When Andy was little, I was so revved up for him to be included all day every day. I had gone to conferences to learn that inclusion was the best model, and everyone loved him. I mean, who wouldn’t want this adorable kid in their class?
When we moved from New York to Georgia, we were unable to find an inclusive preschool setting through the school district, so we compromised and sent him to a typical preschool in the morning and the special education preschool in the afternoon. I had occasionally gotten the vibe that his special education preschool teacher didn’t adore him like his other teachers did, but I never expected what came next when I experienced the crushing reality of our Kindergarten IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting. .
I was overwhelmed when I walked in the room, and there were about 15 people seated around the table at our IEP meeting. The reason the room was so full was because his preschool special education teacher had invited the principal and teacher from another school with a self-contained room. Fortunately, I had my husband and another parent friend who came along with me, so we were only outnumbered 5:1. (Sarcasm intended.)
This preschool teacher started the meeting by listing all of Andy’s challenges. She said he couldn’t respond to his own name, follow directions, or draw a circle—things I knew he had been able to do for years, and she recommended that he be placed in the self-contained room at the other school. I’m sure she followed up with his strengths, but I was so gutted that I couldn’t hear anything else. Our neighborhood school principal and teacher who had seemed enthusiastic about Andy when we first introduced ourselves began to retreat, fearing they wouldn’t have the resources to serve our son.
I was crushed. They didn’t believe in my boy. They weren’t even going to give him a chance to go to school with his neighborhood friends and learn from them. Fortunately, my other mom friend caught my eye and slightly shook her head to let me know I shouldn’t agree. So I told them that before we agreed to anything, we would need to observe him in all the proposed and current learning environments.
What ended up happening is that I video taped him in his current settings–at therapy, the special education preschool, and the typical preschool. When he was at the typical preschool, I taped him responding to his name when called for singing time, coloring a picture among other children, and engaging with the class to find Easter eggs. I taped him drawing circles with his occupational therapist at private therapy. And then I taped him at the special education preschool where the teacher was reading a book to the small group. She asked Andy, “What’s this?” when pointing to a dog, and he patted his leg to answer her in sign language. She didn’t recognize it and looked up to shake her head at me as if to say, “He can’t even recognize a dog.”
In our follow up meeting, I showed this video footage, and the teacher from the typical preschool (who was a certified teacher), shared that Andy was engaged and happy in her class. And with that combination, we won our first advocacy battle for Andy to attend our neighborhood school and be included in the regular classroom at least 50% or more of the time with some pull out for resource services.
It was a rough start, and I don’t think we would have prevailed without the video and teacher from his typical preschool class, but that first battle paved the way for a more inclusive education. While there were still bumps in the road along the way, our school was tremendously supportive in hosting disability awareness campaigns, giving Andy opportunities to shine in extra-curricular activities, modifying assignments in the regular education classrooms, and treating him just like any other kid. In response, he blossomed and made friends who have invited him to dances, gone to sporting events with him, and even showed him how to get a job in high school at the local grocery store.
Those friends Andy has made over the years have taught him the most important lessons: to be social and independent—critical soft skills for employment. Since that first IEP meeting, we’ve started every other IEP meeting with the same mantra: our goals for Andy are for him to be able to navigate the world independently; read, write, and do math to the best of his ability; and get a job. Therefore, inclusion is critical because he needs to be able to get along with everyone, and those kids who are his friends today will be his employers and coworkers of the future.
What challenges/supports have you had with making sure your child is included at school? How has inclusion impacted future employment?
First Day of Kindergarten.
Friends at school.