When inclusivity becomes exclusion

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Despite legislation mandating that students with disabilities receive an education equal to that of any other student (Disability Discrimination Act 1992) the inclusion of students with Special Needs into the mainstream classroom is still a controversial debate in many staffrooms and school car parks.

Whilst such conversations are generally only had behind closed doors, as any opinion against ‘inclusivity’ would carry heavy consequences, those on the front lines are not always confident in their ability to best cater for our most vulnerable learners, resulting in a negative culture of exclusion developing in our schools.

A school close to home is currently struggling to accommodate for a spike in the enrolment of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). From a peer point of view it seems that teacher attitude towards these types of learners is fast becoming the greatest hurdle in achieving true inclusivity.

‘He shouldn’t be here’,

‘This isn’t the place for him’

‘It’s not fair on him’

These are among the more positive comments to be heard from the mouths of teachers and Teacher Aids in the past few months.

One particular child who lives with a co-morbid diagnosis, presents with a range of violent and unsafe behaviours and is struggling to ‘fit in’ to his first year of Prep. He currently attends school for just two hours a day, and last week within an hour of being in the classroom has struck a fellow student directly in the face, bitten two teachers, threatened to kill two classmates and kicked and punched the teacher aids.

The school appears to be doing all of the ‘right’ things to promote inclusivity for this child, but I do wonder if the lack of teacher training, paired with escalation of negative teacher attitudes is contributing in some way to this declining situation.

Parents are starting to whisper in the car park, teachers are up in arms at having to be subjected to such dangerous conditions and staff are losing patience. The requirement to ‘include’ this child without the proper training, and evidence based programs in place is fast becoming the reason for this child’s ‘exclusion’ from our school environment. By pretending to ‘include’ this child, we have ultimately contributed to his exclusion. Parents have already turned their backs on him, students are scared of him and despite their best intentions, teachers are fearful.

Who is to blame here? You see the problem cannot be that the child is just ‘not fitting in’, or ‘it isn’t the right place’, but more that the school has not genuinely adapted and properly prepared to accommodate for the arrival of the child. The school was reactive instead of proactive and action plans were being made as situations came to a head. A lack of current knowledge and evidence based practice is to blame.

When I hear people say, ‘This isn’t the place for him’ it drives me wild.

Where do they suggest ‘is’ the place for him? At home? Should he stay at Kindy until he reaches an age at which he is mentally able to cope with the demands of the school environment? He could be shaving before he makes it to Year 1!

Special school programs when they are available and within a reasonable proximity to the family, are limited in space and are often only able to consider Intellectual Disabilities as criteria for entry.

Students with ASD are being left out in the cold. Too left of centre for the mainstream, but to ‘normal’ for special settings. With the prevalence rate of ASD currently sitting at around 1 in 80 students, isn’t it about time teacher attitudes got a kick up the bum, and teacher training programs and systemic funding be modified to reflect this need in our classrooms?

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This is why I do it………….

This is why I do it…………………….

Today was my first day back in the classroom since going on Maternity Leave in December. My work email had been re-activated and was flooded with mostly spam and then a diamond in the rough, and email that unbeknown to me had been sent to me two days after the birth of my son….I have not edited this at all, and please be aware that Rosalita is Portugese and speaks English as a Second Language. The most amazing part of this story is that Roman is on the Autism Spectrum and I hadn’t spoken with him about my baby since at least October of the previous year. This is why we teach. This is why I leave my own children for the day. This is why we keep going back.  I didn’t realise at the time that Roman even understood that I was having a baby. These beautiful children are absorbing the world, without the world even noticing.

Sent: Thursday, 21 March 2013 9:36 AM
Subject: A baby boy!

Dear Mrs B

Congratulations on the arrival of SAMUEL! We are so happy for you and your family!
Just wanted to let you know something that Roman said over the weekend.
I was driving to the beach and out of the blue said “Mum do you still have Mrs B’s number because you have to call her, and then i said ” why ?” and his answer” the baby is hatching soon” and i said What you mean? He answered “the baby is coming on Tuesday Mum you have to call her! But how do you know? His answer “what number is Tuesday? I said the 19th,his reply “thats it Mum thats the day.
Yesterday i went to the parent interview with MR W and asked if he knew if you had the baby  because of what Roman said and he said that it did happen on Tuesday that they just had the email from you .I was “oh my God!” This morning we were still talking about it,he said  this is amazing you have to tell Mrs B!
Roman also mention many times that was going to be a boy, last year and this year he always said it’s a boy Mum! I send you and the baby all our love and
stay well and all the best .
By the way Roman is doing great with Mr W,
Love ,Rosalita

My Reply …………………………6 months too late!

Hi Rosalita and family

How are you? I hope you are keeping well. I have just gained access to my work email today, it had been frozen whilst I was on leave. I was just going through old mails and got your beautiful well wishes for Samuel. What A lovely surprise to open my email and read that!

