Saturday, March 14, 2015

Special Needs or Special Rights: Preschool Practice Beyond Semantics

I recently attended a day long conference put on by the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota.  The group was hosting Andrea Sisbarro, Director of the Boulder Journey School out in Colorado. Sisbarro shared a lot of information about BJS and lot's of photo and video documentation. Over the course of the morning, we saw many photos of kids and most of the children appeared to be white. The school is a private institution and tuition is costly. I was prompted to inquire about the make-up of the student body and demographics. Sisbarro shared that the school is in fact largely populated by the children of white collar professionals who are looking for a progressive educational experience; like Dodge, clientele is self-selecting. Sisbarro was careful to point out that Boulder Journey School accommodates students with "special rights."  I've heard this terminology before, and I know it to be a conscious effort to redefine a category of students who are often called, "children with special needs." But Sisbarro's effort to explain her student body more carefully stayed with me and I kept turning it over in my mind. In the second half of the day, we organized into small discussion groups in order to deconstruct video of kids in action.  We began to discuss the first clip, and just like that, "special rights," came up again. This time a colleague of mine from the Lab School at the University of Minnesota was using the terminology to describe how an inclusive classroom enriches the learning for all. So just what is the difference between "special needs" and "special rights?" Once again, I find myself re-examining my own experiences here at Dodge to suss out these semantics.

I've written about inclusion quite a bit before, in this blog and for presentations. Some of my colleagues have a hard time with the word "inclusion." I think their discomfort stems from a perception that the term can create. "Inclusion" suggests that there is a circle of expectation for child development and behavior in education, or in the classroom, and if one falls outside of that circle, the group (read "the right group"), must make an effort to invite you to join them inside said circle. I agree, there is the whiff of "clubbiness" about the word "inclusion." Although I think of "inclusion" as a generally positive term, meant to describe an effort (a "special" effort?) to welcome all, I do see that it draws attention to the converse of the definition! Similar to "inclusion," the word, "special," in our culture has many meanings. Remember the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live? "Well, isn't that special?" I went to a High School where "special needs" students were most commonly referred to as "retarded" (they also had to pick up trash around the grounds). Very ugly, but true. We now think of the word "retarded" as reprehensible, and for good reason-- it is about as negative and as unspecific and as pejorative as you can get. It's a word that creates a lot of distance and engenders bias. "Special," as fraught as it may be, is at least a step up the ladder of ethical terminology.  But leaving "special" aside for a moment, let's consider "needs" and "rights." I can see how "need" can engender a negative connotation; it has an air of taxation about it of a demand for service. But "rights," well, that's like "The Bill of Rights" or "Civil Rights" or "Equal Rights" or "Womens' Rights" or "The Rights of the Child." I think the term "rights" has almost universal connotations of equity, strength, striving and righteousness here in America. And the term has everything to do with society. "Rights" forces us to consider the social fabric in ways that "needs" does not.

It's important to choose your words carefully, of course, especially in education. Our culture moves so quickly these days, with the speed of media and social media, I think, in our race to "get the word out," we sometimes sacrifice the careful consideration of our language and we occasionally bandy about approximations of meaning. I'm no exception. It is hard to decide what is important:  more or better information? I'm not being flippant, but serious. In this the new era of Arab Springs and Ferguson unrest, more information, from more sources certainly has its advantages in supporting democracy. Misinformation, or incomplete information can be damaging as well. You may notice that those covering the recent Madison shooting are being very careful about how they are covering the story, for a variety of reasons, but certainly an awareness of Ferguson coverage is informing their choices now. What does this have to do with teaching preschool, you ask? Well, I'm delighted to connect the dots!

This sounds like a digression, but bear with me here:

Current research on whales suggests that they have complex social and emotional lives. Orcas have been documented protecting disabled members of their pods, and not just once, when let's say a shark was trying to eat a calf.  Scientists have followed Orca behavior over years, documenting whales hunting for permanently disabled family members, or helping them swim or breath. Since Moby Dick, Sperm whales have been documented seeking revenge for the murder of their brethren. Grey Whales in Baja used to be known as "devil fish" because they routinely attacked fishermen in open boats. But those fisherman routinely killed their calves or injured the adults, thinking that they were competing for resources with them. Now it's against the law to injure Greys. Fisherman understand that they are not competition and locals see them as a tourist economy boon. Now the Greys are as docile, friendly and curious as can be. Recent generations of whales have learned that people are not out to get them any more and their behavior has dramatically changed. Scientists have discovered that whales have a very enlarged part of their brains dedicated to emotional and social intelligence; this part of their brain is much more developed than ours!  Whale behavior debunks the notion that it is our sense of justice, of ethics and of morality that separates us from "the beasts." Cetacean researchers and scientists have made it harder for us to distance ourselves from these wild creatures; with new knowledge, we are forced to be more inclusive in our outlook and to take the perspective of another, very sentient, very intelligent creature. Whales might live very differently from ourselves, but there is certainly an argument to be made that we are not superior by virtue of our brand of intelligence. There are myriad intelligences in this world (see my former post on social intelligence in plants!). If we are to get along with each other and the planet, it makes sense to keep this in mind.

