An amazing school year is akin to spotting a unicorn when you have a child with a disability. You dream about it. You might sketch what you think it looks like. But actually seeing it, touching it, living it? It seems like we have better chances winning the lottery.
That’s what I thought, until it happened.
We spend so much time dissecting what is wrong with our schools. I want to share what has made this year so right.
Imagine sending your child to a school where there are no self-contained classrooms. Imagine a place where you have to explain what ID and MD (intellectual and multiple disabilities) classrooms are.
School districts like this are rare, but they do exist. My 3 children are part of one where there are only general education classrooms with a range of supports depending on what a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) identifies. True, meaningful inclusion. It’s not perfect, nothing is. But there is an intentional effort to be equitable here.
When an entire school district embraces inclusion, you feel it everywhere –from building principals to bus drivers. When inclusion is a given, rather than something you have to convince teachers and administrators of, it works. Inclusion is a right after all, not a privilege.
Inclusion is nothing without high expectations. So often educators see disability instead of potential. This is why presuming competence is so important. Just because a student is nonverbal does not mean they don’t have something to say. Just because a student is fidgeting or has their head down doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention.
My son Arlo was due for his eligibility evaluations this year. (Always a bit comical because his diagnoses of Down syndrome, ADHD, and hearing loss mean he will always be eligible. But I appreciate how critical these laws and evaluations are.) His therapists and special education teacher shared the test results in a special meeting, which are always a bit of a blow.
Then they did something unexpected. Each of them shared how well Arlo did when they modified the tests; accommodating with the extra time and specialized directions that he needs. They gushed about how great Arlo did and how far he has come this year. They shared that it is clear he is learning in the classroom even when it appears he is in his own world. While he is not at grade level, their extra effort showed that he is indeed on par with his classmates on many concepts. They said being in the general education classroom is clearly benificial.
Arlo has been in public schools for 7 years now, starting at age 2. This is the first time his entire team has taken the time to truly evaluate him with the supports he needs. They wanted an accurate picture of where he is, and they know standardized testing does not illustrate that. While the scores from the modified testing cannot be reflected in his official records, they are far more representative of how brilliant my son is.
A student can have the best teacher in the school but that means very little if there is no chemistry between them. Connection is everything. Students feel it and so do teachers.
My son and his 3rd grade general education teacher have an unbreakable bond. It is made of mutual respect and admiration. Mrs. Hallett, who is retiring after this school year, has said she is learning as much from Arlo as he is from her. She is firm yet funny; demanding but kind. She has no nonsense approach, yet underneath the serious exterior, you can see how much she appreciates the silliness.
It feels like kismet that Arlo was placed in her class for her final year of teaching.
Mrs. Hallett is often the only person Arlo will listen to. If he refuses to come in from recess, the sight of her will get him walking to the door. If he won’t leave the bathroom, her voice in his FM system (a device used to amplify the speaker which connects to his hearing aids) will get him right out. When he shuts down while working with his therapists, showing him a picture of Mrs. Hallett’s sad face snaps him right back.
As close as Arlo and Mrs. Hallett (or Hallett as he calls her) are, she recognized from the beginning that he needs to listen to all adults, not just her. She’s worked with his special education teacher and teaching assistant (TA), who provides one on one support, to achieve this.
Arlo’s TA has established a daily routine so he can start and end the daily independently. She knows when to help him so he doesn’t get discouraged. She encourages him to do for himself and ask his peers for help. The entire team makes sure the class looks out for Arlo. This isn’t just peer modeling, it is peer interaction, relationships, dare I say – friendships.
As an IEP team, we are all identifying ways that we can safely remove support to facilitate independence. Extra time is built into his day so that can happen. His school work is modified so he can successfully complete it. Arlo walks to and from the bus alone, but the entire school staff knows to look out for him in case he decides to dart.
ALL HANDS HAPPILY ON DECK
“It takes a village.” To do it right, it takes a positive, happy, open-minded village. That’s what I see when I’m at my children’s school, which is often. Disruptive behavior is not punished. The staff is focused on figuring out the root of that behavior and working through it.
