Monday, August 6, 2012

Why Practice Inclusion?

So, as promised, here is the companion piece to my "Philosophy of Inclusion":

Why Practice Inclusion?

It follows that children with special needs should be included in the classroom for the same reasons that children of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds should be included:  it is ultimately good for the individuals and good for the general society.  

By meeting the diverse needs of diverse learners, we are telling our children and ourselves, that we are valuable, that we all have a place in this world and that we all have a right to succeed and experience health and joy and pursue our potential to the best of our abilities.  On a fundamental level, children are more apt to solve problems together, to arrive at real discoveries, cognitively, socially and emotionally when they try to collaborate.  True collaboration requires a person to see things from a fellow’s angle, to really listen and to then work and build off of that knowledge.  

If everyone felt and thought the same, if everyone arrived at school, at the lab, at work or at home with the same set of abilities and strengths, collaboration would not happen.  Humans fill in the gaps of knowledge and experience through diverse knowledge and experience.  In outcome-based, standards-based, conformity-based education, the lack of collaboration and the dearth of opportunities for developing creative and critical thinking skills may be an issue.  Graduating students who are not so great at thinking creatively and critically may pose problems for our society in the future.  Temple Grandin has become one of the world’s best architects and designers of humane cattle processing facilities because she can literally think like a cow.  It is now thought that Einstein arrived at his theories because he lacked executive function control.  Such “gate keeping” control might have stopped him from obsessing over and arriving at those same theories.  Individuals with diagnosed spectrum disorders are now seen as uniquely qualified for employment in high tech jobs.  The percentage of employees with spectrum disorders at companies like Microsoft and Apple is thought to be quite high.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that it is just plain ignorant and dangerous for our society to practice exclusion.  Economies and environments need fixing.  Cancer needs a cure.  These problems are likely to be solved by the most creative teams of thinkers, people who can cross disciplines and barriers of all kinds to find answers.  

In our class, the best pirate ships are built by rangy, rag-tag multi-age teams of excited kids.  There is the kid who can write, who labels the ship with a name.  There is the artist who fashions the skull and crossbones on the paper flag.  There is the child who is obsessed with car washes and understands mechanics to the degree that she devises a working rudder (I’m not kidding).  There is the three-year-old who quietly fits tall tubes into hollow blocks in order to create masts while her fellow six-year-old boys fight about who has the right to be captain.  There is the boy who is content to be First Mate because the First Mate “reads the maps,” and there is the highly verbal child who pretends to be “Polly the Parrot, piping proudly in her cage while she paddles.”  And there are the quiet children who like to watch the whole show, who observe for days and then find a quiet corner to construct their own tiny pirate ships out of clay or small blocks.  And there is the boy who seems not to participate at all, but goes home to teach his little sister how to build pirate ships.  The pure joy and excitement of collaboration alone is reason enough to include all children in this classroom.  There is a place and a purpose for each and every child.

All students walk through the classroom door with an experience and background I must work to understand and empathize with if I am to practice my craft with skill and compassion.  Last summer, Dodge Nature Preschool invited a small panel of parents to share with our staff their personal experiences of parenting an autistic child.  The listening experience was humbling, moving and eye-opening.  As with all kids who walk through our door, the school experience is but one facet of a child’s very complicated life.  For special needs parents, and for all parents, the wish is for their child to be accepted for who they are, valued and respected.  

For myself, as a parent, my greatest fears for my children center around issues of exclusion.  I fear that my children will be rejected, turned away, misunderstood or undervalued.  Conformity often seems like a potentially dangerous value and social edict.  Here is a little anecdote from my family life:

One of my kids struggles with organization of information and attending to tasks that do not interest her (who doesn’t?!).  In school, one of her teachers repeatedly marked her down for “disorganization” and “having a messy desk” (this last was actually inserted as an line item addendum in her year-end rubric-based report card).  Of course, her teacher’s observations came as no surprise to me, or her father.  We have been hounding this child to stay on household tasks, clean up her room, and get out the door in a timely fashion since birth.  What did surprise, and annoy me, was that her teacher continued to go out of her way to decry this habit of disorganization, despite the fact that my daughter managed to get stellar grades and get her work done.  During a brief fall conference, when the teacher expressed initial concern about this disorganization, my husband and I called our daughter “on the carpet” in front of her teacher, working to respect the teacher's expectations, encourage responsibility and value her point of view.  To our true surprise, our kid dug in her heels, defiantly refusing to show remorse or to abdicate to the teacher’s request for more organization.  
my kid:  selective focus at work

