The Magic of Inclusion

Walking into a class and ignoring differences between students is not the perfect world.

The perfect world is walking into a class where you can see all sorts of differences, yet everyone is interacting with each other and having fun. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s magic.

I am an elementary education major and this past semester I was placed in a second grade classroom where I was able to teach once a week. The first day I walked into the classroom I could feel the magic in the air. The class was full of diverse students – along with the typical students, there were students who were gifted and students with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, and autism. But the students didn’t talk about their different abilities and they didn’t talk about how they were different from each other. But there was definitely a lot of talking. The students were constantly talking about what they were learning and what was going on in their lives. They weren’t judging each other for their differences or asking questions about why they acted differently.

They were just being kids.

But beyond being kids, they were true friends. All of the students had a strong bond that will hopefully last for years to come.

I remember walking around during one class while the students worked on a graphing assignment. When I walked past the student with autism, who I helped frequently, I realized that he didn’t need my help that day. His classmate sitting next to him was talking him through the steps of the assignment. He wasn’t told to do this; he wasn’t put next to this student to lend him help when needed; he wasn’t helping him because he felt sorry for him; he was simply helping out his friend. Abracadabra.

But we need to realize that this magic doesn’t just happen…it takes a magician – the teacher – to put it all together and make the audience – the students – believe in the magic.

Because of their teacher, these students were allowed to see the magic of inclusion in the classroom. But this magic wasn’t just a trick – it was real.

That was inclusion at its best.

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A Story of Transformation

Being a part of Project UNIFY, I get to read a lot of stories about Special Olympics impacting students and school communities across the U.S. I constantly hear great stories of success where students with intellectual disabilities are respected and treated as equals in their school. Sadly, I also read things that illustrate how much work we still have to do. But on a Friday afternoon, I want to share one story of transformation that gives me hope that change can, and will, happen.

Be inspired by Elementary student Kayla Davis and her journey to understanding:

Kayla (right) with partner Maron

“When I was first asked if I wanted to help the Special Education kids with Physical Education last year, my answer was a resounding no my reasons being that I was fearful and had no experience with Special Ed kids. They were scary, and gross. Why would I want to help them? But the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself to try it, just once. My teacher and my parents backed me up completely, but still I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it because I felt uncomfortable and scared. I knew nothing about Special Ed in general and had planned on never interacting with the kids. I had what you could call the “public opinion.” But as I soon found out, being a PE helper was very different than I thought.

The moment I walked into the gym, I knew it was nothing like I had expected. I had thought they would have trouble walking, let alone doing the things we, the 5th and 6th graders were doing. They played volleyball, soccer, basketball, and everything else we learned. I was entirely surprised. I soon learned their names; Jenna, Maron, Jodie, Jacob, Andy, and Riley. This year we have 3 new kids too. I was paired up with Jenna, a spirited kindergartener. It was fun going there every Tuesday and Thursday. I grew to look forward to it, treasuring the half-hour I had to spend with these students. My favorite part was watching the improvements while they were learning. I got my buddy from just looking at the basketball, to pushing it upward!

My view of the Special Ed kids changed greatly. They weren’t a different race; they were normal people with a special perk. One of the things that changed my perception was interacting with them. They laughed, cried, and loved, just like us. As I continue working with them this year, (this year my partner is Maron), I continue to enjoy it, more than ever because I have learned more about how to understand them. In addition to PE helpers, our school has recently formed a Partners Club, working with Special Olympics and Project Unify. I am proud to say that my whole class is involved in this amazing opportunity. I hope that if you ever have an amazing opportunity that you try it, just once.”
– Kayla Davis, Boise, Idaho

Live a Life of RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE

For the past 6 years I have been highly involved with Special Olympics and Partners Club, an inclusive club where students with and without intellectual disabilities can come together for sports training and competition.

It all started the first few weeks of High School … There may be a few guys out there that can relate, but I first got involved with Special Olympics when a pretty girl asked me to come to a lunchtime meeting at school. Of course I said yes! But little did I know that lunchtime meeting would end up changing the way I look at life and ultimately change how I look at other people.

At East Anchorage High School in Anchorage, AK I was immersed in a very diverse school atmosphere, with students coming from all different ethnic backgrounds, so naturally I was used to seeing different people around the hallway. Partners Club, however, showed me how fun life can be when you treat people with RESPECT! My first year in Partners Club I was part of a group of students who enjoyed interacting at lunch, practicing sports after school, and competing in high level sports competition. While that may seem like a pretty typical group of students, it was better because we were all about inclusion and making sure people felt accepted.

