Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

What Inclusion Means to Me

what inclusion means to me

By Sue Robins

Recently, I was asked to speak to all the teachers at my son’s high school about “What Inclusion Means to Me.”  There would be about one hundred educators in the audience for their professional development (PD) day.  I sweated out my approach, talking to the special education teacher who had kindly recommended me, the physics teacher who was the organizer, and many families who had kids with differences in schools across the country.  I was desperate to understand my audience, not to misstep, to represent other families well, for I had a lot of skin in the game.  The high school I was speaking at was where my son Aaron would be for the next six years.  I could not screw this up.

I had spoken once before to an audience of parents and teachers on this same subject, almost three years ago in Alberta, Canada.  My stumble then was not to include any research about the other kids in the school – the ‘typically developing’ kids, many of whom were traveling on a strong academic path.  One mom had angrily protested from the back of the room, “your kid is taking away from my kid’s teaching time!”  I have recognized over the years that it is crucial to address barriers and concerns that the audience is holding early on in the presentation, for if you don’t, they hang onto those concerns during the entire talk, and this is a barrier to the listening.

This time I was more grizzled and wiser (but alas, still not perfect – is there such a thing?).  I drew upon others for expertise in my talk.  I don’t know one thing about adapting or modifying curriculum, so I showed Shelley Moore’s excellent bowling video.  I leaned on Ian Brown’s wisdom about the value of people with disabilities.  The moms from my Family Inclusion Group Facebook page kindly offered up some beautiful quotes about our kids being brave and presuming competence. I was very aware of not being self-serving – not only concerning myself with my own son’s experience but with his colleagues’ experiences, too:  those who used wheelchairs, those who were non-verbal, those identified with ‘behavior’ challenges.   I had many people behind me in spirit for this extraordinary opportunity:  for a mom taking up a morning in a high school’s PD day is a rare sight indeed.

And what does inclusion mean to me?  In the end, I talked about our journey with Aaron. I spoke about when he was first diagnosed (the baby we expected was not the baby we got).  I addressed my struggles with my fears about people with disabilities when Aaron was born, embedded in my head from my junior high days in 1974. I acknowledged the good work teachers do – how busy and exhausted they are too and asked them to reflect on why they chose to teach.  I talked about how inclusion was so much more than academic inclusion inside a classroom, how it was about inclusion in the hallways, at lunchtime, at school events, in sports, in extra-curricular activities.  I invited the audience to think of one way educators and the other students could include the kids in special education in the school, no matter how simple:  learning the students’ names, giving high fives, starting up a Buddy program, picking one thing from their class lesson to teach them each day.

My intention was to touch hearts to change minds.  My key messages:

-the value of children with disabilities (the disabled do the work of love, says Ian Brown)

-expanding the definition of diversity to include different abilities

-to point out how we are not preparing the high-achieving students for the real world if they do not know people who are ‘the other.’

I had to pause a few times during the talk to catch myself from crying.  This topic is deeply personal to me, as Aaron’s school experience is everything to us.  We chose to live in our particular school district.  We bought a condo close to the school.  I resigned from my job to be more visible and available to support his school experience.

Scanning the audience, I knew others were crying too.  Maybe they had someone with a difference in their family.  Maybe they were remembering the feeling of being left out.  Maybe they were triggered to recall why they chose to teach.  In the end, the applause was more than polite, and I had a patient line of teachers waiting to chat with me.  It tears me up to think about how much these educators want to reach all children, but sometimes they just don’t know how.  This desire is everything.  Change happens with just one step at a time – the first step is the most important one. This is the beginning of belonging, one high five at a time.

Inclusion to me means finding love + belonging.  It means taking the time to understand another person’s perspective, to feel empathy, to demonstrate compassion.  These are the same messages I share with healthcare audiences, as I’ve realized that these concepts are profoundly universal.

In the end, for me, everything always circles back to Raymond Carver:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.”

― Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall

Photo Credit: Bradley Huchteman/Flickr

sue robinsSue Robins is a writer, speaker, and mom of three.  Her youngest son Aaron is 13 years old and has Down syndrome.  Her essays about motherhood have been published in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.  Sue is passionate about families who have children with differences, coaching families to tell their own stories and nurturing gratitude and compassion in health care (and now education) settings.  She is also a partner in Bird Communications, a health communications company in Vancouver and Edmonton.  She can be found on Twitter and Facebook as @suerobinsyvr and her blog is suerobins.com.

Is 100 Percent Inclusion Right for All Students with Disabilities?

100 percent inclusion; green circles overlapping each other

100 Percent Inclusion

Is 100 percent inclusion for students with special needs always possible?

