Friday, August 31, 2018

Why Inclusion? Musing thoughts, part 1

This school year I'm at a new school as an inclusion coach. It's part time so I am still running my consulting business, but I am extremely excited by this inclusion work. To respect the school and my new amazing colleagues I won't be writing about any of the specifics of the job, but as I think about inclusion as a whole I suspect I'll be finding my way to this space to write.

One of our back to school professional development speakers talked about the importance of telling people your why, and it got me thinking about the why behind inclusion.

So why Inclusion?

Can't special education give students with unique needs the exact services they need, without slowing them down, stressing them out, or forcing them to learn teaching strategies that only help "typical kids"? As a special education teacher I've often made that argument - that kids with special needs can be better served in their own rooms because they'll get what they need.

But why can't we give them what they need in the inclusive environment where they have the opportunity to experience grade level content, expectations, and peer models?

~ ~ ~

Years ago I was working on transitioning a child from a special education preschool program to kindergarten. It was my job to determine if the child's needs would be able to be met in the general education classroom, how many hours of support he'd need, and how we could best support him in the next year. I spent time in his preschool special education classroom to observe him, and met with his teacher to hear her concerns. There were many of them. She was extremely worried about this little one, who did not talk in her room. He was non-verbal, unresponsive. She suspected he had an intellectual disability and that he would be lost if he was placed in a general education classroom. He'd do better in an intellectual disability program where he could receive personalized instruction to learn at his pace and on his level. In her classroom I could see what she meant. His psychological testing reflected a low ability level but it was notable that he spoke another language and was shy.

Yet. He also spent half his day in a headstart classroom that served general education students. In this setting he was quiet and reserved, but was learning his letters, could write his name, and appeared to be typically developing. The headstart teacher was concerned why he was receiving special education services at all. In this setting, with peer models, high expectations, and structure that allowed him to feel safe and included he literally appeared to be a different child.

We placed him in the general education classroom for kindergarten, and by the end of the year he was exited from special education. Later on he was identified for the gifted program.

What if he hadn't been in headstart? What if we'd agreed with the special education teacher and placed him in self-contained classroom? What behaviors would have emerged? What would his confidence level have been? Would someone have realized his potential, or would he have continued to meet the expectations in front of him?

I think about this story often, and use it to remind myself that sometimes even my professional judgement does not recognize a child's true potential. I saw what the teacher saw. Although I suspect the little four year old boy did too. In that environment he became what the teacher expected.

Sometimes we don't know what kids can do, and if we never give them the chance we'll never fully allow them to reach their potential.

I have many thoughts on inclusion, the pros and the cons, the difficulties that may come, and the benefits that exist there for all students when inclusion is done well.

My own first grader was placed in an inclusion classroom this year and so far I'm thrilled. It seems she's going to benefit from great teaching strategies, extra support, and the ability to make friends who otherwise she might not meet. I'm looking forward to seeing this journey from a parents' perspective.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Two Types of Kids - Ruminating on Ross Greene's work

I was ridiculously lucky last week and attended the Inclusive Schools Conference in Syracuse, New York. I'm still exhausted from the three intense days of discussing the broader beliefs of inclusion and the details of how to make it work, from a structural standpoint as well as how to work with kids with challenging behaviors.

A statement from one speaker keeps repeating itself in my head. Ross Greene said "There are two types of kids. Lucky and unlucky. The lucky ones communicate that they are upset by speaking, whining, or crying. The unlucky ones communicate that they are having trouble meeting an expectation by hitting, running, spitting, or displaying other injurious behaviors. These kids are unlucky because they don't illicit empathy, but the message they want to communicate is the same as those who are crying or whining. 'I'm stuck. There are expectations I am having difficulty meeting.'" 

I was telling my husband about this statement and my six year old overheard. "What am I?" she asked, and I almost laughingly pointed out she was lucky. She cries when she was upset.  She nodded, because she feels things deeply and she recognizes that she cries (a lot). "And little sister?" she asked.

I paused. On the scale of lucky vs unlucky kids, I think of my own kids as lucky. But in this context, little sister is a bit of a handful. She rarely cries real tears, and when she does you know she's truly hit a limit. Although we've worked very hard at finding more appropriate behaviors to display her displeasure, her first instinct is to bite, hit, throw, or destroy.

Last night little sister lost her mind. In a full Sunday night showdown, she laughed insanely as she refused to clean up the fort she'd made with her sister. She threw, hit, and laughed at us as we yelled at her. In the midst of what I now see as a manic tantrum of being overtired and overwhelmed, instead of a just diabolical behavior, I caught her trying to rip up her sister's art work. Comforting her older sister (who was sobbing), I thought back to the lucky vs unlucky kids. My youngest was communicating to us, and was certainly eliciting no empathy. The angrier we got the wilder she became. Finally I dumped her into the bathtub (it was bath time anyway) and let her calm down. I stayed nearby, but stopped my lecture and my yelling and let her decompress.

Thinking of her wild behavior as an unlucky way to express her frustrations made me much more empathetic. I calmed down faster, found a solution faster (putting her in the bath instead of yelling and making it worse.)

The behaviorist in me has a nagging voice saying "you rewarded her tantrum with a bath." Yet she calmed down, we reconnected, and once she was calm we could talk and repair. She still had to make amends with her sister and follow some logical consequences of her explosion of wild behavior. Seeing her through the unlucky communicator lens helped me stay calm and focused. Instead of just seeing her behavior as attention seeking, I could see what she was frustrated about, and I could give her the time she needed to calm herself and regroup.

It's strange to think of whining and crying behaviors as lucky, but they are when you think of the alternatives. Viewing my daughter's horrible  behavior as an unlucky way to communicate immediately helped me change the lens I was using to view her behavior.