Age Isn’t a Predictor for Success

Clement Coulston and Kaitlyn Smith are members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee.  They were recently asked to co-author one of the 11 Practice Briefs, focusing on School Climate and Inclusion.  

Clem and kaitlyn

Often times when society thinks of “valuable contributors” to issues, discussions and insights, the first image that appears in their mind is one of a well-educated and experienced adult; very rarely is that intuition one of a young person. Youth are constantly told and often led to believe that they are “the leaders of tomorrow,” but what about today? Youth are the ones in the schools, collaborating with educators, and hold the power to make a change.

The magic of Special Olympics Project UNIFY® is the belief in young people to identify challenges in schools, co-create solutions, implement these strategies and reflect on its impact.  Young people of all abilities have valuable insights and can contribute innovative ideas, but we must re-orientate our expectations of how their talent can be best utilized.

The National School Climate Center (NSCC) has worked with youth leaders, like us, from Project UNIFY and has seen our potential.  With our extensive experience and interest in areas concerning School Climate and Inclusion, the NSCC asked us to author a Practice Brief encompassing our experiences, thereby providing strategies and practices that students, educators and the whole school community can further advance.

Below are some of our favorite excerpts from this 4-page Practice Brief. We encourage you to take a deeper look – the brief can be found in conjunction with other briefs on equity and shared leadership here: http://bit.ly/YcXFnr

Inclusion is a set of best practices and shared values that meaningfully support the diversity that each person brings to the school.

Students are the ones who have the power to alter the school climate in either a negative or positive way, based upon their perception of what a school climate should feel like. Students hold the power to make it either socially acceptable or unacceptable to unite with their fellow classmates who have differences.

At the center of Inclusion is the notion that diversity is an ever-growing phenomenon that evokes a need for the community to cultivate global citizenship in today’s students.

‘BULLY’ Brings Media Attention to Bullying & School Climate

On March 30, the documentary BULLY opened in select theaters in New York and L.A (the film will be released throughout the U.S. and Canada in April). The film, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by the Weinstein Company), is garnering tremendous media attention and has already begun to serve as a catalyst for conversation on the topic of bullying.

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. BULLY brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families.

BULLY is a character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

While Special Olympics is not an official partner, nor direct endorser, of this film, we applaud the efforts of those who seek to create a safer, more accepting and respectful world for all.

Bullying is an issue closely connected to our movement of acceptance and inclusion that has been going on for the past 44 years at Special Olympics.

60% of students with special needs reporting being bullied compared to 25% of general education students.

Statistics like this demonstrate the severity of this issue for the specific population of students with disabilities. In March, the White House hosted a conference on bullying prevention. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, attended the event, representing the voice of those with intellectual disabilities and the mindset that it was time for a change.

Through efforts such as Spread the Word to End the Word, Project UNIFY® and Unified Sports®, Special Olympics has actively worked with youth, schools, educators, families and the communities to create climates of inclusion, respect and understanding. These initiatives encourage engagement, character-building and positive youth leadership, and are preventive mechanisms to discourage stigmatizing and abusive language and behavior.

The power of Unified Sports (where students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together as teammates) has extended beyond the playing field. In a 2011 survey, of Special Olympics Maryland high school Unified Partners who observed their teammates with disabilities being bullied or teased, 91% reported standing up for them! Through Unified Sports, we are takings steps towards more positive and inclusive school environments as young people establish friendships and recognize the value of ALL students!

As you begin discussing the topic of bullying in the classroom or with your friends, parents, children or students, we wanted to provide a collection of resources that will help as you begin working towards real change in school climate:

You can also join our conversations here on our blog or through Special Olympics and Project UNIFY social channels:

Is Your School Climate Inclusive? The Students Know!

Today we’re featuring a guest post from Teri Dary on school climate and inclusion. Teri has a wealth of experience as an educator and currently co-chairs SEANet Executive Board and works as the Service-Learning Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about making your school climate inclusive of all students, then you’ll definitely want to read on.   

Creating an inclusive school climate is important work. Conducting this work in the context of engaging youth in developing a shared vision is even more powerful. While adults can be effective in creating the conditions for an inclusive school, it is the youth who can bring those conditions to life. The tendency in our adult-centered world is to identify an issue we would like to address and then devise solutions we believe will help to alleviate the problem. The piece we miss is to partner with youth in the process.

