INCLUSION: Getting Started

Tuesday is for Teachers

Inclusion may be a hot topic in your school district, or it may be totally ignored as necessary or important. On the other hand, perhaps it has been mandated from “above”, and you don’t have a clue what it means or what it should look like.

As a veteran Special Ed. teacher during the early 1970s until the late 1990s I experienced the wide pendulum swing from teaching students who were isolated in an institution to full inclusion for some students. My first job in Special Ed. was at the state mental hospital in Topeka, Kansas. We taught middle school and high school age students in a completely segregated setting. Twenty years later, I took a trip to Syracuse, New York to visit schools where severely autistic students were included for the whole school day in “regular” or “typical” classrooms.

Your school may be somewhere in-between, but you still don’t understand how inclusion is supposed to benefit students. I’ve heard enough questions about inclusion for me to believe that much still needs to be explained to educators. Let me tell you some stories that I hope will enlighten and inspire teachers to welcome ALL students into their classrooms. Today’s post begins a series on inclusion.

My last 15 years in Special Ed. were in a middle school that was first a junior high with only 7th and 8th graders but eventually became a middle school for grades 5-8.  My class was designated as Life Skills; in Tennessee students who have moderate to severe disabilities of all kinds are served in these classes. My students had various degrees of autism, hearing impairment, Downs Syndrome, language delay, and mental retardation. The labels in Special Ed. have also been on a pendulum swing, and the labels I just used are probably not politically correct anymore.

As a teacher, it may never have occurred to you that the Special Ed. teacher can be just as isolated as his or her students. Sometimes that is by choice, but usually it was our default mentality.  For instance, I tried many different ways to integrate my students into our middle school lunchroom. There were so many problems, primarily bad behavior from the regular students – not mine. My assistant and I finally ended up just going early before the lunch crowd arrived. I vowed that we would never go back into the mainstream again with those role-models of inappropriate behavior.

I ate my words the year that my friend Emalie said, “Come on down!” She invited my class to join her math class! “To do what?” I asked. I was more uncomfortable than any of my students.  I was sure several of my students would get restless or bored, and disrupt the class. Emalie kept saying, “They are fine.”

The two of us slowly began to plan some hands-on activities that would benefit “hers” and “mine”. It was a process of learning for both of us, but she was fearless and continued to welcome us in. I cannot explain how unusual her invitation was. I’d been in my building for 10 years, and NO ONE invited us in. I was the initiator of any inclusion activities.

By the second year, we had a routine for lunch that began on the first full day of school. We used a Lunch Buddy system to integrate my students with Emalie’s team of 7th graders. The first step was to find volunteers among the team of four academic classes.

Here’s the process for recruiting volunteers in a nutshell:

  1.  Ask regular teacher for permission to appeal to regular students for volunteers
  2. Give the SPEECH (see PDF)
  3. Train the volunteers
  4. Make nametags to identify them as volunteers (see PDF)
  5. Guide them through the process the first day
  6. STAY in the lunchroom at a nearby table
  7. Intervene only when necessary (try not to be a hovering presence)
  8. Next day, go back to classes with a sign-up sheet (see PDF)

At first I asked teachers to recommend some of their best students (leaders, athletes, good grades, etc.), but experience taught us that those students who NEEDED this job were some of the best. It truly worked to just take volunteers on the first day. Once we all went to lunch together one time, the whole team (four classes) had an opportunity to see my students. I then went back to each class and asked for students to commit for six weeks. I always picked two lunch buddies for each of my students; they worked better in pairs and someone experienced was available if one of them was absent.

Expectations for the Lunch Buddy

  • Wear a nametag
  • Pick up friend at designated time
  • Provide needed support but not more than needed
  • Be a good role model
  • Engage in social interaction with student as much as possible

I tried to change Lunch Buddies every six weeks to give other students the opportunity and to keep the experience from getting too routine for the regular students. My students usually did best by not changing, but they also needed the experience for learning to adapt to change. These times of transition were the times when my students would revert to some inappropriate behavior seen early in the year. Just like all children, they tested their limits with each new buddy.

Sometimes the volunteers were not ideal citizens; as time went by, I fired or put a Lunch Buddy on probation for inappropriate behavior or lack of responsibility. If one of my students was just too difficult on any given day, their consequence would be to sit with Emalie and me at our table. That usually took care of any problem because they LOVED to sit with their Lunch Buddies. The whole experience was mutually reinforcing.

Next week I’ll include some stories and testimonies from the 7th Grade Miracle Workers who made a difference in the lives of students with special needs.

Counting joy for those Miracle Workers!



I found it always more successful to approach teachers in person when asking for class time to recruit volunteers, but in case you were unable to reach someone, this letter might be useful.

If this template does not work for your labels, click on this link for help using a Word: document.

This is the speech I used for recruiting volunteers. You will need to modify it to fit your specific needs.


5 thoughts on “INCLUSION: Getting Started

  1. Emalie Love Egan

    Wow, this brings back memories! I remember those days as a slice of heaven. Here is what I know. Everybody deserves a lunch buddy. Love, Grace, and Peace, Emalie

  2. Pingback: INCLUSION.2 | countingjoyblog

  3. Pingback: Courage, Part 2: Standing for What Is Right | Counting Joy Blog

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