How Inclusion Can Help All Children Become Tolerant
By Patti Freckelton
Before Paul V Demos’ first day in our preschool, his parents met with me to discuss their concerns. Paul, who has autism and has never before been in a school setting with non-disabled children, was four years old. He has had different therapies, some of which were in group settings with other children with needs similar to his. Paul’s parents were understandably concerned about this major change for him and wanted to make sure I knew what to expect when he started in our classroom.
The first few weeks of the school year were difficult for Paul as we learned about each other. He needed a lot of support following the classroom routine so I made sure to be near him and guide him during our transitions. Although he continued to need the help of a teacher, Paul quickly began to follow along with what the other kids were doing. If they were sitting on the rug and looking at a book, Paul would sit in his cube chair on the rug, too. As the year progressed, Paul began to thrive in our classroom. At first, he used all his free time in the computer center so he could play on the iPad. But by the end of the year, he was playing with toy cars on the race track and pretending to eat food in the kitchen area. He even grabbed other kids’ hands to run around with him at recess. I wasn’t the only teacher in our classroom; my students did some of the most effective teaching by guiding Paul and letting him know what was expected.
Other children in my classroom were always there for him. If Paul strayed from the line, they took his hand and helped him walk down the hallway. If he forgot to bring his name card with him, they brought it to him. They sat next to him and helped him by repeating vocabulary words or ideas. My students knew that Paul was different, but they still understood him in a way that can only be learned by working and playing alongside him every day.
As a teacher, I believe that when students with disabilities are educated in settings with their non-disabled peers, everyone benefits. The students with disabilities have positive role models to look up to for behavioral and academic support and guidance, while the non-disabled students learn empathy and acceptance by realizing that not everyone is just like them.
Today, Paul’s parents could not be more pleased with the progress he has made. He is almost fully toilet trained, he sings songs he learned at school at home, he will often look at you when you talk to him, and he smiles when he sees a familiar friend from his class. Because he has thrived in our classroom, Paul’s parents cut the number of hours he is spending in outside therapy. This fall, he will be in a general education Kindergarten. Paul’s parents have advocated for him to be in that classroom because they strongly believe that being around general education peers was one of the most significant factors that contributed to Paul’s incredible growth this past school year.
I would encourage any parents of a student with a disability to advocate for their child to be in a classroom with their general education peers. If they haven’t already, teachers should open their classrooms to students with disabilities and special education support staff who may accompany them to help ensure they are successful. And special education teachers should continue to push for their students to be taught in general education classrooms and work with general education teachers. Every child like Paul deserves the same opportunity to flourish.
Patti Freckelton is a National Board Certified Teacher at Newton Bateman Elementary in Chicago. She is a member of the Teach Plus Early Childhood Educator Advisory Board.