As an educator for 22 years, and currently the principal of a middle school, I have seen plenty of successes and missteps in including students with disabilities over the years. I have also had the unique opportunity to see this from a different angle, as the mother of two children with disabilities. It is easy to become angry when we feel our child has been left out or undervalued. However, the reality is that the majority of educators strive to do what is best for all kids. I have found that most challenges to inclusion can be overcome by assuming positive intent, maintaining open communication, and committing to developing solutions before challenges arise. Some suggestions from an educator and a mom:
1. Decide how you define inclusion. Do you want your child to have a part in the school chorus or band, to play with typical peers at recess, or to be in the mainstream all day? Addressing these questions in advance, especially when school events are coming up, helps a parent to front load the school team with ways to ensure that his or her child is included. Be sure to have suggestions about what works for your child at home, and try to be realistic about what can be accomplished. For example, my boys both have a physical disability. We do not sign them up for the football team. Instead, they sign up for debate team and chess club, where they are able to shine. When the environment is appropriate to the student’s strengths and abilities, inclusion becomes more natural.
2. Determine the best school placement for your child. All students have the right to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), but what does that mean? The answer to this is never easy. As the parent, your input in determining LRE is the most valuable input we have. Remember: Your child may need to work on goals in a smaller class, and that is OK! Advocate for what is most appropriate for your child through the IEP process.
3. Teach your child resilience. Just as all children do, our children with disabilities will experience frustration and failure. It is important to empower our children with disabilities to be as independent as possible. We will not be able to care for them forever. As hard as it is to allow them to fail, failure is a human experience. This may mean that your child doesn’t need a one-on-one aide or may receive a poor grade. I can tell you, as a parent, that allowing my kids to struggle a little and insisting they try again has resulted in confident, well-balanced young men who are proud of what they have accomplished.
4. Finally, research your available schools. I am proud of my school, which is home to an award-winning Peer Buddies program that epitomizes inclusion and respect for all. Research your options and be a cooperative change maker at whatever school your child attends!
-Written by Kristin Larson, the mother of children with physical disabilities and principal of a middle school
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.