This might be a rather classic example of how kids with executive function challenges are difficult to motivate because they lack that sense of urgency that keeps the rest of us on our toes.  It's also an example of how we think about each other, what we value and the role of conformity.  My daughter may never suffer from the seasonal nightmares that seem afflict my husband and I all these years later each fall when school starts up again:  you’re late for school, you forgot your homework, you don’t remember your room number, you forgot to put on pants… Jody Van Ness of the Fraser School pointed out in a lecture that executive function challenged people tend to fix absolute focus on things that interest them, causing them to make some of the greatest breakthroughs in science, literature and the arts.  Van Ness’ insights make me realize that the composition of my daughter’s brain may just allow her the selective focus, and the right lack of guilt to discover how to fix the hole in the ozone or to cure cancer.

Acceptance and empathy seem like far more healthy values than conformity.  Through diversity in the classroom, we see what we have in common, that we are all on a spectrum of experience.  Seeing our commonality gives us access to empathy and understanding, making it far more likely that we can get along and work toward common goals, meeting each other’s needs.  At Dodge, every fall, we invite all families to sit down with us privately before school starts.  We use an excuse of a tool called the “Intake Form.”  This questionnaire really just gives us an opportunity or excuse to sit down and get acquainted.  These initial meetings are invaluable, particularly when they are less formal, more chatty and more personal.  We learn so much about the child when we learn about the family, and that is because we are seeing things from their point of view.  To my mind, really valuable education is necessarily personal, and personalized for the needs of each learner.  When we value and respect the individual, we increase awareness of “the other” and come that much closer to a civil, collaborative society.  

When I was in high school, in the 1980s, “the special ed kids” were isolated from the student body.  They had their own mysterious room, they walked the halls at odd times.  They were a secret and strange entity that seemed aside from our general population.  The kids sat at their own table in the cafeteria, and most distressing, they policed the high school grounds, picking up the trash and litter of the “regular kids.”  On a daily basis, these kids were made fun of by the basketball team, publicly derided by an esteemed subset of our community.  It is hard to shake those memories.  In those years, I was an outsider too, transferring in from another school and then beset by an illness that left me suffering from the side effects of heavy drugs that altered my appearance drastically.  I too was made fun of by the basketball team, made to feel other and different and therefore less.  My tenth grade biology teacher had me stand up in class and used me as a living example of the side effects of steroids.  It was the eighties, but looking back, it seems like the Dark Ages.  

Holly:  "We all learn differently."
I like to think we’ve come a long way since then.  My twins have attended school with a handful of special needs kids who are in the girls’ minds and perceptions accepted and integrated in the common experience.  From kindergarten on, the girls have had personal relationships with these kids, and their aides.  Their questions have been answered and we are happy to see that our girls and their classmates see differences in each other and value and accept those differences.  For now, it is not “cool” to make fun of people for being different.  When an adult asked my daughter Holly what was "wrong with" her classmate, she said, "What do you mean?  Zach is just Zach.  He learns differently.  We all learn differently."

I’m sure the parents of the special needs kids have stories to tell that I have yet to hear, but my general perception of inclusion, and that of my own kids is vastly different from my own childhood experiences.  Inclusion seems to be expected as the norm in public school these days, and is not the exception.  If the education system here in Minnesota has managed to do that alone, to make inclusion the norm, then it has succeeded in one very important way and I have a lot of hope for the future of our society, as we are raising a generation of kids who value their differences.  

Here at Dodge, we are working to understand how to better serve the needs of all children.  We invite your visits, your ideas and your criticisms.  We want to continue to talk about inclusion, so please accept our invitation and join the conversation:

If you haven't yet, you should read, "Welcome to Holland," by Emily Perl Kingsley.