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?
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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.