Difference is the lesson here.  Too often we couple difference with a certain amount of negativity. My mother-in-law has been known to call my outfits or activities "different," as in "Oh, that's different." There's no mistaking the Minnesota nice in her word choice. In the preschool classroom, difference and variation in people and things are great positives, they teach young people emotionally, socially and cognitively. We encourage preschoolers to get along, to be tolerant and understanding, rather than to subscribe to a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest mode of being. Perhaps some would say that this is contrary to the nature of nature, but I would argue, that, like the whales, nature provides us with plenty of evidence that organisms can be highly cooperative. Besides, noticing differences is a necessary part of survival.  The ability to register detail, variation and subtlety is beneficial in the most rudimentary sense.  Can you tell the difference between poisonous and edible berries? The difference between a green and red light? And interpreting emotion helps young people make decisions, adapt behaviors, avoid misunderstandings or fights, communicate effectively and make friends. Noticing differences prepares students to accept those differences as well, to cope and practice patience. Empathy is born out of an understanding of another person's perspective and way of being. Now I'm going to cut to the chase. I know what "special rights" means, and all kids have them. At Dodge, I think most of us consider it our mission to "meet children where they are at."  Here is what this looks like in practice:

Yesterday, I took a small group of kids on a destination hike. We had a particular project in mind, and we needed to go some distance from school to pursue it. It was a beautiful afternoon and I anticipated a lot of happiness and social success, based on the fact that these kids know each other quite well now, they compliment each other in temperament (meaning they do not have a homogeneous approach to activity and life in general) and they have learned very well how to function as a group, with a high degree of tolerance (there's a loaded word) for their various proclivities and differences. This tolerance was hard won. I recently heard a female scientist say that "struggle" is a word we need to apply positively to kids efforts to experiment and take risks, particularly in STEM curriculum. Struggle suggests that you might fail. Tolerating failure is an important part of tolerance in general. Our class has struggled with learning how to accept, and celebrate their differences. Some children in the group have "fast motors." Others are very sensitive to stimulation. One child has very low arousal and another struggles with anxiety. Yet another wrestles with speech. Being a growing child, growing and changing every day is very hard work, and here we are doing it together and asking each child in turn to take stock of how his peers are growing and learning too!  This is the great "social experiment" that is school.  But, back to that hiking group.

It turns out that one child who struggles with high arousal was in the throws of over-stimulation when we set out on our hike; she was wrestling with regulation. So, we made a plan with everyone, just like we always do, when we can:  The big body kid could run ahead, to "the waiting place" as long as she agreed to stop. And the other children were asked to walk, not run, for that first leg of the hike. We adapted the plan for the next leg. My fast friend could run ahead again, and this time everyone else could run too, but after I counted to ten. This gave the racer the buffer she and her friends needed while she worked to regulate her body, and it gave everyone else the chance to have a good run too. We didn't dance around any elephants in the room during that conversation.  We generally strive to be up front about the needs of particular children at particular times. I said, "I think she needs some space for her body right now. Sometimes I need space for my body. Do you ever need space for your body?" A child answered in her own way, "Sometimes I need to hug something really hard!" Another said, "You can hug me really hard!" And in an instant they were squeezing each other gleefully (I did advise a touch of restraint). Later another child remarked on my running friend's speed. "She's really fast. I wish I could run that fast."  I said, "I can't run that fast, so I'm glad she knows how to stop."  "Me too. She knows how to stop. Some kids don't know how to stop. That's dangerous."  These conversations indicate a whole lot of perspective-taking and they unfolded with a comfort and ease which has been hard won through lots of practice-- less saying, "No," less tattling, less firm hand-holding, more noticing.

Young children are prone to seek fairness and equity, mostly for themselves, and they will loudly protest if they feel "that isn't fair!"  But fairness and equity are measured by how well we are meeting the needs of each individual and how well we are balancing those needs with the group's needs. A child with "special rights" might be the only child who sits at group time with a rice pillow on his lap, because he benefits from it, because his body needs that reassuring pressure. This is fair, if, and only if, the true, individual rights of all other children are honored too. Not long ago, a child asked why a friend's mother was always in our classroom. My colleague Julie was quick, but very relaxed, "Oh, he's practicing being at school. He's learning how to be at school and getting ready to say good-bye. You already learned that, right?" The child nodded, smiled and moved on. Remember, meeting individual needs doesn't mean chaos in the classroom, or every child for him or herself, it means that we notice and honor the rights of all kids and we make every effort to share activities, uniting children in purpose. If the boy with "special rights" can better attend during a story because of his "special" pillow, this is a win for the group as they all stand a better chance of enjoying the book. Every one's coping skills grow. Watching adults care for and acknowledge a variety of needs reassures students that their own true needs will be met too. In this way everyone is special, and no one is special too.

Again and again, the natural world functions like a decentralized classroom when it comes to anti-bias education. When we go out and experience nature in all of its variation and unpredictability, the playing field is leveled for students. Mostly, teachers did not design and alter the natural space for their aims and goals, and so everyone, including the teacher and facilitator must meet the environment on its terms, with our own set of strengths and interests, just as we strive to "meet children where they are at," with their own unique backgrounds, strengths and desires. While the classroom is a wonderful place that can be a real laboratory for equity and empathy, the great outdoors reminds us that we are just a part of the big wide world, and our needs stand beside those of everything else on earth.

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