Let’s take the issue of schools that are less inclusive than we would like them to be. If we turn only to the adults around us in analyzing and addressing these concerns, we might come up with solutions like changing lunch or class schedules, proving more opportunities for diverse students to interact, and teaching lessons on tolerance and acceptance.

But who is it that really knows the day-to-day realities of living and learning in the school? Who knows what it is like to walk down the halls and not know the names of your classmates because you don’t have classmates, clubs, or even friends in common? The only people in the school who really know how the social and academic worlds collide, who know how that impacts relationships, and who know what it feels like to be part of that culture are the students. If we are to really address the issues around creating an inclusive school climate, we absolutely need to meaningfully engage our youth in identifying, defining, and solving the challenges we face.

So what solutions might youth come up with that are any different than those adults have already thought of? My conversations with youth on this topic have opened my eyes to some pretty intriguing solutions. One student talked to me about feeling frustrated because he never has the opportunity to interact with students with intellectual disabilities because he takes all higher level classes. He wondered why we can’t have inclusive clubs in our schools, including such groups as Student Council and National Honor Society. Another asked why special education classrooms are located in the far corners of our schools, and why we can’t ensure that there are natural opportunities for students to interact between and within classes?

If we are to address inclusive school climate effectively, let’s engage youth in meaningful ways in the process. Adults don’t need to be the front of all knowledge and problem solvers of all that needs to be solved. Real change will happen when we partner with the amazing youth around us, give them the freedom to innovate and create, providing them with the skills, knowledge, and support they need to be successful along the way.

Back to School

It’s that time of year again – time to go back to school! As teachers, students and parents make their final preparations for the school year to begin, Andrea Cahn, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Senior Director, and Betty Edwards, Chairman of the National Education Leadership Network, share an important message for the new school year:  

Do you remember the bittersweet excitement at the beginning of every school year? Summer was ending, yes, but for many of us, each September meant a fresh beginning—new teachers, a pristine three-ring binder or box of crayons, crisp just-bought clothes, the promise of achievement in the air. We felt the tingle of anticipation of friendships yet unformed, great successes still to be dreamed, and new discoveries of the world and ones’ self. We set foot onto the freshly waxed floors excited to see friends, participate in after-school activities, and to learn. For others, school never quite lived up to expectations and getting on the bus in the morning was a time of intimidation and concern — and for some, school was, and still is, a simply devastating experience.

How is it that even on that first hopeful day of school, some students are shining beacons, while others are ciphers unseen by other students or even their own teachers?

The excitement for school starts at kindergarten, when the angst is often greater for the parent than the child. But that wide-eyed exuberance fades in a less supportive, inclusive school. Just as Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about our schools draining the creativity out of our students, so can the natural curiosity and joy of learning evaporate if children are not provided with the opportunity to be central to and engaged in the learning experience.

As students advance through school, that angst can be shared by both parent and child. In the August 2011 issue of Middle Ground, Angela Thomas shares her own fears as her only child enters middle school.

I did not sleep well the night before. Despite the fact I knew Shayla had all of her sixth grade school supplies neatly packed in her new book bag and was very excited about starting middle school, many of the situations that broke my heart as a middle school teacher were suddenly flashing before me with extreme force.

Would someone else be there for her if she needed help? Would she be the brunt of someone’s joke or bullying? Would my daughter now be one of the kids who couldn’t get the combination lock to work? If she had a question, would she be too afraid to ask?

Parents’ concerns are not always unfounded. Last fall, a Florida father stormed onto a school bus to protect his daughter from students who had reportedly bullied his daughter. This was even more disturbing because the girl has a disability.  The father said he wished “kids would understand how much pain bullying and taunting causes other children.” His daughter had just begun middle school and has since changed schools.

Transition between schools is a challenging time for students, whether it’s elementary to middle, or middle to high, or to a new school altogether, and it’s a time when students can be “lost.” Leaving the cocoon of elementary school, students face much trepidation—some of it as simple as the idea of changing classes, or addressing the “fear” of the locker — “Will I be able to open my combination lock?” To an eleven-year-old that seemingly minor doubt can be traumatizing.

How traumatizing, too, to be a student labeled as “special needs” or with an intellectual “disability.” Someone for whom that transition from the safe, nurturing haven of home to the unwelcoming isolation of the school hallway happens every day. How paralyzing! How painful! Who could be expected to learn anything under these conditions?!

It is our responsibility to actively “be there” for students, observing, asking questions, and ensuring an environment in which each student is valued and acknowledged every step along their educational path. Dr. Thomas advised us to take the steps necessary to ensure that each student is known, that no one is a cipher.

