|This is still one of my favorite pictures of Ben with his best friend at school.|
On the eve of my report card conference with Ben’s teacher and wonderful team of support people who work with him, I thought it only appropriate to write about the importance of inclusion and how inclusion leads to acceptance. We have been fortunate to find a school that embraces the inclusion model and works hard to make inclusion work. There are many different types of classroom settings that are designed for different purposes. Inclusion is one such setting. While an inclusion classroom might not be the best placement for every learner, I do believe that the spirit of inclusion in our society is an important and necessary goal- regardless of the severity of need of the individual.
First, I want to start by saying that inclusion is not easy. An inclusion classroom is more than just a room full of children with disabilities mixed in with their “typically developing” peers. As Jess from Diary of a Mom explains, “Inclusion is a process. Day to day, moment to moment – inclusion takes thought and planning and effort. It takes a mindset of hope and possibility. It takes belief in the intrinsic value and unlimited potential of each and every human being. It takes determination and tenacity. It takes compassion and empathy. It takes the understanding that to truly come together, we must learn not just to tolerate, but to CELEBRATE our differences. There is far more than beauty in our diversity – there is incredible strength.”
But how do we teach our children not just to accept but to celebrate differences? This seems great in theory but can become tricky in the real world. There are so many factors at play.
It is human nature to fear what we do not understand. Not only children but often adults have little experience with autism, Down’s Syndrome, Tourette’s, etc. I have a friend who has a son with Down’s Syndrome, and she once told me that she tells his teachers every year (and I’m paraphrasing here based on my memory of our conversation), “I don’t want you to feel intimidated by my son. I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by his diagnosis and his needs. Never lose sight of the fact that he first and foremost a little boy. And I am here to support you all the way.”
I think it’s important to acknowledge that challenges will come up as we work to support an inclusive environment, not just in the classroom but also in our community. People still don’t know how to react when they observe behaviors outside their comfort zones. Recently I was at an Easter egg hunt for autistic children and their families. The egg hunt was due to start at 11:45 am. It was 11:50 am and there were still no signs of the hunt beginning. A little boy about eight years old walked directly up to me, took my wrist in his hand and pointed to my watch as he said, “The time is 11:50. We are now five minutes behind schedule. The schedule said that the egg hunt was due to start at 11:45 am.” I calmly looked at the boy and said, “You’re correct, but I’m not the one in charge of starting this event. You need to speak to the person in charge, and she is standing over there.” Instantly, the boy dropped my arm and walked over to the event coordinator. I wasn’t put off at all by the boy’s actions because I understood the situation and his needs. How many others in our society would have known how to respond?
When Ben reaches adulthood, I want him to live in a world that accepts and embraces differences. In order to do this, it is our responsibility as adults to model behaviors of respect. We must always remember that children are watching our actions more than they are listening to our words. As Jess from “Diary of a Mom” says, “If they see us tease, they will tease. We must rethink the easy jokes about those who are different from us. We must reconsider the words that can so easily fall off our tongues. “Retarded” has become ubiquitous, nearly accepted. It’s up to us to remove it from the lexicon of the next generation. Yes, we must select our words with care. Words have the power to encourage, to create, to inspire. They also have the power to wound, to scar, and to destroy. And once they’re out there, we can’t take them back. Our children hear every word that we say. We MUST choose them carefully.”
We fear the things that we do not understand.
I want to start conversations about differences so that children can feel free to ask questions in a respectful manner. By asking questions, they will gain a greater understanding, and hopefully appreciation for their classmates who may learn or act in different ways from them. The more we respect one another, the less we allow others to tease and bully.
Inclusion is not always easy but it is worth the time and effort to do it right.
Every child deserves to be accepted and belong.
**And, as a bonus, here’s my list of factors that I believe need to be present for an inclusion classroom to be successful. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I believe it is a good starting point with schools that are looking to implement or refine their inclusion models.**
Classroom Environment (Setting)
The inclusion classroom is designed with the needs of all learners in mind, but it is highly individualized based on students’ IEP goals and accommodations. The classroom is set up to minimize distractions and promote learning with…
-Clearly defined spaces/areas within the classroom with relevant materials only.
(i.e. stations/centers, carpet area, student work area, class library, etc)
-Daily schedule posted, referred to often, and consistently followed
-Student visual schedules are available on desks or readily accessible
-Predictable routines and procedures
-Consistent rules and expectations (Gives clarity on how to do things)
-Calm, organized environment with a reduction of visual distractions
-Cool-down area (For sensory breaks- Students learn to use as needed)
-Calm lighting and a soothing environment during work time.
In an inclusion classroom, the classroom teacher works side-by-side with the ESE teacher as a team for both planning and instruction. This might be done using a co-teaching approach or utilizing several different models.
Some characteristics of a strong inclusion classroom teacher include…
-Kind, firm, and consistent
-Has some background in children with special needs (if possible)
-Willingness to learn and grow (seeks out professional development)
-Maintains clear and consistent expectations.
-Clear, precise teaching points (not overly long lessons). Uses visual cues along with verbal directions.
-Has a calm disposition (does not get “ruffled” easily). Recognizes that all behavior is communication and does not take student behaviors personally.
-Holds kids accountable academically and behaviorally. Students know exactly what to expect. There is no “gray” area.
-Has high expectations but also differentiates for the needs of all learners.
One major key to making inclusion work is considering how all of the ESE support teachers (speech, OT, paras, etc) fit into the structures for the day. These key members of the team need to coordinate schedules effectively. Ideally, they offer supports within the inclusion classroom and provide techniques that can be utilized throughout the day, not just when they are in the class providing services.
-The classroom teacher works in partnership with the ESE resource teacher, the SLP, the OT, and other school personnel.
-Schedules are built with student needs in mind first (as defined by the IEP).
-Movement Breaks/Cool-down breaks are provided as needed. The student has a “safe space” either inside or outside the classroom (ie OT room) during times of high stress
-When “Big Events” occur at school, sensory strategies are provided during and after
-Visual Schedules/Reinforcers are part of the daily routine
-The schedule is built with predictability in mind. Students always know what’s coming next.
-Tasks are explained but also defined visually with examples.
-Teacher uses nonverbal cues to remind students of rules and expectations
-Increase the frequency and immediacy of reinforcement
-Small group instruction is utilized as often as possible.
-ESE supports “push-in” the classroom whenever possible and plan closely with the classroom teacher based on curriculum standards and IEP goals.
*Some of these suggestions were taken from the Florida Inclusion Network, which is a wonderful collection of resources. You can learn more at www.floridainclusionnetwork.com