Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Celebrating Our Mistakes

a glass jar with marbles on the bottom

One of the things I most often discuss when training teachers to be more inclusive is the importance of reframing. We discuss reframing attitudes and reframing language, notions that tend to be easy to understand, even if difficult to apply.

It’s when we get to reframing lesson plans that it can get tricky. Even when teachers have the right intentions, they can find it challenging to consistently design lessons with an eye toward inclusion.

There is a lot that good teachers take for granted, especially in successful classrooms. I am guilty of this, too. When we have activities and strategies that have been successful, why would we think about changing them? Because to be truly inclusive is to look at every lesson, every activity and every strategy and ask ourselves, “is this inclusive?”

It might be “fine” to adapt an activity or add a component to it to make it more successful for specific students, but it is truly inclusive when we reframe the entire activity in a way that makes this addition a seamless part of the whole.

Celebrating Our Mistakes

image of a glass jar filled with marblesAs teachers set up their classrooms – organizing, labeling and decorating – many are also thinking about systems of behavior management. Most are reading student files and will reach out to begin getting to know their students before the school year even begins. Teachers may learn that a particular student is a “perfectionist”, one who struggles to let work go when she thinks she has possibly made a mistake or who will have a meltdown when she does something “wrong”. A typical system of behavior management (I am NOT a fan!) would likely have this student earning tickets or stars each time she is able to hand in an assignment with only one revision.

Reframe the system:

Begin with a classroom discussion of making mistakes and failing as a part of the learning process. Create a system where each student gets to put a marble in the jar when he or she has made a mistake. Just as in other, more traditional systems, the class will earn a reward when the jar is full.

What’s different?
• First, students are taught that mistakes are a part of the process of learning and growing.
• Next, the student who struggles to let work go or has a meltdown when he has made a mistake is no longer singled out. Rather, he is celebrated and comes to learn that he has something valuable to contribute to the classroom community.
• Finally, this is a system that celebrates diversity rather than penalizing students for not conforming to an arbitrary set of ideals.

How will you reframe your teaching to make your classroom more inclusive?

This post was originally published at Removing the Stumbling Block

Photo Credit: Flickr/Steven Depolo

Inclusion is a Verb

Inclusion is a Verb

Ok, I’m splitting hairs here a little. The grammar police are screaming, “No, include is a verb, inclusion is a noun.” And they are right, grammatically.

But if we are going to get to the heart of what it means to include others, we need to think of inclusion as a verb. Because it will not matter, in the end, what we say, if it’s not backed up by what we do.

Inclusion happens when people actively include others. Think behavior, authentic conversations, genuine and meaningful interactions. Inclusion is about helping people feel comfortable enough to be who they truly are in your presence. And the more comfortable people feel, the easier it will be to include others who are different

Inclusion is a conscious action. We must choose to include. We have to engage in behavior that lets the other person in. Not just allows that person to sit on the sidelines and watch, but really lets them in. And if we have to change the game a little along the way, so be it. That’s inclusion.

How do I do it, you ask?

Use people’s names. Names matter. Imagine what our relationships could become if we intentionally and deliberately learned and used the name of each person with whom we interact. I’m not just talking about the people we work with or those that we see regularly. I’m suggesting that we learn and use the names of every person we encounter. “Thank you, Susan, for checking me out at Shop Rite today.” Or, at your favorite coffee shop, “Thank you. Have a great day, Paul.”

Teach the value of inclusion. Demonstrate it. Look the man using a wheelchair that you pass every morning in the eye and say, “Hello.” Choose a line at the grocery store for the clerk with a disability and quietly explain to your children, outside the store, that you continue to shop at this very store because of its inclusive employment practices. Walk a little farther because there are certain spots saved for people who don’t walk as well as you can on their own.

You can do it. Let people in. Choose to include. Like I said, inclusion is a verb.

Photo Credit: Alex Eylar/Flickr

4 Strategies for Accommodating Students with Dyslexia

4 Strategies for Accommodating Students with Dyslexia

A version of the this article was originally published at matankids.org.

By Lisa Friedman

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “Dyslexia is the name for specific learning disabilities in reading… Children and adults with dyslexia simply have a neurological disorder that causes their brains to process and interpret information differently.”

