Successful Inclusion is Invisible
by Melissa Yarmus, Educator
The primary goal of all teachers is to provide their students with the most appropriate learning environments and opportunities to best achieve their potential. Inclusive education looks different for each student, but the goal remains the same: to help the students develop their skills and gain experience with the world around them.
As a special education teacher (predominantly teaching students with autism spectrum disorder in a special education class setting), I’ve seen the benefits of inclusion first-hand. I’ve witnessed my students participate in programs with members of their school community. I’ve seen them learn from their peers and practice functional skills in real-life situations.
I’ve also had the immense pleasure of seeing the benefits of inclusion for my students’ neurotypical classmates. I’ve seen them learn empathy and develop an understanding of diversity. Throughout the years, the same-age peers learn to see my students as individuals and not as “the kids from the autism class.”
Interacting with students with differing abilities becomes comfortable for the mainstream students and the stigma of being “different” is minimized. Most importantly, the peers see that students with special needs are very much like them. They all have unique strengths, needs, likes and dislikes. Through inclusive education, real friendships and relationships can be formed.
When meeting with parents to discuss a student’s IEP and plan for the year or coming months, I make sure to inform parents of the plan for inclusion. As my students are part of a ‘community class’ (or special education classroom), I want to ensure parents know that I will try to find as many opportunities for my students to be involved in the school community as possible, These opportunities may relate to life/social skills development or academic expectations, as well as extracurricular activities. I am as transparent with the parents as possible and stress the importance of these opportunities being meaningful for my students and that they not induce an increase in anxiety.
I’d like to share a few examples of what successful inclusion looks like for my students. Actually, for me successful inclusion isn’t seen at all, it is ‘invisible’. My favourite times are when colleagues question my presence in a specific class or wonder what I’m doing, because they haven’t noticed that I’m there with my students. At times, my students integrate so smoothly into classes or school activities that they become like every other student. Those are the moments I live for.
A most memorable time occurred during a holiday concert. During the intermission, a parent at my school asked me when my class would be performing. I answered her by saying, they already had, with their same-age peers from their integration class. The classroom teacher and I worked together to ensure that my students were part of the show in a meaningful seamless way. She suggested a tableau act (participants make silent still images with their bodies to represent a scene, set to a holiday song) to ensure my students could fully participate.
Another such moment was when my student, a particularly gifted singer, was given key roles in the school musical. Once again, the teachers running the show were proactive and brainstormed strategies to make this a meaningful experience for my student and the other cast members. Throughout the process, my student’s confidence grew and he interacted with students he would have never spoken to before. Better yet, the other cast members got to know my student and by the end of rehearsals were helping him advocate for himself and make sure his needs were met. It was an incredible time for all.
In academic settings, my students often prefer to sit together close to their educational assistant so they can easily get help if needed. This set up provides my students with a sense of security and lessens anxiety, but does not stop the other students from coming to sit with my students or asking to work with them or to join groups.
Now, I realize what I’ve described sounds ideal and in some ways it is, but this doesn’t occur overnight. I’m fortunate to be in a school where all students are valued and there is a culture of inclusion. At my school, the students with special needs are involved in as many activities, programs and events, as possible. It is not uncommon to see visual schedules and picture symbols posted around the building. The entire community has gained knowledge on the special challenges some of our students face and understand the value of creating a sensory room with a zen zone and swings.
This culture of inclusion encourages and motivates my students to work hard to reach their social and academic goals. They feel valued and a part of the community.
This culture of inclusion also teaches the entire community the values of empathy and treating everyone with respect. I once heard that “children who learn together, learn to live together.” To me, this embodies what I strive to achieve through inclusion. By learning together, students grow together and hopefully take these lessons with them throughout their lives.
Melissa Yarmus is an educator with the York Region District School Board.
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