Scrolling through my Facebook feed recently, I came across a post by someone in a group I am in that advocates for the “100% Inclusion for individuals with special educational needs.” The post is as follows:

So I buy the 100% inclusion argument. I have seen the research. I’ve made the argument myself. But sometimes I get this pang, maybe it is from other parents who say that sometimes inclusion is overwhelming for our kiddos. Is there ever a time when 100% inclusion is not right? How would one know? I just want to be sure that I’m not forcing my values and not paying attention to my kiddo. y’know? Thanks for your thoughts!

What if full inclusion is not the right thing to do?

This is a legitimate question. For inclusion advocates, it may be a bitter pill to swallow, but the fact remains that there are many places in the world that authentic inclusive education is not available. For these students, is it worth pursuing something that may not be right for this particular student?

Let us examine what it means for 100 percent inclusion to be “not the right thing to do.” If a family wants to pursue full-time inclusion for their child and the school and staff are not on board and they do not have the resources to do so are we not setting them up for failure? Although inclusive education as a global concept is right, good and honorable, it may not be the right thing to do for that student at that specific time or place. I do not believe inclusive education advocates lose any credibility in conceding this idea.

What if full inclusion is not what the parents (or the student wants?)

When I have approached certain parents about including their child more in the general education environment, they have balked at the notion. As an advocate, I believe it is important to listen to the wishes of the family when making a placement determination. That is, after all, what the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is supposed to be about, making decisions as a team.

Also, if a student is showing that they are uncomfortable (or even terrified) in the general education setting, we must listen to what their behavior is telling us. The goal, of course, is that we include them as much as possible and that we are actively working toward inclusion.

We need a bigger tent.

I am grateful for the courage of parents who ask hard questions about what the implications are of 100 percent inclusion. We need safe spaces to talk about our concerns without being browbeaten for wanting to have real conversations. For inclusive education to move forward, we need to wrestle with these concerns. There are no easy answers but if we are not afraid to ask the questions we can work together to find answers for all students.

For the record, I still believe that inclusive education for everyone is the best course of action for all students (and the research back it up.)

What would you say to parents who are questioning if 100 percent inclusion is always the right thing to do? Tell us what you think in the comment section below!

Photo Credit: cactusbeetroot/Flickr

The Pursuit of Inclusion: Blazing a Path for Our Son with Prader-Willi Syndrome

pursuit of inclusion; a dirt path running a lush forest

This past year, our son Dean, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, began his preschool career at the ripe old age of 3. Dean, like others his age, was in a “natural environment” program, which met at a daycare with typical and special needs peers. In this program, a parent or caregiver is required to attend with each student and is there primarily to observe. This experience and others involving mother’s groups, playgroups, and outside educational programs, has given us great insight into what is best for Dean.

I love the special needs environment because they really “get” some things, like how someone with muscle tone as low as Dean’s might need extra support to sit in a chair so they can concentrate more on work than on not falling over. They used a slant board for Dean to view his work at eye level so it would be easier from visual-spatial and fine motor standpoints. And having a PT, OT, and SLP at the ready – for a quick consult even if Dean doesn’t receive their services – is a dream. A relief. The smaller child-to-teacher ratio is necessary for the amount of help Dean needs to be most successful.

And yet, we find that typical environments tend to have more of a healthy fear of specific information we might have about Dean or PWS. They don’t assume they know how certain meltdowns or specific speech issues will play out. They’re not jaded by the usual categories of special needs and approach Dean more as an individual who is perhaps a bit more complex than is their average student. As with our doctors, babysitters, caregivers, or the average onlooker, we find so helpful those who seek to learn rather than those who ignore the pertinent first-hand information we have for them and assume that they know best.

For this coming year, our county does not offer what we are really looking for, which is an inclusive classroom. These scenarios exist in nearby counties, but not in ours. The recommendation of Dean’s IEP team (and something we wanted in part) was a “center-based” (special ed.) classroom. But I asked about opportunities for Dean to interact with typical peers, and I was told that this was only a possibility. For us, leaving this up in the air was surprising, not to mention… unacceptable.

I told his teacher that we were thinking about doing a few days in a typical preschool, and then the other days at center-based. She referred to Dean’s IEP and mentioned that if he wasn’t at center-based every day, he might not be able to meet all of his goals. She said, “You have to decide what’s a priority for you: academics or socializing.” My head spun as I thought about what she said, for it never occurred to me that this was an either/or issue. We want both for Dean, and we weren’t going to get it with what was being offered to us. So we decided to send Dean to a typical preschool two mornings a week, and to center-based three times a week. As we have done for him countless times in these past three years, we are blazing our own path. To do anything less would be a disservice to our sweet Dean, no matter what the learning environment.

Photo Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with a new featured image, category, and tags.