Dyslexia IS NOT
• A sign of poor intelligence or laziness.
• The result of impaired vision.
• Seeing letters or words backward.
• Outgrown

From Edutopia, “Dyslexia is real, occurring in up to 20 percent of the population. That means there is a student in every classroom, in every neighborhood, and in every U.S. school. It also means that every classroom teacher has the opportunity to positively change the life of a student with dyslexia by taking the time to understand what it is and provide accommodations for accessing information that the student is capable of learning through alternate formats.”

When given the appropriate opportunities and support, most students with dyslexia learn to read and write successfully. What’s more, dyslexia itself is NOT an indication of intellectual capacity. And yet, sadly, the place where dyslexics are most often misunderstood is in school.

One of the most powerful motivational speakers on this topic, Jonathan Mooney, shares his own experiences as a dyslexic writer and activist who did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. He went on to graduate from Brown University and a holds an honors degree in English Literature. When he speaks, Jonathan strives to have his audiences understand that it is our own systems and structures that limit those with dyslexia and other disabilities. Read more in Our Children Aren’t Broken.

When we break out of our typical molds of expectation, we will see individuals with dyslexia who thrive intellectually go on to careers in fields such as politics, law, science, entertainment and even education.

So how do we do it?

Here are four practical strategies for accommodating students with dyslexia in a religious school classroom.

1. Enlarge the font – Such manipulations are easier than ever before with the digital resources at our fingertips. But don’t be afraid to go “old school” and enlarge the content on a written page using a good ole’ copy machine.

2. Minimize other distractions on the page – Again, many digital readers have the built in ability to do this, but you can create your own of any size by cutting a “word (or sentence) shaped hole” in the center of a piece of cardstock. This image is only one example. Such a tool is most effective when customized to the individual student.

3. Color coding – Color coding can help with the recall of vowel sounds and/or to distinguish “look alike” letters.

4. Remove time limits – Just as it sounds, students with dyslexia feel anxious and pressure when expected to read at the pace of their peers. Allow students to read at their own pace.

Remember, every student is different and no two students with dyslexia (or any other disability) will learn in the same way. It is important to get to know your students well and tailor strategies to their specific needs. When we move away from viewing learning differences as deficiencies we can find ways to allow each and every student in our classrooms and communities to thrive.

Photo credit: Tim Kwee/Flickr

Additional resources: Dyslexia in the General Education Classroom and What is Dyslexia?

How To Build Friendships In An Inclusive Environment

Building Trust

One of the highlights of my job is working with teens.  I am proud that I have had the opportunity to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for nearly twenty years.

An article from Psych Central entitled, “How Teens Choose Their Friends” asserts that contrary to popular assumption, teens most often choose friends based on “the [academic] courses the adolescent takes and the other students who take the courses with them.” The article goes on to cite research from the American Journal of Sociology that states: “The researchers found that students who take the same set of courses…focus less on social status, such as how “cool” someone is [and] the peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort, as well as their social world” Students in this research were also “less likely to judge classmates on visible characteristics, such as race and gender.” I would argue that such characteristics can also include disabilities. This certainly makes the case for meaningful inclusion.

One of the hallmarks of the successful program that I oversee is that in addition to maximizing our students’ opportunities to learn, grow and engage with Jewish life experiences we also intentionally maximize our teens’ potential for building strong Jewish friendships, all in a fully inclusive environment. All of our students, regardless of ability or need, have the opportunity to participate fully. And it works. They build meaningful relationships and they learn, side-by-side.

But even when we understand and embrace the importance of cultivating authentic, meaningful relationships among teens, the practicality of helping students actually do it can be daunting.

Here is an activity, specifically geared for teens, which can help you to do just that:

Step 1: Engage in a conversation about the power of words. Discuss how easily words can hurt a person and how it is just as easy to use words to lift someone up.

Step 2: Brainstorm together positive words that might be used to describe a friend or someone you care about. Push teens away from generic words like “nice” and “fun”.

Step 3: Have one teen sit in front of a white board. Gather the other students around him/her to write positive phrases. No peeking! Take a photo of the student and the board when it is complete.

Variations:

  • Do this activity once a week until every student in the class has had their turn.
  • If you have a white board that is rarely used, consider turning it into a display. Keep the original activity up along with the photo and encourage students to add to the board throughout the week. You can even display each photo around the border.

Photo and lesson idea credit: Melissa Farnsworth

Are we giving our children ADHD? 

