Why Being a Truly Inclusive School Shouldn’t Be Scary — Learn Patient Advocacy
Despite all the talk about diversity and inclusion in classrooms, many schools and families still struggle with what this actually means and why it matters. Just having a child with disabilities or complex needs in a classroom isn’t enough. They need to be seen as a valued member of the school community.
Too often the conversation focuses on the challenges versus gifts these students bring to the classroom.
How can any kid be successful with this approach?
As a parent of an autistic child, I see this attitude taken way too often. And it’s not just confined to the IEP (individualized education plan) meetings.
I hear the rumblings from other parents — I don’t want that child in my kid’s class. Why is that child in French immersion, they should be a regular school (which implies French immersion is somehow an elite school).
I’ve also heard teachers’ comments — that child needs more medication (for the kid with ADHD). Or they get frustrated with a child’s actions instead of approaching behaviour from a place of curiosity and wondering what needs aren’t being met to cause the behaviours.
For those parents, caregivers and staff who appreciate and value these amazing kids, I’m sure you could add to this list of negative input.
Time to change the focus
But here’s the thing. These kids also bring many gifts with them and add value to the classroom.
Looking at my own child, he is very empathetic towards his classmates. Having grown up with him since kindergarten, some of his classmates take a leadership role when he’s in their group.
A recent example his teacher shared was a group project where a lot of reading was involved and multiple steps to follow. Realizing my child struggles with reading, one student paused the group, read out the project to everyone then broke down the instructions step by step.
Guess what? This approach helped other students in the group, not just my child. The teacher noted how students who tend to get easily overwhelmed were more engaged. They were able to follow the task when it was broken down into easy to manage steps.
As for the child who took the leadership role. He saw how it helped his group, which then created a positive feedback loop, reinforcing his approach with his peers.
My son’s classmates weren’t rolling their eyes that he was in their group, frustrated by the additional supports needed or grumbling about who’s going to fund this. Rather, they recognized my child’s needs, adapted their approach to the project and worked as a team.
The best part — they also naturally found a way to tap into my child’s superpower — technology. He’s a natural whiz at making videos, doing online research and gaming. So, when it came time to report back to the class, they chose to do a video versus written report with my son overseeing the production.
Kids show us the way
It’s amazing how open kids can be to accepting people for who they are, without labels or judgement. Yet, too often it’s the adults in their lives who cloud their view with stereotypes, stigma and biases.
I’ve long advocated that a key part of changing the conversation starts in the home.
Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with parents who have strong opinions about what diversity and inclusion should look like and are holding onto old school beliefs.
For a couple of years, I attend the PAC (parents advisory council) meetings at my child’s school with the hope of trying to change the conversation about inclusive education. I shared information during ADHD awareness month, Autism acceptance month, posted articles about increase in childhood anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic (which is impacting all children) and more, with a goal of helping educate families.
While I had some positive feedback (especially from families of kids with disabilities and complex needs) at one PAC meeting a parent said — we’ve heard enough about kids with disabilities. I think we get it.
But then, in the next sentence he complained about a child in his son’s class, and questioned if he should be at a different school.
Clearly, he didn’t get it.
So how do we create truly diverse and inclusive schools?
It starts with changing our personal mindset. Letting go of the stigma, stereotypes and educational systems we grew up in. Finding ways to highlight the gifts of students with disabilities or complex needs instead of focusing on their stretches.
If we don’t fully embrace diversity and inclusion, we are missing out on tapping into the gifts of these incredible students.
Originally published at https://learnpatientadvocacy.com on October 28, 2022.