Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Inclusion or Seclusion? What are we teaching our kids about Special Education?

I was having a conversation with the boys in the after school program I run yesterday. We were talking about random stuff,  zombies, food, basketball- all things 9-11 year old boys like to talk about.  The conversation turned to a boy in the special ed. class, who  had a major meltdown at school- screaming for almost an hour-  and then to the rest of the class in general.

They turned to me and asked this question:

"Ms. Dawn- why do some of the kids in Mrs. B's class even come to school? They don't even know
what is going on- are they even learning anything?"

First - I am thrilled that they are comfortable enough with me to ask this, second- this was not said in a cruel or mean way- it was a serious question.  I asked them what made them think this? And they said- not all of the kids- just some of them,(there are a couple of lower functioning kids- little to no speech, etc) couldn't learn anything so why were they at school. 

I pondered their question for a minute- thinking of the best way to answer them. As I said- they weren't being mean, but they truly felt this way and needed an honest answer.  

"Since I don't teach the kids on a regular basis- I can't say what they do or do not learn, but I can say that everyone learns, just maybe at a different pace, and maybe not the exact thing you might be learning."

They were quiet for a second, and then they said, OK Ms Dawn! Can we have snack now?  So did what I say make sense? Did they internalize it to ask their parents about later? Did they care at all? I have to think they did care- or they wouldn't have asked in the first place. I kept my answer short and sweet- when dealing with 9-11 year old boys- anything longer or more detailed would have been completely tuned out. 

My heart was heavy though, this is what they see, what is modeled for them, what they base their perceptions on.  Kids learn what they see, and being that the special ed class at The Boy's school is completely self contained- the rest of the student population doesn't have much of a chance to deal with them, get to know them, develop any kind of tolerance or sensitivity towards them.  They are not considered a part of the general education population, despite the teacher's amazing enthusiasm and effort to make the class less stigmatized. But since the students attend maybe 2 gen. ed. classes, and specials like art, music, gym and computers, they are truly not an integral part of the school community. The other kids will say things like "So and so was in MY class for science today"- lending credence to my theory that the special needs kids- even the higher functioning kids- are not considered part of the school "family".  It makes me sad. 

My thoughts on how to remedy this? The teachers need to be collaborating more!  Inclusion is a tricky thing, but it seems to be the way education is going.  There needs to be MORE EDUCATION FOR THE EDUCATORS!  They need more professional development days that deal strictly with inclusion, and how to teach the student population how to react to and treat these kids. Whether it is an invisible special need, like autism, or a something the kids can SEE, like Down's.  Sure there are still going to be bullying issues- it's not a perfect world we live in, but this could go a long way towards making bullying a rare occurrence as opposed to an every day thing.

The  fact is, mainstream schools are expected to smilingly and graciously accept any child sent their way, no matter what their need. Even if everyone involved can see that it isn't necessarily best for anyone. If extra money and support was readily available, and this was done as a positive move for both the abled and disabled communities to have more interaction I would probably feel better about it. But as it stands, it is a political move forced upon already cash strapped schools with an awkward, unorganized and red taped process that leaves parents,teachers and administrators feeling frustrated. 

I just hope that at some point the value that these kids add to their school is universally accepted. Perhaps that's when real inclusion begins?