The #makeschooldifferent challenge calls upon educators to look critically at our current education system and how it affects our students. As I read some great posts by other educators, I find that some of the issues that arise around public education and ‘mainstream’ teaching produce commonalities that are also found in Special Education. I hope you take this time to think about how you can #makeschooldifferent in your classroom. Here we go!

Let’s Stop Pretending That…
1. “Age Appropriate” is a bottom line.
This is a really hot issue that I have witnessed in many schools, and seems to arise when teaching students with special needs. Is it “appropriate” for a 17-yr-old student to watch Barney, or to sleep with a teddy bear? Once a student moves to high school should we replace Dora with Hannah Montana as a next step in teaching kids to grow up as we would like them to? Growing up with a DD brother who had the Disney obsession that a lot of children (not just those with ASD) shared, he was naturally encouraged to move away from the cartoons to real-life sitcoms and Harry Potter. As a sister, I wouldn’t have wanted to go to school and see my 14-yr-old brother carrying around his favourite Pinocchio doll, and I knew in foresight that it would be even more socially unacceptable to see a 25-yr-old man doing the same.
As a teacher of students with ASD of whom I try to teach the rest of the world to accept with, not despite their quirks, I tend to be more lenient on this issue. Some will argue that imposing “age appropriate” activities will save students from social stigma that will set them apart from their peers and cause further exclusion.
Firstly, any Autism parent knows that specialized interests (a characteristic of ASD) tend to be highly motivating reinforcers for their kids. They also may have very limited interests and it can seem nearly impossible to broaden their repertoire, including objects or food. My students don’t work for the same kind of social praise as their peers, and they need a tangible reward that they can hold in their hands for completing tasks on a daily basis. Therefore, if a senior student gets water play for 5 minutes at the end of the day in exchange for completing a day’s worth of tasks and demands, I am happy to provide him with that activity.
Secondly, who are we to deem what us appropriate for our students!? A grade 8 with Asperger’s Syndrome may feel more comfortable playing in the kindergarten pen at recess. While teaching the student the social skills necessary to interact with his own peers, there is no harm in creating a system where he can be a kindergarten helper twice a week with students who are more at his cognitive level. As 21st century teachers we are constantly hearing about the importance of tapping into our student’s interests and the rates of success that come with it. Instead of worrying about the social consequences of a Disney fixation, why don’t we use the topic of animation to create activities that are meaningful and engaging to our students? Special Education is all about picking battles, and as long as an item isn’t causing behaviours or danger to anyone, I say let’s let the kids be happy. Or, as the mother of an extremely picky ASD eater once said, “let him put ketchup…on everything.”
2. Integration only works when the content is doable.

Integrating students into mainstream classrooms is a way to increase social engagement and improve upon typical classroom behaviour that you might not be able to replicate in a contained classroom of 6 or so students. Integration for my students is 95% about social skills and 5% academics. It’s about sitting at a desk surrounded by 20 other students, sharing physical space, listening to others speak and raising a hand.Curriculum, let’s face it, requires modification for many students and not just those who visit the large classroom once or twice a day. For my students, academic gains happen one-on-one in the contained setting where they learn best through very meaningful tasks. Integration periods teach flexibility and social improv that need to be taught in the moment. Therefore, even if my integration class was studying quantum physics one day I would still have my students attend, sit with their peers and practise watching the teacher at the front of the room.
3. Inclusion is the “Be All, End All.”
Gasp!! Seriously?? My colleagues and I have worked tirelessly to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for the ASD students at my school. We have trained their typical peers in small and large group settings, invited students and staff into our classroom to see what we do and even organized a yearly school-wide event we call “Comm-UNITY Day” to bring attention towards our differences and promote and encourage inclusive actions and environments. So let me explain my point. I have taught in partially integrated classrooms where I have seen the benefits of joining mainstream peers in academic and recreational settings. I have also taught in self-contained environments where inclusion was not realistic or helpful for my students, due to their behaviours and high anxiety.
Last year I read Tim Villagas‘ article titled “5 Reasons I am still a Self-Contained Teacher” which highlights the idea that while inclusion should be available to all, it may not always be the best option for all. I digress to “picking your battles.” As a general statement, people with ASD tend to want to be alone – whether or not they are properly equipped with the necessary social skills to survive in a classroom of 30 children. The sensory stimulation alone of a classroom that size could be enough to cause significant stress to (some of) our students. Therefore, while social integration is a natural part of life that students will need to be accustomed to in order to survive the ‘real world’, we need to let go of the notion that it is a positive experience for all exceptional students.

4. Young children can’t/shouldn’t learn about disabilities.

I remember two “special needs” kids from my classes in elementary school. They were the ones who would be taken out of the class for most of the day or who would have an extra teacher helping them in Language and Math. It was only years later that I realized that they were actually non-verbal and required one-on-one support to get through most of their school day. To me, they were just like any other kids in my class, however I had very little interaction with them and was never told that they were different, I just knew it. This situation was considered a success in what I call the “old model of inclusion”, whose goal was to have exceptional students integrated as much as possible, and to blend in with the rest of their mainstream peers. The old model didn’t teach students about differences and didn’t utilize integration as a tool for teaching students with special needs. Instead, it was an accomplishment to have the students fade into the background.
Opening a new ASD classroom in a school with no other contained classrooms was an overwhelming task. As someone who is passionate about inclusion, I worried about the reception of information from students and staff. However, I quickly realized that young students were the BEST candidates for successful inclusion, perhaps even better than older and seemingly more mature students. Why? The younger a child is, the more apt they are to take information for it’s face value. When you explain to them why a student doesn’t speak using words, they accept the information without the social background knowledge of feeling sympathetic or “sorry for” the student. They aren’t scared. They will ask questions without worrying about being offensive or feeling the repercussions from adults for being rude. As educators, it is our job to encourage and accept questioning as part of the learning process. When we are honest and up front with our students, the possibilities for inclusive education are endless.

Check out these other posts about #makingschooldifferent:

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