Arlo’s elopement tendencies are so strong that it took the principal intervening daily to get him back inside. When I was called to help one day, there was not even a hint of frustration from her. Instead she told me she wished we could give him more time outside, because clearly it brings him peace.
Data collection commenced to help with elopement and other concerns. A Behavior Intervention Plan was implemented. The social worker attended meetings and strategized on ways to support Arlo and his teachers regularly. It was an amazing effort that pays off every day.
Arlo’s team is always in touch by email. I regularly get texts from his teacher and TA letting me know how he’s doing. The school nurse probably has me on speed dial. His IEP calls for a monthly meeting where we go over everything. His team shares what he is learning so we can reinforce it at home. I email them pictures and details about what we’re up to so he can share at school. Little bits of information trigger Arlo to talk or write so he can more fully engage in assignments and talk to his friends. Expressive language is very difficult for Arlo, familiar prompts help him get started.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Mrs. Hallett has told me that she wakes up a night thinking of ways to better support Arlo. Something works until it doesn’t, then his entire team brainstorms about what to try next. They follow the IEP, but they also try new things as needed.
They identify times of the day that are hard for Arlo and figure out how to help him.
Trouble sitting during circle time: supportive chair
Fatigued and floppy in the afternoon: beanbag chair and quiet time
Silly and distracted: sensory break
Can’t sit still: build in a break to jump through the halls
ON THE HOMEFRONT
Because the team at school is always in touch with me, I’m able to pinpoint what days are hard for Arlo and identify what might have happened at home that contributed. Late bedtimes and poor sleep are often contributors. A frustrated parent usually makes for a rough morning at school. Not having the right shoes or lunch pack are very upsetting. I am constantly making mental notes about how things at home affect Arlo’s day at school. Innovation is the name of the game.
One big change that has happened since last year is an ADHD diagnosis that warranted medication. This was a tough pill to swallow for me (pun intended). I do not take medication of any kind lightly, especially when it comes to my children. Finding the right doctors and properly caring for the mental health of our children is imperative. So often when a child has a developmental or intellectual disability, every behavior or learning difficulty is placed on THAT diagnosis. We are doing ourselves and our children a huge disservice by not exploring if a secondary diagnosis might be a factor. It is clear that managing Arlo’s ADHD has helped him at school.
PANDEMIC DISTANCE LEARNING
Our amazing school year came to a grinding halt in March with the spread of COVID-19. Like much of the country, we will not be returning to the classroom this school year.
Distance learning has been a disaster; but that is no fault of Arlo’s team. They have been on it since day one, amazing as always. They check in regularly with phone calls, emails, and texts. They meet with him virtually. They modify assignments and have identified apps to help him learn.
But school is school, and home is home. Home is where Arlo can let loose. We keep trying to add structure, but it is not the same as having human interaction with education professionals every day. Younger siblings are not appropriate peer models. They are a distraction during those rare moments when Arlo does engage in writing or math.
Still, with all of this, his teachers reassure me that I am doing my best; that Arlo is fine and will be fine. They keep working with him and trying different approaches. Even while juggling their own families during these unprecedented times, they are thinking of mine.
When we think about high needs students like my son who require multiple supports, naysayers will often question if it is worth it: so much time, money, and effort being invested into this one student. It is cheaper and easier to do it in a self-contained classroom. Cheaper and easier, perhaps – but not superior. (Nor is it a least restrictive environment.)
The return on the inclusion investment is substantial. Research shows again and again that students with disabilities do better in a general education classroom than in a segregated one. And their non-disabled peers do as well or better in inclusive classrooms. The more we do it, the better educators become at doing it well.
What comes after school is even more important. Students with disabilities who are unflinchingly accepted in school will expect the same when they enter the workforce. So will their non-disabled peers. Today’s students are seeing how we can all thrive if we have the proper supports and modifications in place. They will see the strategies their teachers have used and apply them in the workplace. They will know how to talk to each other because they have been doing it since kindergarten, through middle school, high school, and even college.
Inclusive schools lead to an inclusive society where EVERY individual is a valued and contributing member.