Ali Foley Shenk lives in Richmond, VA with her husband Bob and their three boys: Cole, Dean, and Emmett. Ali writes, mostly on her blog at divingintothewaves.com, and is also a freelance copy editor. She also volunteers with the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research (www.fpwr.org).

Getting Over the Biggest Obstacle to Inclusion

obstacle to inclusion; lego figurine standing close to the edge at the top of the empire state building in NYC

How do you get over the biggest obstacle to inclusion? In November of 2011, I wrote a blog post for SpecialEducationAdvisor.com about educators getting over the fear of inclusive education. Here is an excerpt.

Even under the best of circumstances, there is always a bit of trepidation when starting something new. Think about the first time you rode a bike, drove a car, your first kiss, or really anytime you have ever taken a risk. The thrill and terror of it all can be overwhelming. I liken this feeling to the first time I took one of my students (a boy with severe autism and challenging behaviors) and put him in a 4th grade general education classroom. It was my first teaching job, in a self-contained classroom for students with autism in California and I was challenged by one of my professors at Cal State University Fullerton to begin the process of including my students in general education. At this time, there was little support for inclusion at my school (not even for Art, Music or PE – mainly because we did not have those programs due to budget constraints). Even so, I believed it was the right thing to do and began trying to change the hearts and minds of my colleagues. It was not easy at first, but after explaining that I was not simply going to “dump” my students off in their class, they were definitely more receptive.

This tends to be the biggest fear of people who are opposed to a “full inclusion” model. There are different definitions of “full inclusion” but one I prefer is apparent when we talk about the idea of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). What is the environment that will least hinder the student from being educated with their typically-developing peers while still accessing the general curriculum (what everyone is being taught) in a meaningful way? There is no one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion just like there is no one-size-fits-all approach to general education (no matter how hard we want there to be). But…I am getting ahead of myself. In regards to my 4th grader who was now going to be included into a Math block in general education, I began to feel the anxiety creep up in me as the day approached. Would he keep his challenging behaviors in check? Would the class accept him when he started to script movie lines? Would the general education teacher think I was crazy for putting her up to this?

Diffusing and answering the inevitable questions was the big key into alleviating everyone’s fear. I spoke to the class before we started and explained my student, while having some differences in the way he experienced the world, was still a 4th grade boy who liked movies, music and playing on the computer. He liked Math, which is why we decided this was the best time for him to join his peers. It was also important to take the uncomfortable questions of “why does he do this,” or “why does he do that,” and answer them with the utmost respect and dignity to their new classmate. Perhaps honest communication is the best way to gain his peers’ trust…kids are too smart and usually know when you are trying to put one over on them. Once we got that out of the way, acceptance was the easy part.

Inclusion, at its very heart is a noble cause because it brings dignity to human beings when it otherwise would separate those who need love the most. Fear may be an obstacle but it certainly is not an excuse.

Source: Special Education Advisor: Fear Factor – Getting over the biggest obstacle to inclusion

Photo Credit: clement127/Flickr

Achieving Inclusion with Grit and Gratitude

scrabble letters spelling out the word grateful

By Laura Bratton

Just a few months before I started third grade I was diagnosed with an eye disease. My vision was deteriorating, and I would eventually become blind. So as I started the new school year, my parents were faced with a decision regarding my education. They were told that I would have to leave my current school and go to school in another city. Being a teacher, my mom knew that I was completely capable of staying in the same school. She knew that if I received the appropriate accommodations I could complete third grade just like everyone else. For example, by sitting at the front of the classroom, using large print textbooks, and a magnifier for worksheets I would be able to complete the assignments. My parents also knew that I would greatly benefit from being around all types of students; those without disabilities as well as those with different types of disabilities. So my parents were determined that I would stay in the mainstream school system.

The following is an excerpt from my book Harnessing Courage, which describes the impact of my parents’ decision to keep me in my regular classes:

“I will never forget speaking to a class of middle schoolers one year when I was home from college. Before I spoke, I was in the school office. A lady walked up to me and said, “Please tell your parents thank you for the work that they did.” I looked up at her, confused; I had no clue what she was talking about. I was giving the talk in a different school district than the one in which I grew up. She added, “Because of the work that your parents did for you to keep you in regular public school, countless other children who came behind you are also able to stay in public school.” I stood in the office of that school not sure how to respond. I replied with a simple, “Oh, that is great!” However, it just did not seem like enough. I was excited and touched to know that the bravery my parents displayed not only benefited me, but it also benefited many other children we will never know.”

I am grateful beyond words that I had the opportunity for inclusive education for two main reasons. First, I was able to receive the same level of education my peers received. Teachers expected me to perform at the same level as the other students. Yes, of course, I received the needed accommodations such as twice as much time to complete tests. However, once the accommodations were in place, I was held to the same standard. I learned that I could not use my blindness as an excuse for not performing at a high level.

