Inclusion: Make it an Open Classroom Discussion

I previously wrote that "Inclusion requires extra work from both parents and teachers." What I neglected to mention was how to make inclusion work for the people who spend the most time with an included student: the classmates.

The information below was written by Deadwood City area local Diane, who is the director of the social skills facilitation program
Social Strides, as well as the parent of a special needs child. I include it with her permission.

I think sensitivity and compassion can come from having included spec. needs kids in regular ed. I also know that there will be no choice, financially, in the future. Classrooms will HAVE to accept differences (and I say this knowing that EVERY kid is 'different'). How do we MAKE this positive for all?

What I think is important and overlooked, is that regular education peers are not given good information. The teachers are trained (supposedly) and the other staff, but the kids are told nothing except a basic, "Do unto Others" formula. Once you hit the last half of third grade and upwards, ALL the classmates realize that someone in class is especially different. It's been my observation that most kids (at least through 4th) are fairly supportive of an included classmate in that they may try to help out in the room, or more often, they just try to be polite and sort of ignore the child. (I taught in an spectrum inclusion project in one district, have worked in speech for 25 yrs and have a kid in 6th with Pdd/AdHd).

One of the most helpful things that I was able to do for my son and his classmates in an included setting (and for the other included peer in that same class) was to talk with them all about social, organizational and attentional/sensory "challenges" and "how to handle this as a peer." Students were absolutely astounded and *relieved* to find that it would be okay, for example, to tell a socially challenged peer that they were tired of listening and now it would be their turn to speak. Yes! It's okay to be direct and spell out the rules for social!! Please do!! Your included classmates are not "out of step on purpose!" They need roadmaps and information and you kids can share with them.

Regular ed. peers would help more and be more understanding if they knew what the heck was going on. After speaking in my son's 4th grade class, peers were coming up with helpful solutions that the staff hadn't thought of and asking much better questions about things they needed to know. Regular ed. parents showed up afterward to learn more about the "workshop" that held their child's interest and garnered their concern and understanding of "social challenges". I am not a wonderful speaker ~ no ~ I just had information that classmates wanted and shared it in a very practical way. All parents of special needs kids have this information. The object is to demystify and share practical strategies which allow them to help themselves and which end up helping our kids.

On a social level, it's the other students that have to deal with our kids 99% of the time, not the staff. And the numbers are growing for ASD [autism spectrum disorder]. We tell siblings what's going on, why not the regular education classmates? I think they deserve that much and can handle it. This is nothing like pointing out who does and doesn't have challenges in a particular classroom -- it is just about understanding and learning to cope with something that they are going to see more and more during each year of school. And that's what I told them -- "There are certain learning challenges on the rise and you *will* deal with this in your families, in class and in the community." As I said, they KNOW who has social challenges -- no one needs to use names or point fingers. I found that the two ASD kids in class welcomed a discussion, and ended up sharing out loud what life is like for them during our focused time. The regular education peers were absolutely glued to their seats, listening and learning. They got it, and at a deep level.

After the workshop one regular ed. 4th grader said, "I really don't know what this autism thing is (I never used the word autism!), but I just know that if it didn't exist, there is a lot I would not have in my life." This was a kid who had two friends on the higher end of the spectrum that could deal with his "adhd-ish" challenges without teasing him or making him feel weird. Lovely. Again, EVERYONE has "differences" in a classroom. One of the kids with ASD wrote a letter saying, "Thank you for telling people that it's okay to tell me what I should do - I am so scared when people just yell at me."

Thanks for reading; this is obviously a hot topic for me. Think about going into your child's class and sharing some specific yet age appropriate information, especially if you plan on attending this same school over the next several years. An added benefit is that if aides or teachers are in there while you are talking, they can learn more about the realities than they do from a teacher in-service and also feel freer to ask questions about challenges "on behalf of the children."

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  1. I would like to tell you that our oldest attended school with a very disabled child (unable to speak, barely able to hear, etc.) - in fact, the reason she was in their private school was because the public school system had no place for her, she was 'that' disabled...in Utah, and it was one of the most compassionate classes of students I've ever been involved with. The boys and the girls all helped "C" with things that she needed help with, from holding her hand when they went outside to play, to helping her unpack and eat her lunch, to making sure they said "hello" when they came into their classroom. "C" had her own aide, and they had a different classroom for individual work, but they were in the main classroom for things like art and music and PE. Many times, tears came to my eyes, when I realized how much of a difference having "C" in the classroom made to this bunch of kids. I sure love how it helped show my own daughter compassion for others who weren't on the same level she was.