Are we giving our children ADHD?

Is it possible?  Can we give our children a disorder? 

No, of course we can’t. And while the definitive cause of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is unknown, experts will agree that genetics and distinct neurological patterns are at play.

Additionally, there is significant research that speaks to the ways that the environment, genetics, lifestyle choices and other factors both exacerbate and mitigate the symptoms of attention disorders.

In the article, “Attention Must Be Paid! Schools need to teach students to maintain attention, not cater to short-attention spans.” author Barry Schwartz makes some interesting and valid points. He states, “Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention.” And further, “By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed.”

Is Schwartz on to something? While we cannot cause a neurological disorder, can we potentially exacerbate the symptoms of, or even mirror the symptoms of ADD/ADHD in typically functioning students?

It’s a scary thought, actually.

Schwartz asserts that his focus here is on issues of motivation, not the symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Yet he continues, “Maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.”

Food for thought, certainly; but I disagree. Since the advent of Twitter and those 140-character tweets, I find that I am reading more about trends in my field (I found Schwartz’s article, didn’t I?) and I am far more connected to colleagues through my PLN (Personal Learning Network). Further, short blog posts enable me to read more of them, more often. I can sustain attention, but in my busy life I don’t always want to. The shorter nature of some media gives me the option of taking in as many or as few articles as I wish, while still taking in complete ideas with each one.

What do you think? Can we train our “attention muscle”?  Do we need to? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Why Isn’t Accommodating the Same as Inclusion?

Why Isn’t Accommodating the Same as Inclusion?

I am fortunate that the students in my school provide the opportunity for me to revisit my commitment to inclusion over and over again. Each time I work with students, teachers and families to ensure that every child is fully included in a class, program or experience, I have the unique opportunity to stretch my own boundaries as I reflect on the evolving nature of true inclusion.

More than anything else, I have learned that simply accommodating a student’s needs is not inclusion.  Don’t get me wrong, making appropriate accommodations is an essential strategy in working with students who have a wide variety of needs.  But there’s more to inclusion than that.

Let me give you an example:

A teacher divides a class into study groups.  A written copy of the text is given to each student in the group. The teacher decides that since this is a discussion-based activity, the text can be read aloud to a student who is blind and he/she can still fully participate.

What’s wrong with this?

Put yourself in the scenario. Are you typically the one who says (when something is read aloud), “Let me see that, I missed half of what you said.”?  If so, you are probably a visual learner.  (Click here to learn more about discovering your own learning style.)  This is how Braille can function for a student that is blind; it’s her way of “seeing” the text for herself.

Having the text read aloud is a reasonable accommodation, but it is not fully inclusive.

Here is another example:

Students work in groups to explore leadership and community building.  They engage in an activity that relies on social cues and interactions and is almost entirely visual. Half the group must build a structure without speaking. The other half receives a list of behaviors to observe, and are each assigned a student in the building group to secretly watch. Is it possible to reasonably accommodate this activity? You might add a listening role for a student with vision issues; but what about the student who is unable to read social cues? What about those who have hearing impairments or processing issues? Adding roles for students with disabilities might seem like a reasonable accommodation, but it is not fully inclusive. Reworking the activity in a way that enables every student’s participation without “tacking on” an extra role is how this will shift from accommodating to including.

Inclusion is about belonging. Reasonable and appropriate accommodations can help us to integrate our students, but intentionality and planning is needed to ensure that every student belongs—all the time.

What is the best way to think about the relationship between accommodations and the inclusive classroom? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

How Do You Start An Inclusive Private School?

private school

One of the first things Tim and I discussed when I started writing for Think Inclusive was my unique perspective as a director of an inclusive private school. It often comes as a surprise to many that private religious schools are not bound by the same laws that govern public secular schools. This means that inclusion of all children, regardless of ability, could well be an afterthought. How do we ensure that it is not?

When delivering speeches or leading workshops I like to make the “hot dog” joke. You know, as a religious organization we are committed to inclusion because, “We answer to higher authority!”

It gets a laugh, but it resonates. And it’s the truth. Religious schools may not be legally obligated, but we are certainly morally obligated to include all of our students.

So, how do we do it?

There are two schools of thought to guide those seeking to start a program:

  1. Work with the existing population to meet their needs in the most successful ways possible.
  2. Create inclusive program structures, market aggressively and students will come.

