Tuesday is for Teachers

Barriers and Attitudes

This post is the second in a series on Inclusion – the practice of including students with special needs in the regular classroom.

Recognizing that inclusion varies from system to system and even school to school, my aim is to inspire and motivate both regular and special ed. teachers to widen their horizons and consider initiating more opportunities for inclusion to take place in their buildings. As a special educator for over twenty years and then a teacher of “regular” students for ten more years, I speak from a wide range of experiences with inclusion activities. (I put “regular” in quotes because today our students have so many differences and problems that the words “regular” or “normal” hardly apply.)

We all share three barriers as we begin any new endeavor – it’s true of teachers, of parents, of administrators, and of students.

  1. FEAR: the unknown scares us to death.
  2. CONTROL: We don’t like to give up control. We get comfortable in our classroom, teaching students we understand with a curriculum we know well. The new push sweeping across the country for evaluating teachers based on test scores no doubt creates fear, but primarily teachers see a situation where they have little or no control. Every day classroom teachers watch students who come to school with so much baggage from home or the bus ride that learning is the last thing on their minds. On test day teachers can only control the environment in their classroom – and sometimes that is a challenge. (Better move on. I’m getting side-tracked!)
  3. CHANGE: Humans are uncomfortable with change, and we typically resist it by dragging our heels.

Your attitude and the attitudes of other teachers in your building toward inclusion are based on your experiences with students with special needs, or as a special educator, experiences with regular students.  For many years the goal of most Special Ed. programs involved strategies to “fix” students’ disabilities. By the 1990s we figured out that fixing was not realistic, and research did not support the “pull-out” method — pulling students out of regular classrooms and teaching them in small groups with a specially trained teacher.

What is your attitude toward adding students with disabilities to your class?  The typical response is:

  • I don’t know how to teach someone with a hearing impairment or ___________ (fill in with any disability)
  • What if there are health issues or physical problems?  Am I liable?
  • The regular students will suffer from lack of attention.
  • But what if the student is disruptive?

These are legitimate questions and can really only be answered by the special educator in your building, but as I tell you about my experiences I want to be sure you understand the types of students in my special ed. classroom and the regular population of students in our middle school. My class of thirteen included students who were non-verbal, self-abusive, autistic (from no verbal skills to echolalia), severe hearing impairment, Downs Syndrome, limited motor skills, and all with low cognitive ability. Our school served a mixture of students from the inner city to the suburbs. More than half came from low-income homes, and those coming from dysfunctional homes grew every year.

Some of the most endearing relationships came from the Lunch Buddy program (see Oct. 2nd post). Carl came with a unique developmental syndrome, was non-verbal, and whenever he was frustrated, was self-abusive or grabbed the nearest person in a near-death grip. He was such a challenge that in the lower grades the system decided that he needed his own full-time assistant. He bit his hand so often that huge callouses developed. What a negative description of a middle schooler who had no effective means of communicating his needs! Lunch time was a challenge in finding just the right Lunch Buddy. I usually made a specific plea for a boy who was strong physically and willing to be patient. The first year with Carl, Tom volunteered immediately when he heard my Speech. He fit my requirements and another boy asked to be his partner.

Sometime during the first week or two Tom came to me and said that he had fired his partner! I had forewarned students that I might fire them from their job if for some reason things didn’t work out. But Tom was responsible and insightful; he read the situation correctly. Just a few days later, Barry transferred from another school into Tom’s class. Tom asked Barry if he was interested in being a Lunch Buddy, and since he was, Tom let me know he had found a new partner. What a team they turned out to be! As a new student, Barry didn’t easily fit in at first, and Tom gave him a way to be accepted.

Occasionally Carl’s assistant was absent from work, and this change in routine regularly frustrated Carl. In October when the assistant was out, we decided to relieve some of  Carl’s frustration by letting him go to regular classes with Tom. We made sure we had a back-up plan to help Tom if Carl showed inappropriate behavior. Despite my misgivings this plan worked! Carl knew what to do: follow Tom to class, sit beside Tom, and play with his phone cord. (You’re wondering why a phone cord, no doubt. Who knows why, but just like tapping a foot or chewing gum for some, this was a calming device for Carl.)

Tom and Carl remained buddies all year – who was I to mess up a good friendship? Carl was even invited to Tom’s birthday party that year. Tom remained interested in Carl even after middle school. Just this summer I had a phone call from Tom; he is now 30 years old and was wondering if I knew what had happened to Carl. Sadly, I did not know.

This group of 7th graders learned some life lessons by their experiences with middle schoolers who had some unique challenges in their lives. During an exploratory period we offered a wide variety of topics for regular students to explore, and I always taught sign language. Students usually loved to learn signing, and I always included a song to learn. It wasn’t hard to keep their attention; if they didn’t watch me, they missed a word.

Carl suddenly grabbed someone’s hair in the middle of practicing a song, and I needed to get him to our cooling off space, the Secret Garden quickly,

quickly. He was so strong that I had to physically guide him to a soft pillow, but the song went on! Once he was safely seated, I returned to the 7th graders. They didn’t even look at Carl in the back of the room – they continued looking at the spot where I used to be standing!

The unwritten rule they followed that day was – ignore inappropriate behavior. When we taught an integrated unit on The Miracle Worker, we planned a field trip to Helen Keller’s home in Alabama. The students did not question whether my students would go or not; it was just assumed they would go. Before we took the trip, we showed the movie of The Miracle Worker to all the students. While watching it, Ryan leaned over to me and said, “Carl is like Helen Keller, isn’t he? He gets frustrated when he can’t let us know what he wants.”

These are priceless moments – when goofy 7th graders have moments of maturity, make connections from curriculum to real life, moments that no test can measure.

Lives change in these moments.

Impressions that last longer than grammar rules or the periodic table or the order of operations.

We called them 7th graders Miracle Workers.

I count it all joy.

Thanks be to a loving God that I had the opportunity see these students demonstrate compassion, model appropriate behavior, and recognize the role they played in the lives of unique friends who learned in a different way.


Check the Free Teacher Resources Page for three files I created for this series on Inclusion.


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