The second reason I am grateful for inclusive education is because of the socialization I received. Being around students who did not have a disability as well as students who had different types of learning disabilities taught me how to advocate for my needs. For example, I learned how to ask a friend for help when I needed to find the correct lunch table in the cafeteria. I developed the ability to communicate my needs clearly so that I could interact with all students. Receiving the same level of education and socialization as other students gave me the tools I needed to live a productive and full life. For the gift of my parents advocating for me: I am grateful. For the opportunity of inclusive education: I am grateful.

Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary/Flickr

laura bratton

Laura Bratton was born and raised in South Carolina. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2006. In 2010, Laura was the first blind student to graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. Laura is the pastor at Laurens Road United Methodist Church and founder of Ubi Global LLC. She is the author of Harnessing Courage. Visit Laura’s website at www.ubiglobal.org.

A Place for Parents: Autistics and Allies

Sticker of two people holding hands.

By Larkin Taylor-Parker

Disagreements between stakeholders of various kinds are fairly common in the disability community, but conflict plagues autism discourse. The place of parents is particularly contentious. As I prepared for this post, I glanced around the Internet for what had already been said. There are too many existing attempts to fix this with a blog post, or, worse, one that oversimplifies the conflict or makes a straw man of one side. I decided this would not be another iteration of an endemic, useless thing. As I read others’ thoughts on the subject, I happened on a year-old article called Who Should Lead the Autism Rights Movement? Instantly, I knew how to articulate the problem and solution.

The answer to that question is obvious: people whose lives are most shaped by society’s decisions on what to do with autistic people deserve the final say. Social change that undermines oppression has never been ally-led. Agency as charitable donation is a contradiction in terms. We must take it for ourselves, not wait until others deign to bestow it. The thrust of every argument I have seen against our leadership is that we are too disabled to have a say in our future. I see this sentiment often. It comes couched in sympathy, recommended for convenience’s sake, and presented in the tired terminology of a moldy eugenics textbook in my vintage and antiquarian collection. I have never seen these claims hold up to scrutiny. The arguments are full of transparent fallacies. Besides, Autistics and other people with disabilities are challenging notions of our incapacity in numbers hard to dismiss as anecdotal evidence. Given a measure of control over our lives, we usually improve them. We will always know more about how to do that than allistic* people. We know our priorities, experiences, needs.

Parents may not be able to set the agenda, but they have a natural role in neurodiversity and disability rights efforts. It is partly restraint. They can be quiet in our safe spaces and encourage others to do likewise. They can stop calling anyone capable of typing insufficiently disabled to have valid opinions. They can stop speaking for and talking over us. However, not everything we need from them is passivity. There are active roles no one could better fulfill.

The media asks them about autism before it does us. Parents have the opportunity to amplify our voices where they would otherwise be ignored, redirect questions, challenge purely negative perceptions. Parents can raise money for worthy causes and organizations. The silver lining of the Autism Speaks problem is that many learned fundraising. Parents can raise assertive autistic children with a healthy sense of self-worth. They can bring up kids who carve a place for themselves in the world and understand their right to be here. Parents can stand with autistic children and adults as we demand a fair chance at rich, full, dignified lives.

As parents work to ensure they are on our side, autistics should help. We must find a healthy middle ground between the extremes of ignoring ableism and writing decent people off for one ignorant word. This is more than being humane. It is pragmatism. We need allies more than most groups. At just over one percent of the population, we will never have the numbers to go it alone.

*non-autistic

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with a new author bio as well as a new featured image. 

Larkin Taylor-Parker is a second-year law student at the University of Georgia. She is interested in disability rights, the experiences of young professionals from historically marginalized groups, and fixing internet culture. She is also an avid recreational tuba player.

Mix Applesauce with Medicine to Create Inclusive Classroom Communities

jars of homemade applesauce

By Alex Dunn

Inclusion is not a place, but rather a philosophy that all students deserve to experience successful academic and social participation side-by-side with peers. 

What does successful inclusion look like?  Recently Nicole Eredics on her Inclusive Class Blog asked this question and found this wonderful visual from The Parent Leadership Support Group of Georgia, which was posted on their Facebook page, as a response.

From our four year Smart Inclusion research project, I would like to propose some small changes to this great image in order to recognize that in order to create inclusive classroom communities, we need to acknowledge that no two students are alike and that changes need to be made to existing learning environments to reach and teach every student; “barriers to learning are not, in fact, inherent in the capacities of learners, but instead arise in learners’ interactions with inflexible educational materials and methods.  (CAST Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning, Preface p. iv).

