Friday, July 27, 2012

Philosophy of Inclusion

Well, helllo again!

The Catalyst has been on a seasonal hiatus of sorts, sort of too busy to write about what's been going on.  And so much is going on, it's rather a pity not to document it.  I pledge to write more, if anybody is still reading!

So, lately inclusion has been on my mind.  I recently attended the Inclusion Institute at Concordia University here in Saint Paul (a joint venture between the Center for Inclusive Childcare and Concordia), and I completed some attendant course work, which required me to think about inclusion, and write about it.  Of course, inclusion was already on my radar, and I wound-up at the Institute precisely because I'm interested in supporting the increasing number of special needs students that are enrolling here at Dodge Nature Preschool.  But putting my experiences and thoughts about diversity and inclusion in the classroom into words was a great excersise and I wound-up even more committed to the mission of inclusion.  So, while this is a bit of a cheat, I'm going to crib from my own paper right here in the blog.

I was asked to compose a Philosophy of Inclusion, and here is an abridged version of my Philosophy:

I have a hard time imagining working in a classroom that does not promote inclusion.  My personal experience and my life, each and every day, is enriched by working with children with special needs, and their families, in the context of my classroom, and nature-based education.  At Dodge Nature Preschool, we are in the fortunate position of offering a very flexible and open-ended early childhood experience.  Because we believe that early childhood curriculum is, and should be, emergent, that is, it is informed and led by the interests of the child first, we are well-suited to meeting the needs of all kids, including those with special needs. 

I see endless opportunity in the act of enrolling students with special needs.  We are saying to the community at large, “We welcome everyone here,” and we are saying to each other, as a school community, “We value differences in the human experience and we cherish learning more about those differences.”  We like to think that our school community is enlivened by diversity, across cultures, economies, classes and needs; kids with “special needs” are like all children in that every student has a unique set of needs. 

Because we believe that young children learn best through building a social scaffolding (we are proponents of social constructivism), we are in a good position to meet the needs of "special needs" kids.  Our classrooms are social laboratories, where the emphasis is on learning about differences, promoting tolerance and developing empathy.  Children develop as citizens in the group setting.  Kids (and all people, I think) become functioning members of society through:

-trying, and struggling, to cooperate and collaborate  
-trying to meet the general needs of the whole group
-trying to meet the needs of fellow individuals
-trying to help one another
-trying to control impulses
-trying to practice patience & empathy

*Note the emphasis on the word, "trying."

It is important to note, that nature-based education is a sort of “companion piece” to social development.  The child interacts with the nature world, and the seasons, through first-hand experience.  It is “come as you are” on the child’s end, and on nature’s end.  Each must interact with the other, day in and day out.  Coping skills are developed, as nature is as ever-changing as the child and she must learn to adapt to and learn from its differences.  The child comes to see herself in the context of the larger world, a part of nature, rather than aside from, or excluded from nature—the ultimate inclusion!

At Dodge, our theory of inclusion, includes the notion that children have rights.  They have the right to express themselves, to get their needs met and to be treated with dignity and respect (the natural world, all of its flora and fauna, basically has the same rights too).  We also believe in and practice the theory of “you can’t say you can’t play.”  Children may not practice exclusion at school.  Although the practice of exclusion seems to be a sort of developmental milestone, kids and teachers must work hard here to prevent any peer from being or feeling "left out."  Our approach is to discourage exclusion and to help children find ways to include and incorporate peers in all play and all tasks.  This is challenging work.

Our classrooms are mixed-age, and always mixed-ability.  Sometimes, other educators marvel at this practice, but when one points out the fact that no two four-year-olds are alike anyway, the notion of hard and fast chronological, age-based conformity sort of falls apart.  Our education system in general may be based on this general chronological approach, for better or worse, but, here at Dodge, we see the value in a diversified learning population.  Children not only note differences, they value them.  One of my autistic students may not be able to sit through group time without drawing on a clipboard and singing, but he can write sentences, add sums and recite poems as no other learner in the room can.  The children who can sit through group time may want their own clipboards and wonder why they are not allowed to sing through group time, but when the situation is explained to them plainly and respectfully, they in turn respect the autistic child’s needs and abilities, as well as their own needs and abilities.  To my mind, a truly healthy society is based on accommodation and tolerance and it is our duty to engender the ethics of inclusion and tolerance from early childhood on. 

Research citied in The Meaning of Inclusion (required reading at Concordia) certainly supports what I see in my classroom day in and day out.  Everyone benefits from inclusion of all kinds of learners with all kinds of abilities.  Children in the inclusive classroom seem to arrive at empathy and acceptance much earlier than children who are not exposed to all kinds of different people.  It is the very nature of the developing brain of a child to discern differences; it behooves humans from an evolutionary and scientific standpoint to develop sophisticated skills of differentiation, but it is what we do with that information in the social arena that determines our capacity to empathize with our fellow humans.  

Learning to accept differences, and to see the potential value in them, rather than to fear them, seems to have far-reaching implications for our culture.  I believe that captial "D" Democracy stands a better chance of succeeding in a tolerant social climate and children may develop into far more creative thinkers if they are able to look for and perceive differences, to see things from another point of view and to think outside of their own personal box.  The hue and cry for creative thinkers in today’s economy seems to indicate that we are on the right track in education when we include children of all backgrounds and abilities in our classrooms.  The Meaning of Inclusion does not overtly refer to new research that suggests that children with special needs are now going farther in society as they develop because society in general has now grown more tolerant of differences, especially in the tech sector.  The immediate values of inclusion for all participants, empathy and tolerance, for instance, as evidenced by research in The Meaning of Inclusion seem to support the idea of better outcomes for everyone involved in the inclusive classroom.   

Not a day goes by that I do not learn something from trying to take the perspective of a child or parent that trustingly walks through our doors.  Perfection is not possible when it comes to inclusion, but the spirit of the mission seems to be what counts the most.  I've made many mistakes, and will continue to make them, but I'm trying really hard to keep my mind open to the possibilites.

*If you're still interested in inclusion, help yourself to the companion entry, Why Practice Inclusion.