Cheryl Jorgensen is one of the premier experts on inclusive education. She has a feature on her website called “Ask Cheryl”, where she answers questions that have been emailed to her. She has given me permission to re-post these Q & A’s on our site as a series. You can find the original “Ask Cheryl” page on her website. The best way to contact her is by email: cheryl.jorgensen@unh.edu.

Dear Cheryl,

Our school is just now beginning to think about including our students with autism in general education classrooms. We have ten students with an autism label in Kindergarten through 5th grade. Where do we start?

Sincerely, An Elementary School Principal,

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Dear Principal,

I am so glad to hear from you and to know that you are committed to including students with autism in general education classrooms. This is actually the perfect time of year to begin taking steps toward having all students with autism as welcomed members of age-appropriate general education classes next fall.

Step 1

Bring together a team of folks representing your key stakeholders and designate them as your Inclusive Education Leadership Team. I would suggest including a general education teacher from each grade level, all special education case managers, your speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist who provide services to children with autism, a couple of paraprofessionals, your reading specialist (or a Title I teacher), your building or district special education administrator, and a couple of parents.

Step 2

Develop a plan for keeping all parents of children with and without disabilities informed of your plans as they evolve. This might include giving a monthly update at a PTA meeting, holding special information sessions for parents, and certainly, talking with the parents of the children with autism about the “whys” and “hows” of inclusive education.

Step 3

Identify a few key books, research articles, and videos that everyone on the Leadership Team will read/watch together. I would suggest “You’re Going to Love This Kid!”: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, Second Edition by Paula Kluth for the book, Including Samuel and We Thought You’d Never Ask for the videos, and a soon-to-be-published booklet I wrote for the National Education Association called Including Students with Autism.

Step 4

Visit an inclusive school. There is no substitute for seeing inclusion in action. Since I know that you live in Wisconsin I would suggest contacting the Fox Prairie Elementary School in Stoughton. They have been designated as a “knowledge development school” by the SWIFT project which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education as a school where all students are included in general education and all “siloed” resources from general and special education and from Title I are deployed to support all students’ academic and behavioral success. The SWIFT project has lots of great resources on their website as well. http://www.swiftschools.org

Step 5

Identify which general education classroom each student will join in September 2014. Provide monthly professional development workshops for those general education teachers and other members of your students’ educational teams. I would focus these workshops on 7 key topics:

1) the rationale for inclusive education
2) inclusive education best practices
3) collaborative teaming and new roles for special educators as supporters of students’ participation in general education instruction
4) peer supports and cooperative learning
5) universal design for learning and assuring access to all instructional materials
6) planning curricular and instructional adaptations for students with intensive support needs to encourage their full participation, and
7) positive behavior interventions and supports.

If you have students who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), workshops for those students’ teams would be important as well. You might look for online webinars, conferences (one sponsored by the Colorado PEAK Parent Center is super – http://www.peakparent.org), workshops offered by the Wisconsin Department of Education, or contact the Wisconsin TASH chapter to get recommendations for great workshop presenters (skonings@uwosh.edu).

Step 6

Plan next year’s school calendar so that each student’s educational team has one hour of common planning time weekly. During these meetings each team will talk about upcoming lessons and units and discuss the supports that the students will need in order to fully participate and learn. You might use the instructional planning forms that I developed that are discussed in this article:

Jorgensen, C.M., & Lambert, L. (2012). Inclusion means more than just being “in:” Planning full participation of students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities in the general education classroom. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 8(2), 21-35. (PDF Link Here)

Step 7

Give each student’s team a day’s worth of planning time during the summer to get a head start on instructional planning. It will help all the students start the year off positively if the team feels as if they can “hit the ground running” on Day 1 with a couple of week’s work of materials and other supports already planned.

Step 8

Write each student’s IEP so that his or her goals and objectives are aligned with the Common Core State Standards and so that special education services are delivered within the context of general education instruction in the general education classroom. Go to this website to view a description of a webinar I did on this topic and then contact Cat Jones at the Univ. of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability (cat.jones@unh.edu) to find out how to access the recorded version. http://iod.unh.edu/services/eventdetail/12-11-28/Webinar_Creating_Inclusive_IEPs.aspx

Step 9

Create your staffing schedule to maximize the time that special education teachers and related service providers are IN the general education classroom co-teaching whole group lessons, working with small groups, or providing side-by-side support to individual students.

Step 10

Encourage each student’s parents to host at least one summer get-together for a few children who will be in their child’s classroom. A low key play date in the backyard with one structured group activity goes a long way to help children feel as if they are “part of the group” even before the new school year begins.

The first few weeks and months will be filled with challenges and daily questions from staff so be sure that you are a daily presence in those classrooms providing leadership, encouragement, and tangible supports so that everyone can have a successful year.

Best of luck!

Sincerely,

Cheryl

Dr. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice, after being a Project Director with the Institute on Disability (IOD) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), and assistant research professor in UNH’s Education Department from 1985 until 2011.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks