Welcome to "Our" Classroom! Words to Create an Inclusive Class

Friday, December 9, 2011 No comments

If you have been listening to The Inclusive Class Radio Show, then you have heard our expert guests repeat over and over again that inclusion is not a place, it's a way of perceiving, behaving and interacting with one another. The inclusive classroom best demonstrates that message as it begins with the belief that all children belong. Each child can demonstrate and achieve success, in various ways, according to their abilities, strengths and areas for growth.

Language, as our guest Kathie Snow pointed out today, it a vital component of inclusion and an inclusive classroom. In the inclusive classroom, the teacher not only sets up physical opportunities for all students to look included, but the teacher makes students feel included through his/her choice of words and phrases.

For example:

  • Instead of  Group A and Group Bsay, Group A and Group 1
  • Instead of  This student can't.., say, This student is learning to..
  • Instead of  Stand in line from shortest to tallest, say, If you are wearing red (insert other color here), please line up.
  • Instead of  Raise your hand if you have the answer, say, Write/draw/type your answer.
  • Instead of  Choose a partner, say, Find someone you haven't worked with before.
  • Instead of  In my classroom..., say, In OUR classroom...

Even if your child is not in an inclusive classroom, nor are you a teacher in an inclusive environment there isn't an administrator, school board, lack of funding, or support that can deny inclusive language. Inclusion has to begin somewhere and the words we choose are free and easy to use!

I Can't Find My Homework!

Friday, December 2, 2011 5 comments

Dr. Christopher Kaufman, a licensed psychologist, spoke with us the morning on The Inclusive Class Radio Show about Executive Functioning skills. Those are the skills that we have to keep ourselves organized, transition from one task to another, and control our impulses. 

For some children (and adults!), however, executive functioning skills are underdeveloped or absent altogether. It is important for parents and teachers to be aware of the warning signs that a child's executive functioning skills are problematic, in order to avoid labeling the child as lazy, absentminded, disorganized or have behavior problems. As Dr. Kaufman mentioned, some warning signs include:

1. Inability to plan and strategize

2. Difficulty attending to the task and completing it

3. Unable to follow through on a sequence of steps

4. Difficulty controlling impulses outside the norm of expected behavior ie. hitting other children on the playground

Between the parent, teacher and even the student, underdeveloped executive functioning skills can be identified and thus intervention can take place.

Both Teri and I agreed with Dr. Kaufman, that it is highly important for teachers and parents to become aware of and accommodate for students who have executive functioning challenges. In the school system today, most of these executive functioning skills are not taught. It is just assumed that children come to school able to plan their day, organize their work and get along with others at all times. If a child struggles with this, he/she is often penalized for "bad behavior", disorganization, inattentiveness and suffer from social isolation.

In a student-centered, inclusive classroom the teacher not only makes accommodations for these children, but sets the child up for success by teaching skills related to organization, social interaction and impulse control. For example,

1. Planners are used daily to record homework. There is a time set aside at the end of the day for the children to write their homework in their planner, take their homework out of their desk and put it all into their backpack. The teacher monitors the class to see that everyone completes this task. The reverse happens the following morning.

2. Subject material is kept in different colored folders and not all in one binder. Ie. The red folder is for reading, the blue folder is for math. The folders are then kept in different bins on a shelf in the classroom. In my own classrooms, I rarely let any work go into a child's desk - because it usually never came back out again!

3. Transitions between subjects and events were highly managed. For example, rather than asking the students to line up at the door and then having a big rush of bodies tripping, falling and bumping into one another, the students are given the task in steps. Ie.

a) Stand up and push in your chair.
b) When I say "Go", Row 1 will quietly walk to the door. (Note: In some classes I have even taught "quietly walk")
c) "Go" (Then repeat until entire class is at door.)

If the students are unable to transition as expected, they are asked to do it again. Repeated, modeled behavior is key to developing impulse control.

4. An older buddy or adult is available at recess/lunch to monitor and cue the child to behave appropriately. Social stories can be read in class and there are social programs available for teachers to use to teach children how to interact with one another.