For those like me in the trenches, in schools every day, it is important to ask the question: How can we make a difference to the students and educators we serve and really achieve inclusive classroom communities?  A recent Twitter exchange with Jeannette Van Houten (@jvanhoutensped) and Tim Villegas (@think_inclusive) made me reflect on what we tried to do in our schools at Upper Canada District School Board in Ontario Canada over the past four years.

Educators told us that in order to achieve inclusive classroom communities they, with their students, needed to become proficient across three continuums – inclusion, curriculum, and technology.  In a way, I equate the integration of all three continuums to applesauce and medicine.  Although the technology (e.g., iPads, SMART Technology, Nintendo, Laptops etc) and other classroom manipulatives (e.g., Lego, Wikki Stix etc)  have been the all-important applesauce, I think all those involved with Smart Inclusion research would agree the key to the success for both educators and students has been the way the applesauce of technology has been combined with the medicine of bringing research-based pedagogy (e.g., Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Differentiated Instruction (DI), Aided Language Stimulation, Student, Environments, Tasks, and Tools (SETT) and Participation Models) into practice.  In short, educators cast a UDL net attempting to catch all students but sometimes, despite our best efforts, some students fall through the net and sit on the outside of education looking in which is completely unacceptable.  Pat Mirenda and David Beukleman’s Participation Model (PM) (really Differentiated Instruction with a twist) has provided us a way of catching all students that fall through the net.  As Jeannette Van Houten suggests “failure is a way to move to success”.  The Activity Standards Inventory (ASI), from the PM does just that.  Here is a link to a case study of one of our Smart Inclusion students and how we applied the Participation Model to help identify barriers to participation and subsequent intervention, including the use of technology.

A special thank you to the staff, students and parents at UCDSB for giving their nights and weekends and for sharing their work and that of their children, so that children worldwide can experience the same successful academic and social participation.  This groundbreaking research we have undertaken has been replicated in other school Districts in Ontario and Alberta, Canada.  Many other Districts, educators, parents, and students, worldwide have joined us on our journey to ensure that ALL really means ALL and that we are truly welcoming everyone, all the time, everywhere” (Pat Mirenda).

Photo Credit: Andrew Seaman/Flickr

Alex DunnAs Speech-Language Pathologist at the Upper Canada District School Board and president of Inclusioneers, Alex Dunn has presented across the USA, Canada, Germany, England, Spain, exploring technology (SMART Technology, iDevices, Assistive Technology) and theory as part of Universal Design for Learning Toolkit to ensure ALL students, achieve the goal of meaningful educational, social participation.  Recently Alex Dunn was named SMART Exemplary Educator of the Year for Canada for 2012 and appointed as an Officer for Special Education Technology Special Interest Group for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).  You can find her on Twitter @SmartInclusion or visit the Smart Inclusion Wikispaces Page

Striving for Community as a God-Loving Aspie

man looking up towards heaven thinking about god

By Timotheus “Pharaoh” Gordon

Being autistic and striving to be a Christian is very rigorous at times, especially if there are little resources or examples for such community.

I’ve been practicing Christianity for about a year and two months. It may have been a difficult year of struggles; heck I still have to work on (e.g., having MY OWN convictions that are based on the Bible, not solely word-of-mouth). But I’m growing more convinced that through the power of the Trinity, even autistic people can change the world as Jesus did.

I love studying the bible, praying for people, helping out people, going to mission trips (to take pictures of those experiences), and hanging out.  Sometimes, I would blog about my faith on my website.

Yet, I don’t really feel like a member of the church at times. I interact with people, but not as well in huge crowds (so many people and too noisy). It seems like some would see this as not wanting to fellowship when it’s only part of my autism. I feel like very few of my peers understand my challenges with fellowshipping. I also struggle with emotional meanings behind certain passages.

I’m scared even more when it appears that I’m alone in the fight to stick with Christianity as an autistic person.  I met two boys in a Birmingham church who are autistic, but I’ve yet to find autistic adults who are Christian. How can I be an autistic Christian if there is lack of adequate examples of such persons out there?

I believe that first step in seeing more autistic Christians (especially those who are living independently and are verbal) is to provide resources that could help them grow in the faith. The catch is that resources have to come from someone or an entity who fully understands autistic Christians’ hardships in the world. Resources could even come from a person in the autistic spectrum who been the faith for a long time (e.g., at least 2 years). Providing spiritual guidance from the verbal, independent autistic’s point of view is more beneficial than turning to a place or someone with limited/stereotypical knowledge of the condition.

Meanwhile, more Christians that are autistic should network with each other and share their testimonies to non-autistic Christians. That will inspire many people and convince of how God could work through anyone.

With those, I would hope to see news of more autistic Christians making a difference in people’s lives and less of parent’s woes with raising an autistic child in a Christian household.

