Ed note: I apologize that the following is not well-edited. Meaning it’s not edited at all. Meaning I hit the snooze button three times this morning and I’m out of time. So good luck.
The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
After yesterday’s post went up, I got a couple (okay, a lot) of questions about my conceptual view of educational inclusion – mostly from parents trying to figure out if it was really the right answer for their own children.
I’ve addressed this before, but I’ve avoided digging in too deeply for fear that I might sound like I’m preaching a universal gospel when really, it is, like everything else, an intensely individual topic that defies a one-size-fits-all answer.
The closest I came to sinking my teeth into it was this past October, when I talked about our choice to include Brooke in her team meeting. In that post, I said the following:
We live in a district that, at least theoretically, prizes inclusion. And as a rule, I’m all for it. In my opinion, inclusion – educational, societal and damn near any kind you can think of – benefits everybody involved. BUT – big, huge, enormous BUT here – ONLY IF IT’S DONE RIGHT. Otherwise, it can be pretty damn damaging to everybody involved.
Inclusion doesn’t – can’t – mean throwing everyone in a room together and hoping for the best. In order to work, inclusion has to be thoughtfully designed. It must be painstakingly planned and executed. It must be FLEXIBLE and agile – constantly able to evolve and change as the needs and skills of those involved evolve and change – and it must be constantly monitored so as to see where those changes are occurring in real time.
So when we talk about the law’s requirement that our kids be placed in the least restrictive environment possible, to my mind that doesn’t simply mean the most inclusive setting in the building. It might, but that’s not the point. What it means to me is the ENVIRONMENT THAT WILL BE LEAST RESTRICTIVE TO YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING. (edited to add: And “learning” encompasses far more than academics.)
A friend brought this up yesterday. Her kiddo is struggling in an integrated classroom setting and she’s wrangling with his team to take him out of the room more to – well, actually teach him. I know this road well. I’ve travelled it before.
Many of our kids get easily overwhelmed. Many of them have language processing challenges. Many of them have sensory issues that can make a typical classroom nearly unbearable. For some (and for many years, mine), trying to be taught in a class of twenty some-odd kids is like trying to learn French while your house is on fire. It simply isn’t possible.
The best part about inclusion DONE RIGHT is that it’s never an all or none proposition. It’s flexible, malleable, creative. It is, above all, INDIVIDUALIZED so that the needs of each individual are seamlessly incorporated into the every day routine of the group. And the best part? When generalized, the accommodations of individuals so often benefit the whole. Predictability? Visual prompts and learning tools? Movement breaks? Tools for emotional regulation? Social skills teaching? A little more time to process information? GOOD FOR EVERYONE.
But back to this least restrictive environment thing. Well, based on my experiences in the past and recent conversations with friends, it seems that the assumptions that we’ve begun to make based on that language have become a little, well, restrictive. We assume that LRE means the room with the most typical kids (or even just the most kids) in it. Well, no. It doesn’t. It might. But it might not.
Because the room with the most kids in it may be the one that is the most difficult for your kiddo to manage. It might be the one in which his house is on fire.
For my money – and this is, of course, based only on my own experience with my own kid and may or may not have the slightest bearing on you or yours, but what has worked best for Brooke has been a thoughtful combination of all of the above. Either a typical or integrated classroom as a home base, but with lots (I mean LOTS) of time outside that room. Pre-teaching and review, one-on-one instruction of an individualized curriculum, speech therapy, occupational therapy, social pragmatics instruction – all of those things need to happen OUTSIDE the room in order to make life INSIDE the room possible for her. That’s not always easy. On a lot of levels. But for now, the benefits outweigh the challenges.
Again, this is just what works for my kid. And it’s what works for now. In six months it may look totally different because SHE may look different. As the demands on her change, as the kids around her change, as her skills and coping strategies change, so must we, as a team, change our plan for supporting her. So I can’t say that this is always going to be our best practice. Only that it is for now.
So, back to yesterday’s questions. Since this post is threatening to become a book, I’ll start with the shortest one. It was, simply, “‘Are you married to inclusion?’
I hadn’t planned to share my answer publicly until the question started popping up consistently (though typically with a lot more words attached). And because I think that it is VITAL that we ask these questions — and even more vital that we are honest with ourselves and our children in answering them — well, here I am dedicating this whole dang post to this. So here goes – beginning with my answer to the question, ‘Am I married to inclusion?’
I’m not — or better said, we’re not – “married” to anything for the long haul. What I’ve found to be most important throughout has been our own – and the team’s – flexibility of thinking and creativity of implementation. We try not to find the right boxes to wedge [Brooke] into, but instead to create the boxes that she needs. Obviously that’s a lot easier to say than to do, but we make every effort to stay true to it.
In the present tense, she’s in an inclusive setting, but we’ve fought to have a LOT of physically separate one-on-one or one-on-two instruction. So she’s out of the room a great deal, which, of course has its own challenges, but for her it’s what currently works. Next year, Hell, next month or next week, she may look different. It’s our job to keep up and keep adjusting as much as we can so that we’re serving her best.
I’ve described inclusion as a living, breathing organism. If it doesn’t remain dynamic and flexible it can be disastrous (for everyone involved.)
After some further conversation about specific schools, I added the following:
We talk about it a lot (and VERY recently readdressed it) and so far have decided that there really isn’t a better option out there for the totality of what she needs. While [some schools] can likely serve her better academically, they won’t be able to provide what she currently needs socially and emotionally.
We ask ourselves and Dreamy the question about thrice-yearly to make sure we’re being honest. For now, we believe that the option we have is the best one. And truth be told, she is overwhelmingly happy at school. Her [one to one aide] is beyond fabulous – which makes all the difference.
ed note: Yes, apparently I use the term “thrice-yearly” in casual conversation. Believe me, I’m just as shocked by this as you are.
The thing that jumps out at me in reading my own words this morning is that in every one of those passages above, I used the terms “currently” and “where she is now” and “for now” ad nauseam. That matters. Those terms are there to ensure the understanding that all of this — every bit — is subject to change as my girl changes.
Inclusion is not easy. (And to the point here, it’s not always appropriate.) But when it *is* appropriate, it has to be done with care. It has to be agile and flexibility and it has to be as proactive as possible, because, in my experience, nearly anything consistently reactionary is doomed to fail – especially anything educational.
I don’t have time to wrap this up in a bow, but I will leave you with a parting, if not really final, thought on the topic.
If we’re asking the questions with regularity — of Brooke, of ourselves, of her team, of the doctors and specialist who we trust — and we’re all answering them as honestly as we can, then we’re starting in the right place. Often for us, there is no right answer in this, just the most right — or the least wrong — one for the particular time and place. But for me, the most important things are the questions and the realization that we have to KEEP asking them because Brooke, and her peers and therefore the environment she’s in, will continue to change. They are not stagnant nor static, so we can’t be either.