Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Inclusion: A Parent-Teacher Perspective

Last week, I attended our local Down Syndrome group’s meeting, during which we heard Dr. Cathy Taschner.  Dr. Taschner is a soon-to-be superintendent at a nearby school district and a strong advocate of fully inclusive practices in education.  For those in the Down Syndrome community, there is a huge push for inclusion, something I never really considered having to ponder when becoming a parent. Since the meeting, my head has been swimming. This entry is my attempt at sorting out some of those thoughts.

Dr. Taschner defined her idea of inclusion off the bat, which included all supports in regular education classrooms.  No pull out. All therapies, reading groups, and special education supports done in the regular education class.  As a former elementary classroom teacher, some of this was in contradiction to things I believed and practiced.  I worried that in the regular education classroom, a child that needed other supports might not fare as well without the separate, less distracting small group or individual instruction weaved into the day. 

Though we are a few years away from having to make these decisions, my husband and I are constantly discussing these factors, trying to make sure we’re in the school district that is the best fit for James.  So we listened closely to the speaker and to the parents who shared their stories and concerns.  We listened as parents shared stories of being shut out of decision processes, feeling coerced into being in classrooms with which they weren't comfortable, and being told that their children couldn’t handle certain educational settings. 

Very quickly, these conversations turned into an “us versus them” discussion, pinning educators against parents and vice versa. I think as parents of children with special needs, our experiences and hearing about others’ experiences train us to have some fight in us from the get-go—being the best advocate we can for our children.

I have never had to deal with the ramifications of how someone might perceive my abilities or future based on what I look like, how I talk, or where I come from.  Though I’ve given this a lot of thought in the past and fought my own stereotyping behavior, I now think about how this could affect my child.  Because of James’ beautiful almond eyes, small nose, and other features characteristic of Down Syndrome, many people automatically make assumptions about what he is like and what he will or will not be able to do in school, life, and work.

Thomas and I, along with many other parents of kiddos with Down Syndrome and other diagnoses, hope for our child to become educated, have a job, live independently, get married if he wants to—all of the same things that others want for their children and that people with Down Syndrome have shown us they can do.  Each child has a different path, and we plan to aim high along with letting James steer his ship the way he wants it to go.

One thing that really stood out to me in the talk was how inclusion is life. In thinking about the long-term for each child, do I want James to be interacting and working with people of all backgrounds or staying in a separate room with other children who might have similar “dis”abilities? Some might say (my old self included) that pulling James into another classroom might be beneficial since he can work undistracted with instruction fit to his needs.  But in thinking about how learning is social, James would be losing out on learning and interacting with all of his peers—the way that life works. And how much will kids benefit from working and interacting from someone who might be a little bit different from them?  Dr. Taschner told a story about a boy who was in a wheelchair and who had attended a school for three years. After being in a separate classroom for three years, he was placed in the regular education classroom, and the students asked if he was new. They had never seen him.

We can’t enrich each other when we’re separate from each other.

After the talk, I looked up some of the research studies on inclusive practices, some with Down Syndrome and some examining practices with children with intellectual disabilities.  Though it wasn’t an exhaustive search by any means, the studies I reviewed showed that inclusive practices produced the same and greater achievement gains among children with intellectual disabilities (e.g., Dessemontet, Bless, & Morin, 2012; Tremblay, 2013).  A descriptive study (Johnson, 2006) focused on the experiences of teachers, parents, and students with Down Syndrome in regard to inclusive practices.  Though many teachers were initially apprehensive about inclusive practices with students with Down Syndrome, after having these students in class, teachers described the experience positively, explaining that students exceeded expectations, they enjoyed having the students in class, and they were pleased with the peer interaction and support. The most negative thing that three of the students with Down Syndrome said about their experiences was that there was name-calling. To me, that’s more reason to make sure students are together.  We make fun of and fear the things we don’t know.

Teachers and Parents...Unite!

Getting back to the “us versus them” thing.  I spent my few years of teaching at schools with many kids who looked different than me and who had come from backgrounds different than what I had experienced.  I was lucky to have an amazing support system and an amazing mentor at my first school, but I spent a good number of those early days overwhelmed, sleepless, and feeling incompetent.  I cared deeply about each child that walked through my classroom door, and I’m sure the days that I stayed in my classroom with my teammate until 8 pm outnumber the days that I did not. And let’s be honest, the days that we didn’t stay that late, we did the work at home.

It’s very rare to meet a teacher who doesn’t share the same kind of work ethic and desire to support each and every one of his/her students.  Teachers work far beyond their mandated hours, through their lunches, after they tuck their kids into bed, and beyond.  It’s a calling, it’s hard, and it’s really important for parents to understand the lengths that teachers go to for their kids. 

However, when I was out of the classroom and in graduate school, I thought a lot about parents and how I felt I had missed many opportunities to collaborate with them.  I found myself blaming parents in those early teaching days for poor behavior, missed homework, and the like without really knowing parents.  This bothered me so much that I found that to be the focus of my research in graduate school, and I spent a lot of my PhD days listening to parents.  

For my dissertation, I listened to parents who were living in a homeless shelter about their hopes for their children, and we worked together to build up children’s literacy and reading skills and interests.  At the end of a series of parent-child reading workshops, one mother told me she was waiting for the next class to occur, as she had enjoyed this one with her daughter so much. Another mother voluntarily sought out the workshops, determined to support her youngest children as readers, though she was working full-time to support her family, in the process of moving to a new homeless shelter, and in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy with her fifth child.  Parents, who because of their living situation, might be thought of as indifferent or even harmful to their children’s education, worked tirelessly to make sure their children would get the best possible start to their education. 

Parents will move mountains for their children when given the opportunity. 

I wonder how things would change if teachers and parents had the chance to really communicate—outside of the parent-teacher conferences, back to school nights, and the occasional phone call.  I wonder how it would be if the teachers were able to ask parents what their hopes and dreams for their children were, if teachers shared theirs as well, and if teachers and parents had the chance to inform each other.  I think we might surprise each other. 

I do realize that the current political context and pressures are making this extremely challenging to achieve.  I also realize that there are some cases in which full inclusion may be nearly impossible.  But I do know some pretty amazing teachers and parents.  I think, for our kids, we can make schools an enriching place where students can all learn from each other.

Dessemontet, R. S., Bless, G., & Morin, D. (2012). Effects of inclusion on the academic achievement and adaptive behaviour of children with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56(6), 579-587.

Johnson, D. (2006). Listening to the views of those involved in the inclusion of pupils with Down’s syndrome into mainstream schools. Support for Learning, 21(1), 24-29.

Tremblay, P. (2013). Comparative outcomes of two instructional models for students with learning disabilities: Inclusion with co-teaching and solo-taught special education. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 13(4), 251-258.

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