(sidebar) Links related to Autistic Christians:

Autism Society (Religion and Autism): http://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/family-issues/religion-and-autism.html

Books and Resources on Religion, Spirituality, and Moral Development: http://www.neurodiversity.com/religion.html

Christianity and Autism Forum: http://www.aspiesforfreedom.com/showthread.php?tid=21631

James Tuttle (autism advocate, political advocate, and commentator on spiritual issues): https://www.facebook.com/pages/James-Tuttle/23053891623

Spectrum Ministries: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Spectrum-Ministires

Photo Credit: Carlos Solares/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has been edited for clarity, has a new author bio and has as a new featured image.

Timotheus GordonBorn and raised on the south side of Chicago, Timotheus “Pharaoh” Gordon has loved the power of writing since 3rd grade when he copied love poems and read history literature in his free time. He got married to poetry in 2003 after turning in a humorous poem on his daily routine for a homework assignment. Writing, especially poetry, also helped him develop a voice as an African-American male with autism.
He is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in autism acceptance, social commentary, sports, cosplay, and comic/anime conventions. He is published in online publications such as Football.com, Creative Loafing Atlanta, and Yahoo Contributor Network. In addition, he takes event pictures at anime/comic conventions, rallies, college events, class reunions, 5K races, and church functions. Along with those two professions,  am currently an independent marketing representative, where I utilize social media and word-of-mouth to provide essential productions and show people how they can gain financial independence. Connect with him on Twitter @TimotheusGordon or his other social media outlets.

My Child Is Starting an Inclusive Preschool: Now What?

three children standing in front of a brick wall that has been painted with chalkboard paint. they are smiling and laughing.

By Nakeshia Wright

Somehow, inexplicably, the school year starts. Summer vacations were had, swimming lessons were taken, and probably too many popsicles and ice cream treats were enjoyed. Throw in a few inevitable tantrums and occasional mischief due to summer boredom, and most parents will be sending their children off to school with a relieved grin on their face. However, if you’re a parent sending your child to an early education program for the first time, you may experience more complex emotions, especially if your child has a special need.

Try not to fret; there are plenty of resources and experts out there to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Inclusive early education programs, like the Frazer Center, are a good place to start. As an Inclusion Specialist, it is my job to ensure children with disabilities and their families receive the direction and resources they need.  Still, having an inclusion professional within the program is just one of many benefits. There is more and more research available that supports the benefits of inclusion for young children with and without disabilities. Studies have shown that individualized evidence-based strategies for children with disabilities can be implemented successfully in inclusive early childhood programs, according to the U.S Department of Education.

Once you’ve found an inclusive program that you feel comfortable with, check out the list below of things you can do to ensure your child remains developmentally on track. Starting your child with a special need at an inclusive early education program can be stressful, but remember you are not alone and the benefits and resources your child receives will be a tremendous tool for his or her future learning.

  1. Start the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) and Individualized Education Program (IEP) process as early as possible. The process can be very involved and often overwhelming. Unfortunately the longer you wait, the more daunting it can become. While your child must be at least three years old to qualify for an IEP, it’s never too early to get help for potential developmental delays or learning issues. Starting an IEP/IFSP as early as possible not only ensures accommodations and supports for your child, but makes the transition from preschool to kindergarten much easier. This is particularly the case if schools in your district can not provide the resources needed for your child and other accommodations have to be arranged.
  2. Communication is crucial. Communication is important for every parent, but especially for parents of children with special needs. Most likely it’s your first go-around caring for a child with special needs. It’s not ours or the other experts you will work with. Has your child not been sleeping as much as usual? Is there a new fear to overcome? Are you confused about something on the IEP? Let us know! Not communicating upfront often leads to increased, inefficient communication down the road. It might also be useful to start a communication log. The notifications and updates you will receive about your child is significant and will only increase. Catalog them all together.
  3. Start a routine for before and after school. This only goes for older children that will be starting kindergarten shortly—infants have their own (albeit unpredictable) routine. Regular routines help kids cooperate, learn to take charge and keep a schedule. It gives them consistency, certainty, and safety. The structure at home regularly translates to good behavior at school, reducing time spent on negative feelings and distractions, allowing more time to learn and develop.
  4. Get involved. Any high-quality early education program affords plenty of opportunities for parents to stay actively involved in their child’s blossoming education. Join the parent-teacher committee, serve as “lead” parent for your child’s classroom, volunteer when asked. If your schedule is just too hectic to commit to a large time invest, at least make sure to always attend a parent-teacher conference, IEP meetings, and program-wide functions. Staying engaged is the most direct way to stay informed about upcoming events and potential policy changes. It’s where you strengthen relationships with teachers and administrators, as well as form beneficial relationships with other parents. As a parent with a child with special needs, program changes may affect your child more than a typically developing child. You are your child’s voice when decisions are being made, make sure they are heard.

