Let’s start with the fundamental belief that children with disabilities and special needs should be full members of a larger “mainstream” community. Although the term “inclusion” means different things to different people, in its purest sense, this is what inclusion is all about.
Equality and kindness certainly are prominent values of both American and Jewish cultures. Yet the truth is that an educational model promoting pure equality, rather than unity, is one that can sometimes force a “square peg into a round hole.” Viewing inclusion through the lens of equality, educators may feel compelled to focus more on attaining academic equality for the entire spectrum of students in a class rather than providing the supports necessary to promote each child’s academic and emotional growth. Under the “inclusion=equality” philosophy, the driving force behind classroom placement often becomes less a decision focused on the individual student, and more about maintaining a parallel curriculum.
An inclusive school community is, by its very definition, an environment where children of all abilities walk the same halls as their brothers and sisters, and identify as part of the larger school community. However, what happens within the classrooms must acknowledge individual children’s learning differences. Academic inclusion for inclusion’s sake does not always serve in a child’s best interest. An alternative approach which I would like to see more schools and institutions take on is one that is thoughtful, child-centered, and flexible--one that requires “designing” the inclusion experience for each individual student.
This approach recognizes that children who struggle with disabilities can’t always do everything at the same pace and in the same way that other children can. In order to respond to each child’s individual needs and abilities, the school must consider his or her unique academic, social and emotional profile, and allow that to inform a partnership with the parents in the “design” of the specific inclusion experience for that student. Through thoughtful collaboration, administrators, teachers and parents can develop a seamless academic and social program, one that allows each individual student to grow at his or her own pace. The inclusion plan must consider not only each child’s educational setting, but his or her social environment as well, and must be designed to drive progress via the supports that are in place. With this foundation, the students’ inclusion experiences are not indicators of a blanket policy of full integration for the sake of equality, but rather examples of a deliberately designed inclusion plan that promotes students as valued members of a united school community, regardless of their differences.
The individualized inclusion approach I describe requires a lot of time, effort, and planning, and while many schools don’t have the resources to implement this approach, those who use even some of these strategies have the power to radically change a child’s school experience.
The single most important factor in creating a successful inclusion plan is that there is a strong, committed team in place to advocate for the child, with team members who communicate clearly and honestly with one another. On the academic side, the team must include both teachers who can speak to the child’s special education needs, and those who can assess the school’s ability to serve that child. With each decision regarding an inclusion opportunity---whether academic or social---there must be a give and take between the special education teacher and the teacher who will be welcoming the child into his or her mainstream environment. Both sides must be comfortable with this decision, and committed to partnering to make the transition a success. The “sending” teachers have an obligation to clearly describe the child’s current levels of academic and social functioning to the team and to offer strategies to facilitate a smooth transition, while the “accepting” teachers must be confident that they have the resources necessary to continually monitor and tweak the inclusion plan as time passes, and that they have a point person to whom they can approach with questions and concerns.
The child’s parents also are key members of this team. As the prime “experts” on their child, they have the difficult task of advocating for their child while maintaining the ability to listen to the unique perspectives of the professionals on the team.
There is one member of this dynamic team who is often overlooked: the child himself. While the degree to which a student participates in planning for his or her successful inclusion experience will vary based on age, developmental appropriateness, and a myriad of other factors, his or her input must be considered. Students who are older or more sophisticated may be more comprehensively involved in the inclusion planning process, but every child, regardless of age or ability, needs to feel unified support from all those who care about him. While the degree to which each child is involved in decisions regarding inclusion may vary, the child must feel a part of the process and must believe that his thoughts and feelings are recognized and considered.
In order for this unique model of child-centered, designed inclusion to take root, the school administration must be wholeheartedly committed to its success and embrace its multifaceted implementation. Thoughtful inclusion must be viewed by the school administration as a right, not a kindness – tzedek, and not chesed. Children with special needs are no less entitled than their typically developing peers to a school environment that celebrates their strengths and supports their academic, social and emotional growth. Integrating a child with special needs into recess, math or Chumash with the appropriate supports can serve as a catalyst for increased self-esteem and academic growth. This integration is not an expression of compassion but rather a manifestation of thoughtful, child-centered education – a model of what should be in place for every child in the school, not just those with special needs. When this educational philosophy is fully embraced by the school leaders, the rest of the faculty come to adopt that mindset as well.
In order to illustrate this concept, let us explore a scenario in which David, a 4th grade boy with a severe learning disability, has demonstrated considerable growth both in his decoding and reading comprehension. Although he continues to benefit from the individualized supports and instruction available in a self-contained classroom, he has reached the point where he could be integrated into a regular education classroom for reading. If the principal and teachers view David’s return to the regular education classroom through the prism of chesed as opposed to tzedek, his integration is merely a kindness undertaken by the school administration, not a responsibility that they must embrace. Even if the principal is willing to “take the risk” and approve David’s inclusion in a general educational classroom, because it is a kindness, this inclusion is not likely to include a fully invested process which will devote the time and resources necessary to afford David his best opportunities for success. By contrast, if the culture of inclusion in this school is rooted in the belief that inclusion is not a gift that one grants, but rather a right that one facilitates, then all members of the team (including administrators, teachers, therapists, and parents) are far more likely to be invested in properly planning and carefully implementing David’s inclusion experience.
Parents seeking appropriate academic placement for a child with special needs are often faced with a difficult choice: to place their child in a socially-isolated, self-contained class, or to place him or her in a typical general education class with inadequate academic and social support. With the proper model in place, however, inclusion can refer to the academic and social unity and integration of children with special needs within the larger school community, but with each child’s abilities in mind. A school’s educational approach to children with learning and social challenges should not be the same as their approach to typically developing children. Successful inclusion does not have to be purely a vision of academic equality. The key is a deliberately designed, carefully planned and individualized inclusion plan, which will help to insure that each student is a valued and integral member of the greater school community.
Originally published by Building Blocks Magazine in June 2015.