Friday, September 11, 2015

Age Respectful vs Age Appropriate

Age-appropriate has long been a mainstay of special education and related fields.  On one hand it is an important concept; since it means treating everyone as the age they are (no baby talk, no rubbing people's heads, etc). On the other hands it puts us in then position of deciding what interests and hobbies our students are "allowed" to have. And who are we to judge? Would it really be the end of the world if a young adult carries a Tinkerbell backpack or a teenager wears a Mickey Mouse shirt? Why is it an individual without a developmental disability can do those things but a person with a developmental disability can't? (Have you seen the men's T-shirt section in Target?)

It is time we all embrace a new way of looking at this. Let's think about age respectful instead of insisting on age appropriate.

What is age respectful?

Age respectful means that when something is our choice we choose items, activities and interactions that are respectful of the age of our student in our setting.  We choose typical and adapted books that will be motivating and are respectful of the students age (an adapted version of Huck Finn in middle school instead of a Brown Bear, Brown Bear, for example). While at the same time we allow choices made by the individuals themselves to reflect their tastes and interests.

Age respectful means we offer and teach how to do new activities and use new materials while never judging the student for choosing to return to old activities or materials.

Age respectful provides multiple meaningful opportunities to expand exposure to new ideas, activities and experiences because we like what we know.  We do this not to replace "age inappropriate" choices but to augment and expand our students' horizons. If we wish to be truly successful at this we try to stay just one step beyond current tastes and interests.

Age respectful re-frames (formerly "age inappropriate") interests as legitimate hobbies, collections and interests . Meaning that an interest in Elmo including collecting Elmo items can and is a hobby for many people of all abilities.

Age respectful means that we teach our students manners. All of our students. Students who love Barney learn that one really needs to ask and gage the interest of others before sharing about that hobby enthusiastically. Students who don't share that interest need to learn how to politely redirect the conversation.

Age respectful means that the rules apply evenly. If bringing toys to class is unacceptable then it is unacceptable for ALL students from the student with the Star Wars collectibles to the student with the Big Bird toy.

Age respectful is about making choices that respect our students while age appropriate is about assuming we can and should make choices FOR our students.


  1. Thank you, Kate, that was very helpful. I will make sure to spread this message.

  2. I love this post! Thank you so much for sharing this information. I appreciated your comment about the mens t-shirts in Target! Definitely made me giggle :)

  3. Hi Kate! I work with the inclusive education website, Think Inclusive (, and I'd love to be in touch with you regarding republishing this post! If you're interested, please be in touch with us at thinkinclusive @!

  4. Love it! This describes how my son (12, autism, non-verbal) needs to be treated

  5. That's really a good insight. I'm in my 40s and I really like some of the recent My Little Pony TV, so I have a bunch of ponies on the 30" monitor I use for computer programming work. No one gives me a hard time about it, why should we give kids a hard time about being into something that isn't exclusively for people of their age?


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