Even under the best of circumstances, there is always a bit of trepidation when starting something new. Think about the first time you rode a bike, drove a car, your first kiss, or really anytime you have ever taken a risk. The thrill and terror of it all can be overwhelming. I liken this feeling to the first time I took one of my students (a boy with severe autism and challenging behaviors) and put him in a 4th grade general education classroom. It was my first teaching job, in a self-contained classroom for students with autism in California and I was challenged by one of my professors at Cal State University Fullerton to begin the process of including my students in general education. At this time, there was little support for inclusion at my school (not even for Art, Music or PE – mainly because we did not have those programs due to budget constraints). Even so, I believed it was the right thing to do and began trying to change the hearts and minds of my colleagues. It was not easy at first, but after explaining that I was not simply going to “dump” my students off in their class, they were definitely more receptive.
This tends to be the biggest fear of people who are opposed to a “full inclusion” model. There are different definitions of “full inclusion” but one I prefer is apparent when we talk about the idea of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). What is the environment that will least hinder the student from being educated with their typically-developing peers while still accessing the general curriculum (what everyone is being taught) in a meaningful way? There is no one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion just like there is no one-size-fits-all approach to general education (no matter how hard we want there to be). But…I am getting ahead of myself. In regards to my 4th grader who was now going to be included into a Math block in general education, I began to feel the anxiety creep up in me as the day approached. Would he keep his challenging behaviors in check? Would the class accept him when he started to script movie lines? Would the general education teacher think I was crazy for putting her up to this?
Diffusing and answering the inevitable questions was the big key into alleviating everyone’s fear. I spoke to the class before we started and explained my student, while having some differences in the way he experienced the world, was still a 4th grade boy who liked movies, music and playing on the computer. He liked Math, which is why we decided this was the best time for him to join his peers. It was also important to take the uncomfortable questions of “why does he do this,” or “why does he do that,” and answer them with the utmost respect and dignity to their new classmate. Perhaps honest communication is the best way to gain his peers’ trust…kids are too smart and usually know when you are trying to put one over on them. Once we got that out of the way, acceptance was the easy part.
Next, was giving him adequate support. I had already promised the teacher he would not be flying solo, so we used one of my paraprofessionals for the time he was in the class. We also collaborated on adapting any materials we thought he would benefit from (larger number cards, color coding, etc). He sat in front of the class and by the door in case the classroom was over-stimulating and needed to make a quick escape for relief. Knowing what the class was working on beforehand helped us to pre-teach or prepare him for accessing the general curriculum when he went into the classroom.
We were consistently surprised at what our 4th grader could do, in terms of keeping his behaviors under control and accessing the content. By giving him the opportunity to interact with his peers we opened up another door for communication and camaraderie. Even now, years removed from that first grand adventure of inclusion, fear is present in the back of my mind as we move to include more students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in general education. Though this time, it reminds me that it is not something to be terrified of…but revered. Inclusion, at its very heart is a noble cause because it brings dignity to human beings when it otherwise would separate those who need love the most. Fear may be an obstacle but it certainly is not an excuse.
Timothy Villegas lives with his fetching wife and adorable children in Marietta, GA by way of Pasadena, CA. He has been a special educator for eight years and enjoys every bit of the drama of inclusive education (and is an obsessive user of parenthetical expression). Follow him on Twitter: @think_inclusive or to peek inside his brain…peruse his Tumblr: http://thinkinclusive.tumblr.com/ He promises to be nice.