Thursday, July 21, 2011

The great inclusion debate (part 1)

 This past winter something interesting happened. Normally in January we receive a list of the 12 or so upcoming preschoolers who will be attending the Think-Tank for the next school year. I get to work observing them, meeting with their teachers and families, and making sure that everything at the Think-Tank will be ready for them the following September. It is a process I love. This year, however, we began hearing rumors in November that one preschool would be sending us a total of 14 children. 14 from one preschool. That doesn't include any of the many other preschools we usually receive children from...

In January, when I got the total list of upcoming kinders I stared at a multi-page booklet containing information on 22 children who would need special education services from the Think-Tank in kindergarten. 22...  As the winter and spring went on that number continued to grow. And grow. I believe we transitioned a total of 27 students, some will not be coming to The Think-Tank, but most will.

I really enjoy the transition process (although this year took much, much longer than years' past), and I love getting to know the children in their preschool classes. As the winter went on and I met the children, their teachers and parents, it became clear we would need to be meeting the very different needs of all of these children next year. We needed to begin thinking about how we were going to meet all of their needs, what we may need to change or adapt in our own program to make sure we give the best education to each of these little ones. We had a lot of reflection to do.

For years The Think-Tank has been a full inclusion school. Our children with special needs have always been included in general education classes at almost all times. It is very, very rate to pull out a child or a group for any reason. In fact, in some ways any sort of pull out was discouraged. In many ways this is a good thing, but at times it can have its downfall. There are some children who have the complete ability to perform on grade level if they are given differentiated instruction in another environment. At times (certainly not at all times or for all students) it has been frustrating to work with a child, knowing they have the potential to perform on grade level, but are not yet achieving at that level because of the restraints within the gen ed classroom. Again, most children with special needs do wonderfully in the gen ed classroom, but there are times a child may benefit from instruction delivered outside the traditional classroom.

As we got to know the upcoming kindergartners and talk to their preschool teachers we realized that some of their needs would be best met in a smaller environment. Not all 20 something children, but some. Just a few. Their preschool teachers expressed concern that they would be placed in a full inclusion setting it made us step back and look at the incoming students and our program. What would meet the needs of the children in what is truly the least restrictive environment? Some of the preschool teachers would prefer for the students to be sent to another school, yet it didn't seem fair to send so many children to another school simply because we have a policy that we are a full inclusion school. In special education the school must make the program meet the needs of the student, not expect the student to meet the needs of the program. In other words, sending so many children to another school simply because their needs did not fit into our model would not really be fitting within IDEA. Like so many policies in education, it's important to look at the child in question and not just the overarching policy.

So we began looking closely at each of these children. What are their needs? Could we meet their needs at our school if we had a classroom just for them?  Would that let them stay at their neighborhood school and be in an environment that meets their needs? What would we need to put in place to change our full inclusion model into one that includes what is known as a non-categorical room (or non-cat)?

It wasn't an easy decision. There is a lot to be said about inclusion, and starting a new room for children with special needs could be a slippery slope to shifting backwards toward having more children in pull out programs than in full inclusion. Whenever I talked to my principal about it I could hear her hesitation, and her very valid reasons behind it. Our school is very collaborative- every teacher has a co-teacher, which helps ensure that children are receiving the absolute best, research-based, reflective instruction. There would not be a co-teacher in the special ed room. Would there be a risk of lowering expectations for these children? Would teaching practices slide? Would these children be seen by others as "those kids" instead of a part of our general community?

But the more we looked at the children's needs the more we realized that what these children needed was a smaller environment. And we could provide that for them.

For a few of them this class will give them an opportunity to be in our neighborhood school longer than they would otherwise. Some of their disabilities are so severe and demand such significant adaptations in curriculum that they will one day, most likely, attend one of our county's centers for children with severe disabilities or intellectual disabilities. But right now, before the gap in their performance is too far away from their peers, they can have the opportunity to be at their neighborhood school, and spend time in a general education classroom. These children will spend about 3 hours a day in their special education room, and the remainder of the day will be in with their general education peers, giving them those important opportunities for social interactions.

