibling support, either in the school and/or in the community. It might help them to connect with other siblings.
If you are a parent, you will find that you spend a lot of time advocating for your child with disability. From time to time, try to ensure your child who is a sibling is being recognised as someone who may give support but who also may NEED support. The Siblings Australia website has more information.