Photo Credit: Frazer Center

The post was originally published on the Frazer Center blog and is used with permission.

nakeshia-wrightNakeshia Wright is an Inclusion Specialist at the Frazer Center in Atlanta, GA, one of the metro area’s only inclusive early education programs. In this role, she works closely with families, teachers, therapists, and other entities to provide the best possible experience for children with special needs. Nakeshia has worked for the Frazer Center since 2009 in various capacities including assistant teacher, lead teacher, and lead Pre-K teacher. She is reliable in using the Inclusive Classroom Profile and was named GAYC Certified Teacher of the Year in 2012. Previously, Nakeshia worked at the Muriel Humphrey Center in Woodbridge, VA (2005-2009) which was a day program for individuals with Special Needs from 6 weeks to 22 years. She began working with children with special needs in high school and has a Bachelor’s of Sciences in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Hampton University. She’s a photographer, plays the piano and viola, sings, raps, and writes music. She also owns a t-shirt company (Be Brand Clothing) and button business (Take Notes).

 

One Big Misconception About School Readiness

school readiness: young girl ready for school waiting for the bus on the side of the road with a purple backpack

By Sandy Ginther

As the parent of three daughters, I was always bothered by “Ready for School” initiatives. While my two typically developing girls passed their kindergarten readiness tests, I was still troubled by it. It was like they had to earn their right to go to kindergarten. After all, if one didn’t pass, didn’t that imply she could not go to kindergarten? And why would we start any child’s school career with rejection?

Least Restrictive Environment Is Interpreted Differently Among School Districts

My third daughter, Abbey, has Down syndrome. With an emphasis on academic skills, she would not pass the kindergarten school readiness test. Her eligibility for special education entitled her to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE presumes that environment to be the general education classroom with accommodations and other services recognized as appropriate for support. This principle should not deny a child ‘not ready for school’ their right to the same kindergarten, but gets the ‘school ready’ for the child. However, our public school system saw Abbey’s LRE as being in the self-contained special education classroom. The Ready for School initiative only advanced their position. In the end, however, Abbey did attend general education kindergarten in her neighborhood school where her sisters attended.

As a parent, my personal view has absolute relevance for my family. But how does my opinion stack up against the rest of the world when it comes to school readiness?

Guess I am not alone in my opinion as the American Academy of Pediatrics had this to say on their website Healthy Children: “The idea that because of their birth date some children are “ready for school” and others are not has become controversial. Just as children begin to walk or talk at different ages, they also develop the psychological and social skills necessary for school at varying ages. Also, many parents and educators feel that schools need to be ready for children. This newer approach emphasizes designing curriculum so that all students of the chronological age to entering school can benefit from the program.”

School Readiness Policies Have Unintended Consequences

This concern about Ready for School influence on kindergarten access is however just one reason for controversy on the child-ready-for-school compared to the school-ready-for-the-child views. Recent studies and early childhood experts have chimed in to call for re-thinking school readiness. As recently as March 2016, ‘Young Exceptional Children Journal’ (Vol. 19, Number 1, Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children) published the article, “Voices from the Field: Three Mistakes Made Worldwide in ‘Getting Children Ready’ for School”. The article states that readiness policies have had unintended negative consequences. And that tensions exist between developmentally appropriate practices in effective early childhood education and the ready for school practice. The article, by authors from across the world, identified the three mistakes as:

  1. Conceptualizing “readiness” as a trait
  2. Outcomes are fragmented and taught in isolation
  3. Policies and practices emphasize standardization

They went on to offer a new definition of readiness: “Readiness is a developmental process, mostly unpredictable and highly influenced by the child’s social relationships and interactions. Readiness requires a whole-child perspective where individual differences are expected, valued, and celebrated.” (pg. 49) They expand the child’s social relationships and interactions factors as the bottom line in determining readiness. Their whole-child approach to development and learning avoids the focus on a child’s level in performing ‘discrete skills or a set of narrowly defined skills’ and embraces the ‘integration or clustering of skills into a functional whole’. A whole child approach, they report, realizes a natural pace can’t be accelerated by targeting developmentally IN-appropriate outcomes.

Readiness as a Personal Trait Puts the Responsibility on the Child

Author, David Elkind in his 2014 book ‘Parenting on the Go’, states: “The problem with viewing readiness as a personal trait, rather than a relationship, is that it puts the entire onus on the child.” (pg. 193) Elkind reveals that when we demand certain skills be met, it is we determining a child’s readiness, or lack thereof. So he writes: “Knowing one’s numbers and letters are not what a child needs to know to succeed… A child needs:

1. To be able to listen to and follow instructions
2. To concentrate and bring a task to completion
3. To be able to work cooperatively with other children
If a child has these, the numbers and letters will follow.” (Pg. 194)

And yet our kids with disabilities may still be emerging into Elkind’s three skills.