Besides the sports aspect of our Partners Club, we also ran a daily Espresso Shop. We had students with and without intellectual disabilities making drinks, taking orders, running the cash machine, and interacting with our customers. This inclusive coffee shop offered an opportunity to showcase our club — showing our student body how much fun we had together and emulating what friendship truly looks like when you recognize people for their abilities rather than their disabilities.

In the following years of high school I was a part of a movement of young leaders that wanted to see change in the school atmosphere  (and did!). Every week we held meetings, made announcements over the school system PA and wore our Partner’s Club tie-dye t-shirts on Tuesdays; we even hosted Spread the Word to End the Word campaigns to eliminate the R-word from our campus. Seeing teachers and students in the hall wearing tie-dye was amazing – everyone wanted one because they knew the t-shirts represented RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE.

When I went to college at Washington State University, I was welcomed with open arms and held a weeklong Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in my first year. I also hosted a three-day bowling event with Special Olympics athletes and WSU athletes (our school’s quarterback even showed up because his friends told him it was fun)!

In my second year at the University, the head coach of the University Bowling Team became a volunteer coach for my unified bowling team and offered to host a bowling tournament with the WSU student athletes from other sports teams. Finally after working with the WSU athletics department they decided they wanted to host the Special Olympics Washington East Region Basketball Tournament at our school!

These are just a few examples of how an inclusive school atmosphere can truly change the way students; teachers, administrators, and community members treat people inside and outside school. In the last six years Special Olympics has been an instrumental part in my life and I hope you too will embrace the movement, live a life of RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE and benefit from positive interactions with everyone you meet.

Activating Inclusion

The following is an interesting reflection on inclusion from the perspective of an educator, written by William Hughes, educational consultant and superintendent of the Greendale Wisconsin School District.

Inclusion and participation of youth with disabilities in school, employment, social, community, and leadership activities is vital to their future success and achievement of their life goals.  Inclusive schools are higher achieving schools; places where young people develop the skills they need to live fulfilled adult lives.

The involvement of youth and young adults with disabilities is a vital component of schools with better student achievement. These schools include parents in decisions, administration of services, and establishment of policies. Inclusion of parents and youth at all levels is an important step to teaching and learning, to supporting the independence of youth, and to ensure that services are as effective in their neighborhood school.

Leaders of schools with higher achievement know the importance of inclusion for youth with disabilities.  Research validates the comprehensive, positive aspects of inclusion which include decreasing risky behaviors and psychological problems, and increasing the likelihood of:

  • Achieving successful transition to adulthood,
  • Developing deeper connections to their communities and peers,
  • Feeling more in control of their lives,
  • Achieving better academic outcomes,
  • Increasing self-esteem and personal identities, and
  • Improving life skills and decision-making by students

Why Inclusion?
Inclusive schools are places where children are educated together, with support and services following the child into the school they would attend if they didn’t have a disability. Research indicates children with disabilities learn from their typically developing peers and that all children benefit from support and services.

Inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities and their families in schools and community settings is rooted in the concept of equity. Two components of inclusion are enrollment in their neighborhood school and participation. Youth with disabilities do not require different activities or experiences for learning to occur. They need specific, individualized supports comprised of evidence-based instructional strategies (e.g. adaptations, individualized instructional strategies, modified curriculum and/or environment, and weaving interventions into routines) to benefit from learning in class. High-quality teaching and a good school climate for all children require coordinated efforts across the school, including child care, general education, special education, health care, mental health, and social services. Collaboration is the key to achieving high-quality inclusive services.

School leaders are responsible for improving student achievement; creating a positive climate of inclusion across classrooms and activities to impact learning and connection of students to the school. Parents and school leaders must advocate and activate inclusive schools to improve education for all children and youth, and foster the sense of belonging that every person desires. Accomplished leaders in higher performing schools focus on what is best for every child – activating inclusion, better student achievement, and developing students who understand their responsibility to others. Inclusive schools create a culture of civility that reaches beyond the walls of the classroom.

Inclusive schools are activated with three tactics:

  • First:  School Leaders need to recognize errors from past efforts that didn’t work and side step them so they don’t repeat them.
  • Second:  School leaders know a school community is influenced by the behavior of those around us – shared stories, common expectation and the need for cooperation.
  • Third:  School leaders use the better human nature – the profoundly moral – shaped by value judgments deeply held beliefs, and assertions that we know right and wrong.

Inclusion is right. They make youth better, develop a sense of responsibility and activate them to be a contributing member of society. We all want to feel, included. We know that we all need to feel like we are included – and when students are part of an inclusive community or school they learn more.