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."