By Justin Croft

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Looking farther out into the distance to a new horizon as the old one drops away below you, simultaneously bringing a smile

Your back presses firmly against the hard plastic seat, and you begin to feel gravity shift, putting downward pressure on your hips. The horizon begins to fall farther and farther below you as you climb the tracks higher and higher into the air. With pulse quickening, you may grasp your hands tighter on the shoulder restraint and reorient your head to look farther out into the distance to a new horizon. You feel a smile cross your lips, in spite of yourself, because you aren’t exactly sure about what’s to come. Expectation building, a final adjustment takes place across your body. You wiggle back in the seat, roll your shoulders back and shrug to set your posture, oscillate your dangling feet and shift the grip of your hands. You’re all set.

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That final gear turns, the greased gears release you, and then gravity takes over and you are underway.

Do you remember your last roller coaster? Maybe there was a time when riding that roller coaster was easy, but if you did so now, would it bring a sweep of nausea and vertigo to your head and stomach?

What if I told you that you could recapture that feeling (what occupational therapists call proprioception) and that it can help teachers to be their best in an inclusive classroom?  Let me explain what a coaster has to do with my vision of inclusion for students with cognitive and developmental disabilities….

As an elementary special educator, I serve students who are learning what it is like to be a student coming to a “real school” for the first time. At the same time, they are learning to adapt to this new environment with an educational disability. They are quickly sub-grouped and divided away from friends who are “neurotypical” or “non-disabled.”  There is a problem, though.  The grown-ups do this.  Not the kids.

When kindergarten students are all together for the first time, looking around the room and taking in all of those friends gathered around the teacher’s carpet, they begin to understand these friends for the unique individuals they are.  If a student looks a particular way or makes a particular sound, they quickly assimilate that detail into their concept of that friend. It happens as quickly as people see my bald head and realize I don’t have hair.  Each time I come in the room, they do not need to steady themselves to the fact that my hair is not there.  It is just so.  Sure, I may have to answer a question or two, but that’s about it. Then we all move on–we are in this together.

As a special educator, I have seen the loving acceptance of all children, and it is such a powerful thing.  There are students who may have compromised physical development, kids who drool, groan, or make vocalizations in ways we are not used to in the classroom, but the students are unfazed.  The classroom teacher, however, is different.

You see, as adults, sometimes we lose that ability to think of learners as people who come in all different types of packaging.  We think every learner should be silent and still with eyes locked firmly on the teacher. If the parameters get too far from that image, then the teaching and learning process is compromised. Everyone’s ability to focus on the task is too far gone, too… because we have stopped riding the roller coaster.

It is a proven fact that when you stop riding roller coasters or stop exposing yourself to sensory experiences such as spinning, swinging, heights, or acceleration and deceleration, you begin to lose the ability to get on the roller coaster confidently.  What you once were able to do will now cause an unsettled feeling in your head and stomach and you will feel miserable.

But you can get that ability back.

Start with a swing.  Just sit on it.  Think about swinging.  If you can do that, then begin to push your feet on the ground, rhythmically propelling you. Are you ready to pump your legs back and forth yet? Soon, you are tugging on the chains as you flex your feet and stretch your legs out straight. Now you are swinging.

It doesn’t happen just one time and have you back to your old abilities. You’ll have to work at it.  You may need to encourage a friend who is nervous.  You may need to stay at one step of the process for a while before you can move on. What I’m asking is that you don’t stop. The roller coaster is fun.  It has ups and downs and turns we don’t expect, and sometimes we are plunged in dark only to come rocketing out into the light.

Give your classroom a chance to be that fun place for all students.  Middle and high school teachers, let’s be sure that the fun doesn’t stop!  We get serious about testing and Gateways and EOC’s and whatever other excuse has excluded students from our classrooms.  We don’t want our society to be one that excludes.  All students have value no matter the contribution they can give.

Stay the coaster.

Snap an awesome picture on the biggest drop and let our fellow educators marvel at just how awesome you look when others would have been terrified. Encourage them to join you and remind them that we can do it if we work together. It just takes bravery to get started.  Our school year has begun, and we have made that first drop into the calendar. Don’t close your eyes until it’s all over. Embrace it and bring all your students with you so we’re all smiling at the end.  Now that’s a keychain and 8x10 I’d be happy to buy.

Photo Credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism/Flickr

Justin CroftJustin Croft is a special education teacher who has been an ABA therapist, a para-professional, and a self-contained classroom teacher in elementary and middle school.  Justin is currently teaching and breaking boundaries of what self-contained classrooms mean in Oak Ridge Schools, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  He believes the foundation of all excellence is positive expectation. Follow him on Twitter: @MrCroftsClass