Disclaimer: When I speak about inclusion, I’m speaking to a mindset. The inherent (or learned) idea that all individuals should be given equal opportunity and treated like capable, contributing human beings. Often times, the word inclusion comes with a lot of opinions around whether immersing children with learning differences into mainstream classrooms works or doesn’t work-and please know that this is not what I’m referring to when I speak of inclusion.
When it comes to education, Children should learn in the environment that works best for them, whether they’re immersed into mainstream or placed in a setting with other children like themselves. There are many wonderful benefits to both…mainstream classes give the child opportunities to pick up language and social skills from their peers and small classes give the opportunity to learn in an individualized, sensory-friendly environment with a higher level of direct support. I have worked in many different settings and have seen children flourish in both, but when working in an ‘inclusive’ environment where children who are typically-developing and children with learning differences can learn and play together-you may get some questions. Thinking on your feet as an educator is a must-have quality, but how can we act and think quickly while still maintaining professionalism and considering age-appropriate responses? I’ll break down a few ways I’ve dealt with difficult questions and how to phrase them in a way that highlights the exceptional child’s ability!
#1. Does _________________ have a disability?
Firstly, disability is not a word I love to use. Everybody has varying levels of ability…areas of strength and areas of need. I often approach this with an initial statement of “________is still learning” and then continue into “although they sometimes have trouble sitting (or whatever behaviour prompted the question), they are really great at many other things that may even be difficult for you to do, and that is okay. What are some things they are really good at? What are some things you are still learning?”
Turning this question into a teachable moment is incredibly important, especially while taking the emphasis off the word ‘disability’. The goal is not to make the child feel as if they shouldn’t have asked the question, it is to allow them to be curious and educate them in a way that protects the dignity of the child they are curious about. I love the answers the kids come up with for what their peer is great at, maybe they can spell all of their friends names, repeat a movie line for line, open their yogurt without any teacher help…it casts a new light on the child they originally labeled as “disabled”. Self-reflection is a huge part of being a functioning member of society, and having the child reflect on what they are good at/could improve on is practicing an essential lifelong skill. Another way to intrigue that child to learn more about the abilities of their peer is to have them be a helper and demonstrate what a great example may look like. This instills empathy in the long run, which is a key part in promoting inclusion.
#2. Why do they do that?
Everybody has a ‘tell’ when they’re excited-some are just more obvious than others. I giggle a lot, bite my nails, text everyone I know immediately when something exciting is happening…for kids it can look different-especially for our extra-special kiddos. I typically answer the question of “why are they doing that?” (hand-flapping, ,eye-squinting, jumping, rocking) with pairing it to the emotion the child is conveying and asking the curious child “what do you do when you’re feeling _______?” for example, if a child jumps excessively when excited, I make a point to say “Wow, _____ is feeling so excited! They love to jump when they’re excited…what do you do when you’re excited?”. This gives the child the chance to identify the other child’s feelings next time, and be excited with them, or help them navigate whatever emotion they’re experiencing.
Other tips for instilling empathy in an inclusive setting could include involving the other children in the child’s routines. If a child is eager to help, let them have that opportunity….introduce them to the schedule, visuals & routines and allow them to be part of those transitions.
The most rewarding thing is to see a transition or routine play out flawlessly with only the interaction between the identified child and their peers, no educator needed. This is a step in fostering independence which is a whole other topic!
Don’t shy away from those difficult questions, sometimes they bring opportunity for awareness. If we start the inclusion mindset early on, imagine what a wonderful difference those kids can make as young adults.
How do you answer difficult questions? Comment below or reach out on Instagram @inclusiveinspirations