Fortunately, there are many books available now to parents and teachers that bring to light the challenges that a child with underdeveloped executive functioning skills might have. Educate yourself so that you can help provide the best possible education for your child/student!

Tips to Support Your Child at School!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 1 comment

During a recent interview with Dr. Howard Margolis, he outlined some EXCELLENT tips for parents on ways to support successful inclusion of their children:

1. Volunteer at your child's school or make time to attend school events. Get to know the school staff.

2. Look for effective teachers at your child's school. Effective teachers have structure in their classroom, are enthusiastic, motivate learners, are compassionate and engage their students in relevant activities.

3. Arrange for your child to be with an effective teacher by writing it into the child's IEP. This can be done by describing in the IEP the nature of the classroom that your child works best in.

4. Listen to what your child says about school. If your child "hates" school, there is a problem. Investigate what the problem is.

5. Request that the school give workshops to parents on how to help their children read, write or support other areas of academic and/or social development.

6. Learn to ask, ask, ask!

The bottom line is: Be Involved!

Do you have any tips to share?

Inclusion in Action: Good Morning!

Monday, November 14, 2011 No comments
This post will be the first in a series dedicated to writing about inclusion in action. I have spent a considerable amount of time talking, tweeting and researching what inclusion truly is. It's now time to put what I know and what I practice down on paper so that teachers and parents can have a greater understanding of what and how an inclusive classroom works. This information is based on 15 years of teaching in an inclusive education system at the elementary level.

1. Before the Bell - I usually arrive an hour before the school bell rings and prepare for the day. My lessons get prepped, the daily visual schedule is on the board and I touch base with the paraprofessional who works in my room to discuss the day's activities. While experience has given me the knowledge to accomodate and modify lessons for my special needs students, I want to make sure they are appropriate and meaningful.

2. Good Morning! - I open my classroom door to a line of children with smiling faces. Their parents are waiting nearby to wave good-bye as the children enter the room. My classroom door, of course, is wheelchair accessible. As the children file in, I greet each one personally. Through practice and modelled behavior, the children have learned to look me in the eyes and say "Good Morning" back. My students with special needs are no exception - we find a way for them to appropriately interact in this most purposeful way.

3. Let's Begin - Our school day starts right away as keeping the students highly engaged is a very successful classroom management strategy. However, it is a gradual progression. Children take their planners and homework/hand-outs from their backpacks and make their way to their desks, which are in small groups around the classroom. At their desks, students have 3 items waiting (which were placed there the day before) - a book, a "sponge" activity (puzzle, brainteaser, drawing activity) and either a math or language arts review activity. These items are differentiated according to the student's abilities and needs. 

While the children begin their morning activities, I walk from desk to desk to check planners. Planners play a very important role in my inclusive class. They are not only used to track homework, but they play a HUGE part in parent/teacher communication. Notes can be sent back and forth, as I can respond promptly. I also use this time to briefly interact with my students and gauge their emotional barometer, which will allow me to adjust the day according to the social/emotional needs of the class. 

After I have worked my way around the class, we are now fully ready to start the day. I have connected with each child, communicated with parents and transitioned my students from their comfy bed to a classroom where there is much to be learned!
Tuesday, November 1, 2011 No comments
My Inclusive Classroom

The door to my Kindergarten classroom in urban, multicultural and economically diverse Burnaby, British Columbia Canada opens on the Tuesday after Labor Day in September. The children in my classroom come from a school community with 24% of families with an annual income of under $30 000. Housing in this community consists of both rental and homeowner properties. The neighborhood consists of two-parent, single parent and blended families with most parents working. Many of the children who attend this school are in daycare or left on their own before and after school. Within this community there is a diverse multicultural population, where the home language for 34% of students is not English. Approximately 26% of the students in this school receive English as a Second Language support. My learners are VERY diverse. In this class, depending on the needs of the year, there might be: children with ADHD, Hard of Hearing, Selective Mutism, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, severe learning disabilities, multiple ESL learners, Cerebral Palsy, Severe Behavior, Downs Syndrome, or some other assortment of needs. 

However, I open the door with confidence! I know that I have the skills and support required to do my job in meeting the needs of the diverse learners placed in my care. I have a well thought out and honed philosophical foundation in place that begins with the belief that all learners are strong and capable and that play is the work of the child. With hundreds of hours of professional development under my belt during 18 years of teaching (which is supported by a vast body of valid research), this provides me with a deeper understanding of what constitutes exemplary practice. 

The Ministry of Education in British Columbia, Canada has endorsed my practice by providing me with a well thought out and well balanced, child centered curriculum that addresses not only Intellectual; but also Social/Emotional, Aesthetic/Artistic, Social Responsibility and Physical Development foci. My School Board has supported me by affirming my core beliefs around play and inclusion. And, there is most certainly money to fund the support I need in such a diverse classroom through the presence of Paraprofessionals and Specialist Teachers. And, in my district, for the most part, teachers are given the gift of autonomy. They are given permission to teach CHILDREN rather than being bound by constraints of rigid curriculum that is lock-step. 

By October, supports are put in place to build strong community ties: parents are invited to come in to read with children at the beginning of the day, to run cooking programs, to run games centers with children, to run science experiments, to help with field trips, and much more. The school Parent-Teacher Committee hosts community Bar-B-Ques at least twice a year. Opportunities are presented for all parents to become part of our school community through sponsored meetings and events. Parents are an integral part of classroom programming. At least two Potlucks occur during the school year to bring families together and help them forge important relationships that will carry through, for the most part, for these families and children, from Kindergarten to Grade 7. The school community is a stable one. Color, race, creed, or disabilities of any kind are embraced and treated equally in this classroom and school. The model being presented is one of inclusion, and in this class there is an attitude of acceptance for all. Every child belongs, and every child has the right to an inclusive education.

Foundations for Inclusion 

Before beginning a conversation about inclusion of special needs students in schools, it is important to start with a definition of what we are talking about. This provides a beginning step that will provide a context. 

For the purposes of this conversation, I will share and use Wikipedia’s definition, which I found on Google, October 2, 2011:

           Inclusion in education is an approach to educating students with special educational needs. Under the inclusion model, students with special needs spend most or all of their time with non-disabled students... Inclusive education differs from… notions of ‘integration’ and ‘mainstreaming’, which (tend) to be concerned principally with disability and ‘special educational needs’ and implies learners must change or become ‘ready for’ or deserving of accommodation by the mainstream. By contrast, inclusion is about the child’s right to participate and the school’s duty to accept the child. Inclusion rejects the use of special schools or classrooms to separate students with disabilities from students without disabilities. A premium is placed upon full participation by students with disabilities and upon respect for their social, civil, and educational rights. Fully inclusive schools (do not) distinguish between "general education" and "special education" programs; instead, the school is restructured so that all students learn together” 

Further to this, Dr. Jacqueline Specht on the Center for Inclusive Education website http://www.edu.uwo.ca/inclusive_education/inclusion.asp (October 2, 2011) states that

      “Inclusion assumes that children with special needs are part of the regular stream and should be treated as such. Inclusion is based on Wolfensberger's principle of normalization (i.e., all persons regardless of ability should live and learn in environments as close to normal as possible). The basic idea behind normalization is that people with special needs should be viewed in the ways in which they are the same as other people rather than in the ways in which they are different.”

These definitions in my mind very nicely outline some important points that will help me begin to talk about how we start laying foundations for inclusive classrooms and schools. These are: 

1) The importance of a Philosophical Belief System that supports a model of inclusion 

2) The importance of Systemic Support.

Philosophical Foundations
We need to begin with an assumption that all students have the right to be part of regular education classrooms and from this place begin to develop plans around how best to accomplish the goal of inclusion, if this is the desired end result. Belief systems are built through research and conversations about this research. It also requires commitment from key stake holders and a desire to move in new directions.
Moving from a segregated to an inclusive learning environment must begin by examining the philosophical underpinnings of the overriding system as well as educators within it. If the belief is that children with extra needs are ‘special’ and don’t belong in the regular classroom, they never will be. It is important to note that there is much research to support the benefits of the inclusion of students with extra needs. 
I’d like to share some of my own personal philosophical beliefs before I move to outlining a practical example of how in my district children with special needs designations and their families are prepared to enter school with the intent of making the entry to school a success. I believe that: 

     Inclusive environments do not happen by accident… They are created through careful planning and preparation. 

There are many steps to supporting all children that happen both in and out of the classroom, from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I am a Kindergarten teacher and as such am blessed with the opportunity to set up successful beginnings for all families – those with designated extra needs and without. 

I begin with the tenant that each child has blessings and strengths to bring. Children are strong and capable – not weak or with inherent deficits. All have areas that will require support to move forward. The point I want to make clear here is that I do not put my students with designations such as Autism, Learning Disabilities, ESL, behaviour and the like into a ‘special box’ in my head that will separate them from our classroom learning community. They all belong and it is my job to help each one of them become successful. 

 I must modify my programming to accommodate the child and his/her needs. I have a child-centered approach to teaching and learning. There is curriculum to accomplish, of course – but it is my belief that in order to help children be successful in school I need to assess where they are then come up with a ‘doable’ plan to help that child move from where they are in their learning toward curriculum mastery. For each child this plan looks a bit different – designated special needs or not!

     The families of the children I teach are the first teachers and are to be valued and included in their children’s education. 

I do not work in isolation in my classroom. I continuously draw on the expertise of those around me to help when I hit a dead end and don’t know what to do next. I don’t have all the answers and grow stronger through collaboration with school based colleagues, our resource team, district experts, and of course parents too!

Systematic Support in Classrooms
Inclusive schools and classrooms cannot be built in isolation – systemic supports are crucial to success. In British Columbia our education system supports a full inclusion model of teaching and learning. Without this support I could not do what I do with the children brought to me each day. 

We have a curriculum that is well rounded; valuing core academic areas as well as physical, social emotional and social responsibility. Our teaching philosophy embraces a celebration of diversity and focuses for the most part *not* on differences but on ways we are alike.  

Overall our teachers place children at the heart of practice. While curriculum is important and of course drives our teaching, we greet children as they are, assess their needs, and develop plans to move each individual from where s/he is closer to meeting the learning outcomes determined by our provincial Ministry of Education.  

We look for strengths in each individual and do what we can to build on these strengths. And, there is money behind our model of inclusion – we have special education assistants to work in classrooms with our children who have special or what I like to call “extra” needs, district Speech and Language pathologists, district Hearing Resource teachers, school and district based Learning Resource teachers, and professional development opportunities for teachers to learn about differentiating instruction in our classrooms so that as much as possible we meet our students individual needs. All these things have come about for us through years of discussion, professional development and support from our Ministry.

Building Inclusion

Before a child with known special or as I like to say ‘extra’ needs designations enter school in my district, systems are in place to do everything possible to set up supports to help him/her transition successfully. Our district learning support team has worked out collaborative systems with previous professionals from health systems, preschools, and the like so that (with parent permission) information gathering meetings can take place in June with relevant previous and upcoming stakeholders such as Speech and Language Pathologists, Preschool Teachers, Occupational Therapists, Hearing Specialists, Parents, etc. to share information that will benefit the child and set up successful beginnings when the school year starts in September. These meetings begin with a discussion of the child’s strengths and gifts so we can begin in a place of capability for the child and do what we can to build on these strengths. 

Then, we move into areas that might present challenges for the child entering school and we find out what has worked for this child in the previous environment to help him/her overcome these challenges. It is an information exchange. For example, if a child has an autism designation and is non-verbal, visual schedules are shared and adapted/modified to suit the Kindergarten environment. If a child has a history of hitting, strategies that have worked in the past are shared and the team brainstorms strategies that might work in the Kindergarten environment to ensure as much success as possible. These are just two examples of how supports are put in place based on what is come before. It is the intent that the classroom teacher receiving this child in September can begin implementing strategies that have worked in the past beginning the first week of school. 

