How schools can be more inclusive

Among the first few challenges that parents of differently-abled kids face is that of finding a school that is accommodating and accepting of your child’s unique needs. While a lot of the schools show compassion, not many are equipped enough to deal with the challenges that come with teaching these kids.

In spite of the fact that we are waking up to acceptance and awareness, it still has a very long way to go and schools, the foundation of our society, have a very important role to play in this.

While every school has its own approach towards special education, following are a few ideas on how a more robust environment can be built for kids of all abilities. Some of these have been successfully tried and tested by schools here in US.

★ Awareness is the first step towards inclusion and acceptance. Schools need to build in awareness days in their schedule. Awareness days could be observed on days like World Autism awareness day, World down Syndrome Day etc. so that every student in the school is aware of these challenges and respects them as well. Wearing blue in April in support of Autism can be one of the ways this can be done. During awareness days, every class could be given “awareness points” for coming up with ways to raise awareness and the class with the most awareness points gets a special privilege for a day.

★ Schools could run arts contests for students where they express what disability means to them. The arts are a wonderful way of expression and this would be a great food for thought for the impressionable minds.

★ Classes could run penny wars and the money collected could be used toward buying therapy items like sensory toys, or other useful items for student with special needs that would help them go through the school day successfully. This could be a wonderful exercise in compassion and thoughtfulness.

★ Of the many themes that adorn the corridors of our schools, artifacts and slogans related to special needs could help bring about more awareness. It will definitely catch the attention of students and teach them a little more about kids with different abilities and how they are extraordinary in their own unique way. Involving students in awareness efforts instead of having a pedantic approach to awareness could help push the point across better.

★ It would be an investment in compassion and empathy if students were taught sign language. It would help them communicate with kids with speech and hearing disabilities and better understand their challenges. Teachers could encourage students to use sign language in some classes just to give mainstream students a glimpse of the life of such kids who cannot express themselves verbally. Walking in someone else’s shoes is the best way to know how they feel and deal with their lives.

★ There are a lot of extra-curricular activities in the school that are not designed to the challenges of differently-abled kids or have accommodations for them. For such activities, having a student volunteer could be a great way of forming connections that are missing between mainstream students and students with challenges.

★ Another great way to be more inclusive would be to train all teachers (including music, arts and physical education instructors) in special education or at the least have them attend a seminar or to on how to best work with kids with different learning needs. The idea is to make all teachers available for all students instead of a handful of teachers who are exclusively hired to work with special needs students.

★ A student in Roundtown Elementary came up with this absolutely brilliant idea of a buddy bench that can help build relationships among students and bring out their compassion in the most beautiful way. Each playground can be equipped with a buddy bench where any student can sit if they need a playmate or a companion. This could be a visual reminder for others to extend a hand and be a friend. Alternatively, two different students sitting on this buddy bench could find a friend in each other. Since special needs students tend to withdraw in their shell or feel left out because of their challenges, this could really work towards inclusion and acceptance. A buddy club could be created in a similar way where students could volunteer to join and make themselves available to a child with special needs and be their friend for a week.

★ Schools need to ensure that they have a push-in instead of a pull-out approach so that instead of pulling out students with different abilities into a separate classroom, they are pushed into the mainstream classroom and everyone learns to accept and appreciate their uniqueness. Inclusive not exclusive should be the aim.

★ An accessible playground seems like a very expensive proposition but it’s not impossible if the schools and it’s students have the willingness to do so. Valencia Elementary in Aptos, Calif. ran campaigns, used the expertise and connection of parents to achieve this and was actually able to collect much more than they needed for the playground. Parents within the construction industry can help with purchase of raw materials at lower cost while those with planning and management expertise can help with the actual project. Playgrounds are not just for mainstream kids but for every single child in the school and so having an accessible playground seems like the most obvious thing but still most schools still don’t have it.

★ Some onus also rests upon the parents. There needs to be a special needs PTA in every school so that parents can bring in a perspective that might be otherwise missing. Each school should have a getting started resource person who can connect new parents to the already enrolled ones and help them with all kinds of information that might be useful for such families.

We need mainstream kids and their parents to sit up and notice these missing pieces and the need for acceptance and inclusion and encourage their children to do something about it. Parents of special needs kids need to advocate and be the voice their children expect them to be, to stand up for them , fight for their rightly deserved position and to speak up for them.

You might wonder why we should go out of the way to take all these steps for a handful of students but my question is why not? These students deserve just as much respect, dignity and opportunity as any student out there. They dream just like the rest of us so why should they be left out?

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