Other children I have high hopes for transitioning them back to a full time general education placement in a year or two.  Right now a small classroom for kindergarten will be best where they can complete their potty training, get a firm, direct language foundation, build up early literacy skills using teaching methods that may not be easily accomplished in the gen ed classroom, in a small, safe environment. If all goes well and we can build those strong foundation skills early on, I hope we will be including them in their general education classrooms more and more by the end of the year. This will give us time to slowly scaffold them into the larger setting.

For each child it has not been an easy decision. At times I have listened to the parents and the preschool teachers discuss the child's strengths and needs at the IEP and truly wondered what placement would be best. Would this child benefit from the language models in the general education room, or is the smaller placement more beneficial? It became a weighty responsibility- deciding what would be best for each child. I also had to carefully examine my own motives. Do I want this child in a non-cat class because I want to work with them? I was pushing for Pixie to be included for a week or so before I realized that there was no reason for Pixie to be in the class- it would only be for my needs and not for hers.

In the end the class will have 10 children. 7 rising kinders who I transitioned over the past year, 2 rising first graders I worked with last year and will equally benefit from the small environment, and then Magical, who will be repeating kindergarten because of all he missed due to his illness.

I cannot wait.  Of course, I am disappointed that this class overlaps with another huge change in my life. If only it was a year earlier or a year later. I hate that I will be out on maternity leave at the very beginning of this new adventure. But sometimes we can't control timing and I have an amazing long-term sub. I will also be starting with my class in August, and will have them 2 weeks, 3 hours a day, to get us use to our routines and to one another before I abandon them for Baby Lipstick.


Anonymous said...

Schools are put in conflicted position with respect to children who need a small environment for instruction, yet a general ed classroom for language devlopment/socialization. Much depends on the rest of the child's environment: if there are siblings at home, a talkative family, maybe extended family, membership in a church and/or recreational organizations, I would lean towards the smaller environment. It's the child who spends a lot of time alone at home who really needs the gen ed classroom.

fwteacher said...

I've been wrestling with the idea that our national education system is managed under the assumption that every child will attend college and must therefore be prepared to enter college. I can easily see the problems inherent in stepping away from this lofty ideal, mainly that many students might be pigeon-holed early and not encouraged to develop to their fullest potential. However, as I watch students become more and more disenfranchised in school to the point that their education seems like something which must be endured or escaped, I long for a system that can be molded to support individuals rather than cause so much heartbreak trying to cram students into programs and expectations that are neither relevant nor authentic to their needs and interests.

Anonymous said...

fwteacher, your worry is certainly justified when it comes to children with cognitive disabilities, but it's also justified with respect to plenty of other children. When they can't (or don't) keep up with the college prep curriculum, we offer them "college prep lite," and then they either fall in with the program but flunk out of college, or else they intuit that they're not really headed for college and drop out. I believe it's arrogant and bossy to say that there is only one way to make it to a respectable adult life.

Kids, Canines, and Chaos said...

I'm pretty sure I am in love with your school and administrator. I currently work in a self-contained classroom for students who are ED/behavior/OHI and have not been successful in gen. ed., inclusion, or pull out classrooms. I pull from all over the county, so my kids aren't attending their neighborhood schools. I had a really hard time, at first because I truly believe in the inclusion model. However, I have since changed my tune as I see how the early interventions with these kids (particularly with their behaviors, which DIRECTLY impacts their academics) we are able to work on both, while working hard to catch them up to their grade level peers, while including them in as many areas as appropriate, with LOTS of support. We then scaffold the support and we have many success stories of children transitioning back into the gen ed setting and eventually back to their homeschool.

Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm glad to see there are others out there who challenge the system when they realize that it isn't about the policies, it's about what's best for the students.