Then, in October, another meeting takes place with the classroom teacher, school personnel, and the parents to develop an IEP that will be reviewed again in May, before the year ends to revisit established goals set in October and make adjustments as needed so that when that child returns to school in September, there are again supports in place to do everything possible to ensure success as the child transitions to a new teacher and classroom community. It is also worth noting that in June, before the child in question leaves the preschool or home setting where s/he has been living and learning, resource teacher personnel will go in to observe the designated child in a setting comfortable to him/her (again with parent permission and agreement). Conversations ensue and help determine strategies that might help the child transition as successfully as possible to the Kindergarten environment. 

Strengthening Inclusion
Parents are a key part of successful inclusion. I look to my parents of children with extra needs to help me understand their children and to help guide my decisions about programming for success. I make myself available whenever possible for consultation as needed. I am a teacher who values all parent input greatly. 

Having said this, I am also a teacher who believes that children with designations (aka children with ‘special’ or ‘extra’ needs) whenever possible ought not be singled out and viewed as ‘different’. As a result, I invite parents of all children in our classroom community to join us to help with activities such as driving for field trips, running science experiments, cooking activities, bingo games, reading, and etc. I don’t differentiate parents in the same way I don’t differentiate students in my class. Parents are always welcome and are a valued part of our classroom community.

Resources for Inclusion
  • British Columbia’s Primary Program is an exemplary resource that did much to support the move toward our inclusive schools, and includes many research foundations to support its positions. The inclusive and child – centered philosophy underpinning this rich K-3 curriculum document is very clearly embedded throughout its pages and would provide interested parties an excellent sample of a living and breathing document, which educators all over our province live by. This document can be found on the BC Ministry of Education website at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/primary_program/.
  • Please feel free to visit my blog at: http: /kindergayle.wordpress.com , and also feel free to contact me with questions at kindergayle@shaw.ca or follow me on Twitter @kindergayle.

Gayle Hernandez began her teaching career 18 years ago. She has spent 16 of the past years she has taught Kindergarten in inclusive schools. She has presented multiple workshops on the topic of Kindergarten in the Burnaby school district, has facilitated Burnaby’s Kindergarten Network for 10 years, and completed a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education at the University of British Columbia in 2007. Gayle is passionate about inclusion and building classroom and school communities.

Top Ten Ways to Tell if Your Child's School is Inclusive

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 No comments
Inclusion, as special education experts agree, is the ideal way of educating students with special needs.  Students with special needs are placed in general education classrooms along side their same-age peers, despite physical or academic ability levels.  Often, however, inclusive education is a term that is misused and misunderstood by parents, teachers and staff.  Here is a list of top ten ways to tell if your child’s school is truly inclusive:

School Community - the school community (staff, PTA, parents) is friendly, encourages parent-school communication, welcomes volunteers, and celebrates student learning through bulletin boards, newsletters and school-wide events.

School Design - the building has ramps, large doorways, paved walkways, drinking fountains, sinks, storage spaces and coat hooks that a child with special needs can use.

School Spaces - the lunchroom, library, playground, bathrooms, and gymnasium (or Multipurpose Room) can be easily accessed and used by a child with special needs.

School Routines – lunch hour, recess time, assemblies and school-wide activities include all the students. 

School Support Staff - professionals such as Speech Language Therapists bring their services to the special needs child. The goal of support professionals is to support the child’s learning as well as help him/her remain in the classroom. 

Paraprofessionals - Paraprofessionals are available to support the student (depending on child's needs) in the classroom, during school routines and school activities.

Classroom Placement - a student with special needs is placed in a regular education classroom with same age peers despite his/her academic and ability level.

Classroom Arrangement - the special needs child has a desk or work area that is integrated into the class-seating plan. There is enough space for the special needs child to move around, a variety of learning materials are available and class materials can be easily accessed.

Teachers - Teachers plan lessons and activities in all subjects (not just Music or Art) to include the child with special needs. Lessons are modified and adapted so that the special needs student is actively participating in the learning process. 