I believe that most schools need a balance of both. If you are at square one, it is ok to be a little reactive. If there are students who are struggling to find success in your existing program, I think your school owes it to them to develop the strategies and programs necessary to support them appropriately. But I urge caution. When we simply create programs around specific students, we can run the risk of segregating and/or excluding them. It is always the ideal, even as you work to meet individual needs, to strive to create sustainable, ongoing inclusive structures.

The following questions can help you to launch the process:

  • Are there children currently in your school who are struggling to learn in the traditional classroom programs?
  • Are there families that are a part of your school community that do not send one of their children because they believe that you “can’t handle them”?
  • Are there families that you have had to turn away because you do not have the appropriate resources?

When our school we began to examine issues of inclusion more closely thirteen years ago, we recognized that there were children in our program who were significantly struggling to learn Hebrew in our traditional classrooms. As a result, some were acting out, while others were completely shutting down. We wanted these children to love religious school, to gain an understanding of their Jewish heritage and to feel connected to their Jewish community;; these are the same things we want for all of our children. That was enough of an incentive for us to work with the families and develop the structures that would meet the students’ needs more effectively. But we did not stop there. That was simply the springboard to ensure that as we moved forward, each new program was designed to be accessible and inclusive.

While programs need to be accessible, inclusion is an attitude. Inclusion is a deep seated belief that every child is special is his/her own way, and that every child has a unique capacity to learn, grow and contribute to the world. It really isn’t the program that we create or the class that we teach or the students that we strive to engage. A school is truly successful when inclusion is a part of the culture and when it is a genuine and integral part of the school’s mission.

One Person Can Make a Difference – Who Do You Run 4?

Who Will You Run 4

This post originally appeared at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block.

Who I Run 4 is a non-profit organization that matches runners with those who are unable to run due to a wide variety of medical issues and/or disabilities.  The tagline: “God gave me the gift of mobility. Others aren’t as fortunate so I Run for Michael, who do YOU run for?”

Here’s more of the back story:

Founder Tim Boyle, 41, of Crookston, Minnesota started the non-profit after he connected with Michael Wasserman, a man who has Down syndrome and bilateral hip dysplasia.

“I posted a picture for inspiration for my first official 5K run, and (Wasserman) commented on it,” Boyle explains. “His comment was simple yet profound. He said, ‘You can run for me anytime, Tim!'”

The organization has already made over 5,000 matches and has at least two thousand runners on a wait list. Connections take place through Facebook, and for many, “running” applies to any type of physical workout including walking, hiking, swimming, etc. The Facebook group (over 17,000 strong!) sees dozens of posts a day rich with support and encouragement. Sign up takes place through the Irun4 website and there is currently a need for more “buddies” for runners. I would encourage anyone to consider joining this amazing community.

I have been matched with an adorable little one named Gentry. I have already enjoyed getting to know him, his mom & their family. He’s the perfect motivation as I have already logged nearly thirty miles since we were matched on April 15!

Tim’s is a simple and wonderful story of one person realizing that he had the ability to make a difference. We teach this, we preach this…Tim Boyle lives this.  I am impressed.

Photo Credit: Danielle Walquist Lynch

4 Strategies for Parenting Children with Special Needs in a Digital World

parenting special needs

It seems that everywhere we turn, there is another article written about children and their use of social media. Conversations swirl about what we, as parents, should or shouldn’t let our children do and see. It’s challenging, to be sure, and we worry about our kids. We worry about what seems to be their inability to sustain real conversations. We worry about their use of correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in a world that increasingly recognizes texts and tweets as valid forms of communication. And we worry that this digital world is not preparing our children to have significant and lasting social relationships.

To complicate matters further, most parents are “digital immigrants” (people who were born before the existence and/or widespread adoption of digital technologies) raising “digital natives” (people who have known such technologies since birth). Many of us are doing our best to immerse ourselves in the online world so that we can guide our children through its complexities; but we are learning as we go, and the world continues to change rapidly.

So what happens when you add a child’s learning issues or disabilities into this mix?