When teachers really know their students, they know when something doesn’t feel right…Teachers need to reach out to families and share their insights…. It doesn’t take long, but it may make all the difference in a student’s life.

The beginning of the school year is a tremendous opportunity for adults in the school and community to work to ensure that each student has a positive experience at school and is engaged in his or her own learning. Project UNIFY has identified actions and structures that help provide an inclusive, supportive environment. Among those are:

  • School leaders  and staff:
    • create an inclusive culture, showcasing the work and achievements of all, creating unified programs, and eliminating boundaries between students.
    • actively encourages a sense of community among all students that promotes student engagement and relationships within and beyond the school setting.
    • provide regular and frequent activities in which adults and youth work together to solve problems and learn together, promoting a collaborative climate.
    • work to close gaps or division among students with and without disabilities and among the teachers who serve in the school.
    • eliminate physical barriers and creates an environment that is physically accessible, safe, and supportive for all.
    • All young people, regardless of ability or achievement level, are given a voice to make meaningful change in their classroom, school, and community.
    • Students are activated to co-develop, maintain, and be accountable for an inclusive climate and physical environment in their classrooms, school, and community.

So, at this beginning of a new school year, let’s ensure that a student’s excitement about school grows each year not diminishes; that students are known as powerful individuals; and that each student is given the opportunity make a difference, have a voice, and be an active member of the school community. We must care—and let students know that we care. We must recognize each student’s gifts and let each one shine brightly.

Inclusion: A Necessity for Fully Engaged Students

The following blog post was written by a unified pair of youth leaders who participate in local and national youth engagement and activation conferences to enhance their communication, leadership, and advocacy skills.  These youth continue to collaborate and motivate other youth to become active in our pathway towards social justice for all. 

Looking at the aspects that create schools where students are able to express their ideas, engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, and develop a collaborative relationship with the staff to address the needs of both students and teachers is challenging, yet important.  One word that is indirectly included in each of those aspects is inclusion.  Inclusion can be defined in many ways each catering to a certain situation.  However, there are common characteristics that we can define as being inclusive: students of all abilities, religions, gender and race are offered equitable opportunities for academic, social and physical growth; students perceive their peers as valued individuals with unique assets to the school community; everyone is included in the schools’ student body, regardless of popularity, athletic ability or academic achievement.

Perspective from a youth leader with an intellectual disability:
There are many experiences of authentic inclusion at our schools.  When I attended High School, I wanted to join an afterschool club.  One of the clubs I was interested in was the Drama Club because I like to act.  I asked the teacher, Mr. Pody, if I could join and he said yes!  The Drama Club met once a week and we did acting exercises as well as performances.  We also put on a big show at in the spring and the entire school attended.  Mr. Pody gave me a good acting part in the show and showcased my abilities.  I played a big supporting role and I opened the show with a monologue too.

Being a part of a club made me feel included and a true participant in the school life.  It gave me something to look forward to every week!  My Drama Club friends would say hi to me in the hallways and it was a great feeling.  I think that if it were not for the Drama teacher, Mr. Pody, I would not have been able to be a part of itMr. Pody believed I could do it and he did not exclude me because of my disability.  By including me, he gave me one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Another example of inclusion was when I joined a Special Needs cheerleading team.  Many high school students volunteered to help with practice every Sunday.  One of these high school students was Kaitlin and she became my good friend.  Kaitlin was very helpful and really believed that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.  Bringing together young people with and without disabilities allowed us to spend time together and gain understanding of one another.

Sometimes people are afraid to be near people who are different, but once they see that we are just people, they can understand that there’s no reason to be afraid.  Kaitlin saw that I was a teenager just like herself, and we had a lot in common.  We laughed, told jokes, and shared secrets.  We are still good friends today.  Kaitlin is now a youth leader in her high school and has been inspired to join Special Olympics Project UNIFY®.

Based on our personal experiences, below is a list for how others can work towards authentic inclusion in their school:

  • Implementation of a Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Club, which works to educate, motivate and activate young people to become agents of positive change.
  • Organization of a Spread the Word to End the Word Event to raise awareness about the derogatory use of the word, “retard” and its hurtful impact on people with disabilities.
  • Education about the history of the disability movement will show students the individuals who have made strides in this movement of acceptance, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
  • Coordinate a “Fans in the Stands” Event at a local Special Olympics competition.