  2. One of the very best things about MG's experience at her new school has been the matter-of-fact inclusion of a kid in her class with what MG identifies only as "special needs" but who seems to be pretty high on the autism spectrum as well as having speech & movement challenges.

    Obviously, for Kellie's parents, the priority is that their child learn and be safe and secure, not necessarily that my kid have an Enriching Experience, but it has worked out that way and MG has benefitted tremendously and RW and I are incredibly grateful to Kellie, her parents, her aide, and the classroom teacher (we haven't been crazy about this teacher in some ways, but she seems to have dealt with inclusion fairly smoothly).

    I don't know what kind of discussions were had in the classroom, but however it was it left my kid with a fairly good grasp of what Kellie's challenges are, and of appropriate ways to act with her. I don't think Kellie's mom came in and made an official presentation, but she's in the classroom a fair bit, and probably has done some modeling.

  3. Anonymous1:30 PM

    I am interested in hearing more about how to teach children to deal with children who are different from them, to be respectful of other people's abilities. You're making a general argument here, that children aren't unkind by nature, and that they can be guided to be kind and helpful, in a way that benefits both themselves and the included special needs child.

    I'm completely open to that argument, philosophically. But, I find myself falling in the implementation. I see kids trying to use their own form of vigilante justice to get an outsider to behave, or ignoring them altogether, or teasing them. I see kids reveling in winning the competition. The one dark spot on my daughter's report card is a statement saying that she "gets concepts very quickly and is not understanding of people who need more time." (and she's in a class with all highly capable children).

    My daughter is not a mean child -- so how do we aid her in learning to be more understanding of others? Just telling her to doesn't work.

    I know squid struggles with these issues in her own family, and I am trying to figure out how to teach my own quirky child (who is presumably neurotypical) how to deal with others, and I don't have any easy answers.


  4. anon - I can only tell you what the school my daughter attended did, to help include "C" in the classroom activities, and to help show the rest of the students compassion towards others.

    In this classroom, all kids had a job for a week. One week, it could be sharpening all of the pencils at the end of the day. Or cleaning off the white-boards.

    They also had a "C" helper - for one week at a time, each child was "C's" helper - with whatever she needed assistance with. They'd get instruction from "C's" aide on what "C" needed help with, and then they'd help.

    After reading Squid's blog for so long, I've learned a lot about the repetitive nature of what it takes to help an autistic child grow. These same techniques were what "C" needed. For instance, one day, she was learning to throw a ball. If my daughter was the helper, then she would be the one to catch (or get) the thrown ball and take it back to "C" and offer praise. Or when it was snack time, my daughter would help "C" set her snacks out and my daughter would eat alongside her. Or perhaps she held her hand while they went out to the playground.

    It gave my daughter an opportunity to help someone, and it gave me a look into the beautiful world of compassion (instead of teasing or taunting) at someone who was different than she was. And this really played out in the classroom with the students, too - they were much nicer to each other. Frankly, there was a whole lotta love going on in that class because of "C" being included. It amazed me!

    Yes, "C" would have outbursts in the classroom. To my knowledge, she never injured a student - her outbursts were usually vocal screams or body flailing. The kids in the classroom learned to ignore the outbursts - and the aide was trained to help diffuse the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. Compared to Leelo, Squid's son, "C" was not at the level that he is at - she really was at the other end of the spectrum as far as functionality. She could not communicate at all - except for screaming (good and bad screaming was all the same). In fact, I drove a Tan Suburban and her mom drove a white Suburban and one day I went to pick my kids up and "C" came running up to my window and tapped on it, thinking I was her mom. She could see that we drove the same autos, but couldn't distinguish the difference in the colors.

    OH, and another thing that may or may not make a difference -- we lived in a small town in northern Utah...which is a whole different culture than anywhere else I've ever lived. Special needs children were hailed religiously as precious gifts in a family, so 'normal' children in that predominate religion did have an influence on how "C" (and other special needs children) were treated - which was to raise them high on a pedestal and encourage their growth. It was a good example, even though my daughter went to a private, non-religious school, the culture was still prevelant and that perhaps helped in the overall results, too.

    Hope this helps a little.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.

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