Let’s cross a bridge.  Imagine if every student in your child’s school knew every other student’s name—including the names of the students with special needs.  In the hallways, students could address each other by name, say, “Hi,” give each other friendly smiles, high fives, and say, “I’ll see you at recess.”  Imagine the circle of friends and the network of support existing in that culture full of empathic learners and social leaders.

As a lead volunteer for  Inside Out Club DuPage (formerly I Support Community Charity Club) at Kingsley Elementary School, I teach empathy by introducing students to local non-profit organizations, sharing their missions, and helping students and families get involved.   This month, I taught 25 1st-3rd graders about Celebrate Differences, a non-profit dedicated to providing support groups to families and children with special needs.  Through different exercises, students walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.  For instance, the students wore goggles with Vaseline to represent a visual impairment, wore headphones while someone read to represent a hearing impairment, and tried to button up a shirt with rubber gloves on to represent a physical disability.

It’s time to take a step on that bridge now.  Inspired by the activities, I thought, “We have students in the building with needs.  Let’s create an opportunity to have the Charity Club students have greater access to students with special needs lives at school and extend a friendly gesture.”  A tour of the two special needs classrooms, the gross motor room, and the calming room along with making home-made play-dough came to mind.

Willing to cross that bridge, Erin Marker, Principal and Kristen Cummings, Assistant Principal of Kingsley Elementary School in Naperville District 203, gave a tour of the rooms and allowed the students to touch the supportive equipment in each room.  Smiles abounded as students got to experience an obstacle course of a swing, tunnel, and trampoline in the gross motor room.  Eyes of wonder lit up when introduced to the calming room filled with soothing elements, such as beanbags and an acrylic water tube feature.  Executive functioning skills, such as how to self-regulate, keep a schedule, and stay organized were learned when introduced to the two classrooms.

After the tour, to incorporate the color of the home-made, gluten-free play-dough1, the students kneaded 5 pounds of dough. We left some of the work to be done by the students with special needs as it is a good physical therapy goal. It takes a lot of physical effort to incorporate the coloring!

The next school day, I had one representative from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade help me deliver the play-dough to the two classrooms of students with special needs.  I was so happy these Charity Club students got to see the fruits of their labor.

“My daughter has a physical disability that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know. She came home last week and she said, I understand how children with special needs feel because I know how I feel with my arm. I was listening thinking..yes!!…that is empathy and understanding, exactly the awareness the club is building!” – Betsy Colburn, Kingsley Mom

With inspiration from the I Support Community Charity Club and support from Kingsley’s administration, my students crossed a bridge. Through the activities in the Charity Club, the room tours, and the making and delivery of the play-dough, the students learned more about the lives of the students with special needs in the building and developed empathy in the process.

“I Support Community Charity Club has encouraged our students to think through the lens of our “Knightly” character traits; virtues which are valued and celebrated each day at Kingsley. It is the uniqueness of each of our students which makes Kingsley such an amazing place to learn and grow. Celebrating that greatness through I Support Community Charity Club has expanded our culture of empathy and understanding for all.” Erin Marker, Principal at Kingsley Elementary

It’s time to take a walk, don’t you think?

Eden Shadis


1 American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology play dough recipe: