By Dr. Ilene Schwartz
Imagine a world where children of all abilities learn, play, and grow together. A world where ability does not stand in the way of making friends, or having fun, attending the school of your choice, or participating in your community in a manner that is meaningful to you.
That is what I spend my time working on every day at the University of Washington’s Haring Center for Inclusive Education. That is, how to realize the promise, potential and power of inclusion.
But, what is inclusion? Inclusion is about belonging, membership and participation. It is about being part of the group — but it is way more than just being physically present. Haven’t you all had an experience where you are physically part of a group but you feel like you do not belong? It is not a good feeling.
How does that change? It changes by someone making an accommodation so that your needs are met and that you can experience success in that setting. That is the key to inclusive education. Inclusive education provides the types and amounts of supports to students and teachers to insure that they can be successful. The goal is to make sure that everyone in the school is challenged, supported, and can participate in a meaningful way.
How do we make this happen? Through teaching. Through the high quality implementation of effective instructional practices. In other words, teaching is important. It is important if you are a young child trying learn how to negotiate the world, a child with disabilities attempting to learn how to use words to communicate, a child learning to conquer two digit addition or riding a bike, or even if you are a 50-something non-digital native attempting to figure out how to use her new iPad.
As adults, however, we often forget the power and importance of high quality instruction when we are learning new skills. We spend so much time doing what we are good at or at least what we are comfortable with, that we rarely learn new skills. every year I challenge my graduate students to take the time to learn a new skill. They look at me perplexed and remind me that they are in graduate school and are spending every day learning new skills. I agree, but remind them that by the time they have gotten to graduate school, they know how to “do” school and challenge them to do something in an area that they are not good at. I challenge myself in the same way and every year or so try to learn or accomplish something in an area I find challenging. That is how I ended up doing a triathlon for my 50th birthday and discovered or rediscovered the importance of instruction.
Effective instruction helps learners to be confident and competent. It provides them with opportunities to practice with feedback that improves their performance. It is motivating. Most importantly, it is intentional. Effective instruction just does not happen – good teachers whether they are in a classroom, a kitchen, a sports field or elsewhere in the community, plan the type of instruction that they provide. They evaluate their students’ current performance and figure out what type of support is needed to get them to the next step. They look at the data on students and make decisions based on those data.
But, good instruction is only valuable if it is used to teach socially important skills and behaviors. Often when visitors observe our inclusive preschool program at UW they remark how nice it is that children naturally play and help each other. I correct them and say it is great that children with and without disabilities play and work together but it is because of carefully planned instruction. If you want children to be helpful and inclusive you need to create classroom and community environments that provide the opportunities and teach children how to support each other, what it means to communicate with someone who has limited language skills, and how to make accommodations so that everyone can participate in an activity.
In our work on inclusion we followed a number of children with severe disabilities from preschool to high school for five years, observing them at the school, in the community, talking to their teachers, parents, and to them, when possible. We were interested in answering the question “what do children learn from being involved in inclusive education.” In our work we heard lots of stories and observed some remarkable transformations. One of my favorites is what I call the birthday party story. Here is how it goes – Ryan is a 3rd grader with severe disabilities who has always been in a segregated classroom. This year his school has made a commitment to inclusion and he is in a general education classroom with support. A few months into the school year, an invitation to a birthday party for one of Ryan’s classmates comes home in his backpack. Ryan had never been invited to a birthday before. Being invited to a birthday party is an indicator of inclusion – by itself it is not an outcome, but points to some important outcomes. We identified 3 three primary outcomes of inclusion: membership, relationships and skills. Membership describes how a student interacts with a group. We look for indicators of membership – these are accommodations that people in a group make to facilitate the meaningful participation of students with disabilities. We look at membership in classroom, school, and community groups. The second outcome domain is relationships. Whereas membership looks at interactions with groups, relationships examine 1:1 interactions. We are interested in observing the range of relationships a student demonstrates including peer/companionship, helper, helpee, and conflict. We don’t include friendship because we believe that being a friend means demonstrating that full range of relationship. Finally we have skills – the cognitive, communicative, social, motor, and adaptive skills that are part of an educational plan for all children.
Simply put, inclusion is the celebration of diversity put into action. If we abandon our commitment to inclusive education and inclusive communities, we lose the rich diversity of experiences that only happen when children, families, and teachers learn and participate together.
If we give up on inclusion, it leads to a culture where learning will not happen for all and communities do not connect. Where children don’t have access to opportunities and support that they need to succeed, instruction works to make learners more successful and confident. Effective instruction used to teach valued outcomes in valued rituals, routines, and activities is what we need to achieve the promise of inclusive education. Inclusion is a right, not a privilege.
Dr. Ilene Schwartz is a professor in the Area of Special Education at the University of Washington and the Director of the Haring Center for Research and Training in Education at UW. She earned her Ph.D. in child and developmental psychology from the University of Kansas and is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). Dr. Schwartz has an active research and professional training agenda with primary interests in the area of autism, inclusion, and the sustainability of educational interventions. She has had consistent research funding from the U.S. Department of Education since 1990 and serves on a number of editorial review boards including the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and the Journal of Early Intervention. Dr. Schwartz is the director of Project DATA, a model preschool program for children with autism that has been in operation since 1997; and is currently involved in research projects examining the efficacy of the Project DATA model with toddlers and preschoolers with autism.