That’s what special education services are for — to follow the child into the least restrictive general education environment. The Individual Education Program should support the child while she/he is observing and emulating kindergarteners that already possess those skills.

Children with Disabilities Do Not Need to Be Ready to Be Included

Also in 2014 Erin Barton and Barbara J. Smith generated the ‘Brief Summary: Fact Sheet of Research on Preschool Inclusion’. One point states: “Children with disabilities do not need to be ‘ready’ to be included. Programs need to be ‘ready’ to support all children.” DEC/NAEYC (2009) Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

But make no mistake: there are real actions that can be taken by us, families, to promote our children’s entrance into a school through our nurturing the love of discovery (AKA learning) and healthy relationships.

The same Healthy Children website cited above also includes advice for families. Reading to your children, exposure to enriching experiences like museum visits, farms, cities, and opportunities to play alongside or with other children either in the neighborhood and larger community are all beneficial for early development.

Building a Relationship with Your Child Promotes Readiness

The Three Mistakes article also states that there is a need to ready families and communities. So there are many sources of parental interaction and parent provided activities for our young children that will acclimate and prepare them. The standard fare for families to practice includes: reading aloud DAILY, encouraging and supporting them to try new things (demanding and forcing can defeat), listen and show you are listening and paying attention (we want them to learn to pay attention), provide nutritious foods and drinks (that you eat and drink too), demonstrate sharing and turn-taking, acknowledge what they are doing with descriptions (it’s better than – and harder than – the typical ‘good job’ praise), point out when your child has reason to feel good about themselves, and set limits for your child (it’s practice for the teenage years).

Here are some examples of activities:

  • Sing to and with your child, simple melodies at first.
  • Use natural materials. Give your child a spoon and pots, pans, or plastic bowls to bang on; shake a large rattle or plastic container filled with beans, buttons, or other noisy items; and blow through empty toilet paper or paper towel rolls, etc.
  • Show your child how to take part in nursery rhymes. Help them copy your hand movements, clap, or hum along.
  • Encourage your child to sway and dance to music by your example.
  • Scribbling, cutting, and pasting helps to develop fine motor skills, using different materials to find what interest them (messy paints, chalk, markers, Crayola’s, etc. are worth it).
  • Help your child learn how to use blunt nosed scissors, starting with free form cutting.
  • Paste items, such as scraps of cloth, yarn, string, or cotton balls, to paper. You can make a paste with flour and water or by using leftover egg white.

Socially, remember our preschoolers are usually black and white concrete thinkers. What they see is what they get. Watch your example, because they are.

Advocate for High-Quality Inclusive Education Programs

Finally from the Early CHOICES’ perspective, one of the best things families can do to prepare their children for kindergarten is to advocate/obtain high-quality inclusion with typically developing children during the preschool years. So it is neither one nor the other, but both the school being ready for the child AND the child being ready for school, which bring the best outcomes for kindergarten and the future. By shared information between the school and families about what readiness means, both can be ready. And like our young children, establishing those relationships and interactions is crucial.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics.  (Last Updated11/21/2015).  Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Is-Your-Child-Ready-for-School.aspx

Barton, E. E. & Smith, B. J. (2014). Brief fact sheet of research on preschool inclusion. Pyramid Plus: The Colorado Center for Social Emotional Competence and Inclusion. Denver, CO. http://www.pyramidplus.org

Elkind, D. (2014) Parenting on the go: Birth to six, A to Z.  Boston, MA: DaCapo Press.

Pretti-Frontczak, K., Harjusola-Webb, S., Chin, M., Grisham-Brown, J., Acar, S., Heo, K., Corby, M., & Zeng, S. (2016). Voices from the field: Three Mistakes worldwide in “Getting Children Ready for School”.  Young Exceptional Children, 19, 48-51.

Photo Credit: clappstar/Flickr

Sandy GintherThirty years ago when Sandy’s daughter was born with Down syndrome, she became active in endeavors related to disability, inclusive practices, children, and education. She has been employed with the state’s Project CHOICES, directed a countywide Early Intervention Program, served as an Early Intervention Statewide Trainer, been an Early Childhood and Family Resource Specialist, and is currently a consultant for Early CHOICES, an Illinois Preschool Least Restrictive Environment initiative. Sandy has a B.S. in Communication and a minor in Special Education from Illinois State University, and graduate hours in Early Childhood from Western Illinois University, Portland State University and the University of Colorado. The foundation of Sandy’s work is composed of personally recognizing the need for an accepting society, professionally following researched benefits of inclusive supported opportunities and the significance of the early childhood years.

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