Students - ALL the students have opportunities to interact with one another both in the classroom and on the playground, help one another, work together and contribute to the well being of each other and the school community.

Can you think of any other ways to tell if your school is inclusive?

Parent Primer: Placing Special Needs Children in the Inclusive Class

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 No comments
The Team Approach

This past week I went to my son's Back to School Night and despite the tired, musty, out-of-date classrooms, I found his teachers to be quite the opposite! They were enthusiastic about their jobs; use current technology to teach students and repeatedly encouraged parents to stay in touch. In the end, their message was very clear -- teachers, students and parents must work together to ensure the student’s educational success.

I noted that this “team” approach towards education not only works in the regular education setting, but in special education as well. While teachers and schools are becoming more skilled at collaborating to provide positive educational experiences for special needs children, parents also need to become actively involved in the education process. In particular, parents should participate in the decisions and classroom placements of their child. Together, the team can work towards finding an optimal learning environment for the student.

What is the Best Placement for My Child?

In the United States, there are a variety of settings in which Special Education can be delivered. In general, students with special needs can be placed in self-contained classes, they can be mainstreamed, or included in the regular education classroom. An inclusive placement is considered by special education experts to be the ideal situation for most children with special needs.

A "full inclusion" classroom is a setting where students with special needs are educated alongside students without special needs, while maintaining appropriate supports and services. Special education in inclusive classrooms is considered a service, not a place. Services are integrated into the daily routines and classroom structure. Curriculum and strategies are brought to the student, instead of relocating the student to another room in the school in order to receive service. Special needs students in an inclusive classroom are placed with their chronological age-mates, regardless of whether or not the students are working at the same level as each other.

Why Inclusion?

As a full inclusion teacher for many years, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand how inclusive classrooms provide numerous social, emotional and intellectual benefits for children with special needs. In addition, studies have shown that there are also many benefits for regular education students. Not only are there increased learning opportunities but the inclusive classroom is also designed to meet the educational needs of ALL learners.
Below are some of the many ways in which an inclusive classroom can benefit not only students but schools and communities as well:

  • Social - All children in the class are fully active, participating members regardless of their ability level. There are increased social interactions and relationships between students, staff and families. A greater understanding of diversity develops, in addition to improved communication skills as students learn and respond to one another’s differences. These repeated interactions promote inclusive behavior in future situations.
  • Emotional – Students and families begin to feel more integrated into the school community and a greater sense of belonging develops. The self-confidence and self-esteem of special needs students grows naturally from the positive support of peers and teachers.
  • Intellectual - All students have equal access to the curriculum despite academic ability. Accommodations and modifications are made to the curriculum to meet the student’s needs. Students become more actively engaged in learning and become more confident learners as they experience greater success in school.

Is Your Child’s School Inclusive?

A full inclusion classroom works best when teachers and staff are trained and supported in inclusive practice. Parents should arrange to speak with the principal, meet the teacher and tour the school prior to their child’s placement in order to determine the level of inclusion of special needs children in school life. Parents can:

  • Walk Around the School - Is student work displayed and celebrated? Are all children able to access the library, gymnasium, lunchroom and computer room? Where will your child go for support services if required?
  • Visit Classroom - Are desks, materials, books, and learning manipulatives arranged to facilitate cooperation, group learning and student movement around the class?
  • Look at Playground What options are there for physically disabled children to use the playground? Is the playground easy to access?
  • Talk to Classroom Teacher Find out where your child will sit, how your child will be included in class routines and activities, and how much support the child have from a papraprofessional.

Stay Involved!

Inclusive classrooms are places where all students can learn and thrive. The decision to place a special needs child in an inclusive class is best made between parents, teachers and the school. Parents can support this process by educating themselves on the social, emotional and intellectual benefits of inclusive education. However, parents should stay involved with their child’s education throughout the school year (through communication with teacher, volunteer work, and/or attendance at school events) to help ensure that their child is continuing to receive the best education possible.