By Nikki Donnelly
This article will be published as part of MCIE's The Inclusion Catalyst. Click here to sign up to receive this resource.
How do we create a society that accepts and, dare I say, appreciates diversity? In my opinion, it starts in our schools. When children grow up in diverse environments with caring adults modeling appreciation of differences, then we will grow an inclusive society.
There are many forces working to expand acceptance and appreciation of diverse groups. In my opinion, we are in a time similar to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Desegregation for Black Americans came from that movement. Following on the coattails of this civil rights movement was the disability rights movement, which led to the deinstitutionalization of those with disabilities. We’ve come a long way, yes, but we still have a way to go. With us being in this current social justice movement, I believe the time to act is now. If we truly want to impact our society, we need to allow our children to grow alongside each other in inclusive schools.
Inclusion in our schools can happen. It isn’t something that happens by chance though. It must be thoughtfully planned and executed through the commitment of adults that understand the value of diversity in our classrooms. How do I know this? Because I’ve done it. And I’ve seen children who would have traditionally been in separate classrooms become fully included.
As a preschool and kindergarten special education teacher, I taught students in a separate classroom. My goal was always to prepare students for inclusive experiences, and as children progressed, I found myself attempting to emulate the general education classroom within my separate class. I quickly realized that I was attempting the impossible. I could provide the worksheets and the same structure of general education, but the environment and the peers were not compensable to the general education classroom. More frustration grew as I felt that the children needed to “prove” themselves ready to be in a general education classroom.
Eventually, I moved into an administrative role in my district. My passion focused on challenging this “prove you’re ready for general education” mentality that seems so common for students who are transitioning from separate classes into the general education classroom. A colleague and I brainstormed resolutions to this issue and developed a plan to bring forward to our special education administration. We outlined an extensive model of inclusion support for the general education school sites that were receiving a student with autism. The model was in-depth and provided training and support for everyone that would be involved with educating the student.
Essentially, an inclusion support team that consisted of an administrator (myself), an autism specialist (special education teacher), Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and Independence Facilitators (instructional assistants)—one assigned to each student—was formed. The autism specialist and BCBA were responsible for facilitating collaboration meetings, training and coaching the Independence Facilitators, and supporting the general education teacher throughout the school year. This team was involved in the identified student’s transition in the spring prior to the year of attendance and also provided support throughout the school year. Given the number of adults involved, the key component was scheduled, structured collaboration times that included short, monthly check-ins (typically twice a month) for each student’s team with the purpose to facilitate shared practices and expectations. Our proposal was accepted, and the planning began!
Critical to the rollout of our inclusion support model were the stakeholder meetings to determine the impact on everyone involved and ensure buy-in and implementation from the “top-down.” Voices and concerns were heard, and the model was adapted based on the input. The following year, we implemented the model with 10 students. I jokingly called myself “the most hated person in the district” that first year. Asking educators and other education professionals to change and to trust a “team of support” is not always welcomed. However, we persevered, listened to concerns, and adapted as needed, but always kept the student at the forefront.
During that first year, only one student was determined to need to return to a separate class. After many supports and assessments, we realized that we just could not provide him with what he needed to succeed in a general education classroom. The other students struggled but eventually excelled. Some more than others, but they were in general education classrooms and learning; that is a win in my book!
Going into the second year of implementation, the trust was built and attitudes were shifting. The training and support were recognized, and I could feel the openness to receive these new students growing. During this second year, several of the original ten students from the previous year were doing so well that they no longer required our support and/or no longer needed/qualified for IEPs. Sitting in those meetings with parents having tears of joy because their children were now on a different life path were some of the most moving moments in my life. This solidified my passion and understanding that, if the adults can make a conscious effort and work together, the children will meet our expectations.
This experience changed my life. I saw children who may have previously been segregated completing the academic work and making friends in the general education classroom. As a sibling of someone with autism, it broke my heart to never see my brother invited to birthday parties or have neighborhood kids come over and ask him to play. I understand the power of inclusivity for families; it is everything they want for their loved ones. Through the focused efforts of adults, we implemented this model of inclusion and saw change happen. Children that grow up alongside each other will grow into adults that live and work alongside each other, creating an inclusive society. Inclusion can happen. We can do it if we work together.
Nikki is a former special education teacher and special education administrator. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in special education with research interests that center around autism and inclusive practices in early childhood/elementary ages. Her younger brother with autism has inspired her pursuit for inclusion and advocacy for individuals with disabilities and their families.