 A fifteen-year-old young man with Aspergers syndrome shared with me that Facebook helped him to improve his social skills. This platform eliminated the challenges that he faces in trying to read facial expressions or body language and it gives him the time needed to think through an appropriate response. (Interesting, this is the exact reason why he does NOT like the fast pace of Twitter.) Facebook allows him to engage at his own pace, reducing his anxiety and enabling him to enjoy the benefits of social relationships, a challenging arena for many children and teens with autism spectrum disorders.  

It’s fascinating to consider that the very tools which we worry will interfere with our children’s ability to develop interpersonal relationships may, in fact, help those who otherwise struggle in conventional social settings. There are many other advantages, too. However, we must be prepared to guide our children’s use of social media thoughtfully and intentionally.

1. Diligently monitor content

All children need supervision; no matter their age, no matter their need. I learned some great advice from a veteran teacher: “This is middle school. You may think your children are ready to be independent, but they need you now more than ever. Resist the urge to let them go.” This applies all the more to social media. Know where your kids are, who they are interacting with and do not be afraid to connect with them in these same spaces. You are still the parent. You are not spying.  It is your responsibility to watch your children.

2.  Make your children aware of dangers

Talk to your children about online predators. Talk to them about online bullying.  Open the lines of communication. Encourage them to talk to you about anything suspicious they encounter and do not be afraid to cut them off if you notice something inappropriate. You are still the parent. It is your responsibility to watch your children.

3.  Set limits

Even if these tools help your child to socialize and/or build relationships, it is not healthy to spend hours upon hours a day staring at a screen.  Just as you might limit the amount of television your child watches or the amount of video games he or she plays, you should also establish limits on the use of social media. It’s ok, you are still the parent.

4. Trust your gut

You know your child best. If something feels off, it probably is.  Trust your instincts and don’t second-guess yourself. You have to decide if an online presence is safe and beneficial for your child. And you have to decide when it ceases to be. You are your child’s greatest advocate and it is your responsibility to guide, support and teach your child to advocate for him or herself.  If social media can help, use it.  If not, avoid it. You are still the parent.

Photo Credit: Paul Walsh

Do you have any suggestions to this list? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

Book Review: The Reason I Jump By Naoki Higashida

book review the reason I jump

A version of this post was originally published at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block.

“True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.” ~ Naoki Higashida

The Reason I JumpNaoki Higashida is the author of the fascinating book The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism. This is a first-person account of living with autism, written through the use of assistive technology when Naoki was thirteen.

As you might expect, there are significant insights to be gleaned from this honest, thought-provoking account. And yet, as an educator who cares deeply about inclusion and our ability to value every learner, I find myself wanting to write a warning label.

Without a doubt, this novel provides a window into the thoughts and feelings of a person with autism. Naoki openly shares his struggles and frustrations as a means to increase understanding of himself, his autism and autism in general, while he simultaneously implores the reader for support, care and acceptance. But it is so important to remember that when you have learned how one person thinks and feels, you have learned how one person thinks and feels.

I caution those who wish to understand autism, other non-verbal disabilities, or any disability in general, to not generalize the insights learned here. It might be easy to experience Naoki’s words as ‘aha moments’, but we must remember that each person with autism (or any other disability) is a unique individual; and while there may be similarities, others may or may not share similar feelings and experiences with Naoki.

Additionally, I am challenged by another aspect of this novel. The book is structured as Naoki’s answers to a series of fifty-eight questions. It is unclear who has written and/or posed these questions that range from “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” to “Why do you flap your fingers and hands in front of your face?” to “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” And yet, as you read through all of these questions, you may notice that each and every one is written from an ableist perspective and has what I feel is a slightly negative connotation. Each one seeks to know “why do you do things differently from the rest of us” and the questions even go so far as to ask “Would you like to be ‘normal’?”  Asking such a question is presumptuous, and assumes that Naoki (or anyone with a disability) isn’t ‘normal’. Nowhere do we read, “What are your goals” or “What do you wish for in life” or even “What makes you happy?” Closest is the question, “Would you give us an example of something people with autism really enjoy?” Once again I will assert that such generalizations by one person with a disability on behalf of all who have that disability is unfair and undermines individuality.

Nevertheless, Naoki answers the following question with what I feel to be the most profound statement in the book: “Do you find childish language easier to understand?” His response, “True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.” Why wasn’t this guiding principle used to set the tone of Naoki’s novel?

Have you read The Reason I Jump? What are your thoughts? Tell us in the comments section below!

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