A Sibling’s Role in the Social and Academic Development of a Child with Disabilities
Siblings to children of disabilities are a key element to the social development of their handicapped sibling. Brothers and sisters have a lifelong relationship with one another that tends to extend past the relationship they have with parents (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p.12). Siblings are their own first social network (1985, p. xiii). Understanding and empowering a non-handicapped sibling could turn feelings of resentment, guilt, anger, and jealousy into positive actions of helpfulness and effective teaching. Educators should be aware of the ways that sibling can be both a positive influence and outside resource for a student with disabilities.
Bank and Kahn’s 1982 research study accurately depicted the disruption in the traditional family model. The traditional family no longer consists of working father and housewife mother. As cost of living has risen, both parents work; they also work longer hours. Divorce and remarriage is an ongoing trend. Family size is decreasing, as people are having less children. Families are relocating. Parents are increasingly growing more stressed from professional and financial duties, leaving less time for their children. These factors lead siblings to have stronger and more interdependent relationships (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, pp.13-14; Heller & Arnold, 2010, p.16). Educators understanding the family dynamic for a student with disabilities is critical for differentiation. Being aware that there is a non-handicapped sibling in the family, as well as potentially even in the same school, could be a great asset for in-home instruction and assistance outside of the classroom.
Cicirelli’s 1972 research was one of the first to denote teaching effectiveness of siblings by gender. He “found female siblings more effective than male siblings or female non siblings in teaching simple conceptual tasks to younger brothers and sisters” (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p.18). In a June 2011 ABA therapy session with a young child diagnosed with mild autism, the older sister urged him more than the mother herself to perform the suggested activities. She would beckon him to the table and personally hand him the toys and flashcards, using her own knowledge to assist him (2011). The brother’s engagement and the sister’s desire for involvement create the mutually beneficial connection that interdependent sibling relationships require to assist a child with disabilities.
Educators and parents alike play a large role in teaching siblings about their brother or sister with disabilities. Adults can be role models in how they recommend siblings to handle behaviors, how they facilitate engagement between the handicapped and non-handicapped sibling, and how they address the concerns of the non-handicapped sibling. In Meyer and Vadasy’s workshops for siblings of children with disabilities, brothers and sisters reported the “two major areas of need [were] the need for simple, clear explanations about the causes and nature of handicaps, and the need for reassurance and support for their feelings about their sib who has special needs” (Meyer & Vadasy, 1985 p. ix). Educators and adults can be the resources children need to learn more about the disability. They are also the confidants that children may need to turn to if their brother or sister is being teased by the non-handicapped sibling’s friends.
Teachers first should take into account the family situation of a child with disabilities. In a family where there is a child with a disability, the stresses are drastically increased than in families without any children with disabilities (Gallagher, Beckman, & Cross, 1983, p.10). Older siblings claim they feel a significant weight of the responsibility in attending to their sibling (1983, p. 13). While most siblings have the inherent desire to engage and learn with their sibling, data has proven the toll such responsibility takes on older female siblings specifically. Powell and Gallagher reported how relationships older sisters have with their siblings with handicaps can impact their futures.
“Oldest female siblings reported having significantly more responsibility for the handicapped child…in the course of almost daily contact with the retarded child, they placed less emphasis on close friendships, marriage and family, and community membership…Self-reports from siblings in this study also suggested that siblings assume responsibilities for inferred parental psychological needs, i.e., a responsibility to overachieve…compensate for the limitations of the handicapped child” (1985, p. 33).
Heller and Arnold’s 2010 article further claims that female siblings surveyed were more involved in the life of their sibling with disabilities than the male sibling (Heller & Arnold, 2010, p. 23). Male and female siblings also tend to be plagued by the three future-related questions that commonly arise within these situations: what will happen when the sibling grows older, who will care for for the sibling after parents have died, and if the disability will be passed onto the non-handicapped sibling’s future children (Meyer & Vadasy, 1985, p. 91). These crucial questions can impact the non-handicapped sibling’s relationships and life goals. It is important for educators to be sensitive to these sibling questions. Positive attention to these types of inquiries from both educator and families can stimulate the hope the sibling needs to create a strong, beneficial relationship with their sibling with disabilities. Once these questions are addressed, all siblings alike could build a more positive attitude and understanding of their sibling’s disability.
Trained teachers also provide tools to make siblings great teachers. As discussed, siblings are one another’s first social network. Xiao Lei Wang’s recent study on language shows that siblings greatly impact language development; older siblings influence the younger, while younger siblings correct errors of the older (Wang, 2014, pp. 48-49). The sibling connection here already sets the scene for peer learning and influence. Additionally, Piaget’s theory of peer learning and social interaction is a common theory frequently implemented in the classroom. Teachers leverage collaborative peer learning within the academic setting because peers influence one another in ways that adults may not be able to (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 43). The combination of interdependent sibling relationship and effectiveness of peer learning dictate that siblings can be the teachers that students with disabilities need to reach key levels of social and even academic learning.