It’s really funny actually, I had my first day back at work today, and I bumped into Roman at Morning Tea, I was so hoping I would. I was so amazed at how beautifully he spoke to me, he sounded so grown up and gave me the biggest hug. He has come such a long way! Rosalita, You must be just so proud of him, it was so great seeing him. I am so glad that he is having a great year, could not have asked for anything else.

Hope Paul, Isabella and the rest of the family are doing well.

P.s- You and Roman really inspired me last year, I enrolled back at uni and have started studying for my Masters In Special Education with a focus on Autism/ Aspergers. Despite having taught many children on the spectrum he has really left an imprint in my heart.

All the best
Mrs B
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Moving The Goal Posts

Moving the Goalposts

When ‘alive and healthy’ was enough…..why do we go and move the goalposts?

Three years ago when I found out I was pregnant with my first son, we were full of wonder, excitement and anticipation. From the moment you realize you are bringing a life into the world, your mind races through a myriad of thoughts, some negative most of them positive. The obvious one- Will it be a boy or a girl? What will they look like? And the most important one, I hope they are healthy. For me, many months were spent worrying about the health of my unborn baby, I just wanted so much for this new person to be perfect, as do all parents. Unlike before, when you woke up, saw it was  to sleep for the rest of the day, You wake up every day, open your eyes and remember you are pregnant, and you feel a love and warmth that filters through to every inch of your body, for the first time in your life you are not alone.

At our twenty week scan, things took a turn for the worst. I noticed during the scan that the technician spent a little too long hovering in one area, a little too long on his tiny spine, a look of worry lingered too long on her face. I knew something wasn’t right, but she remained silent and it was forgotten about until I picked up the results the following day. I know I shouldn’t have but the ‘nosey’ bugger in me couldn’t resist it. I opened the envelope and read the report. All I could see was the words the ‘abnormality’ and deformity’. The world closed in on me, I couldn’t breathe, I read it again, and again, each time a little bit harder through the tears. I called my husband immediately, and being the optimist that he is, assured me everything would be okay. The pessimist in me, knew that it was not okay. I called my doctor immediately who then told me to come and see her as early as possible the very next day, I felt momentary relief knowing something was in motion, anything was better than just standing still. I remember going home and my husband calling a family friend of his who happened to be a doctor, I could tell from the conversation that it wasn’t good. My husband had never outwardly waivered in his strength and positivity, in the worst of times he was a tower, to see him doubt anything was a massive blow, It was the worst night I can ever remember. Google was our enemy as we looked at images of children born with Spina Bifida. Waking up the next day, I opened my eyes and for the first time since being pregnant and for the first time I wasn’t excited, Love and excitement no longer filtered, it had been replaced with an empty, sad poison For the first time in my pregnancy, I felt dread. How could I be excited.  I received an early phone call from my GP, cancelling our appointment and telling us to head straight to our capital city (1 hour ) away to see a specialist. This was the worst blow, it was obviously bad if we had to go into the city. The drive there was the longest I can remember. I felt nothing. I could feel my baby kicking me and for the first time, I didn’t want to answer back. I kept thinking, in an hour we will know the fate of our little baby. On the way I remember us deciding that we would find out the sex of our baby, just in case we came home without him.

An hour later, our lives returned to normal. Everything would be okay. Our nightmare had only lasted 24 hours. Sadly this was not the case for most who shared the waiting room that day. For most who waited with us in the diagnostic centre received bad news, this nightmare became reality for many of them. The realization that the perfect child inside was now somewhat ‘tarnished’, ‘defected’ or ‘abnormal’. What strength it would have taken to walk away and carry on with that knowledge in hand.

This scare remains a defining moment in my life. At one point I remember thinking’ please let everything be okay, I don’t care about anything else right now’.

Isn’t it funny how we then move the goal posts. Once we know things are okay, we push the boundaries again and start wanting for more. I hope he is clever. I hope he is good looking. I hope he is good at sport. As a teacher I hoped he didn’t suffer from a learning disability. Even up until he was delivered, I still feared the worst. The first thing I asked was ‘Is his back okay?’ Three years down the track I worry if his teeth will be straight, if he is developing properly, and then I remind myself of my early ambitions. I just hope he is alive. I look at my beautiful boy everyday, and am thankful he is here.

I wonder how different life would be if we had been like the others in the waiting room that day. Where are those parents? and what had become of their perfect babies. I so admire those who have been faced with this situation in a ‘real; capacity and have had the strength to move forward, whatever the future held.

It’s funny that I had even forgotten about this small time in my life until talking to a pregnant friend today. I looked at her today and the memories came flooding back. I remembered the hopes and aspirations a mother has for an unborn child, and then I thanked God that ‘he was okay’. And I’m sure her baby will be just ‘perfect’ as well.

If I could Turn Back Time…..

Sorry to disappoint all of you die hard Cher fans, no fishnet stockings here. Today I feel pretty lousy. I know at first glance this could be blamed on tiredness but deep down I know it is more than that. (while on the topic, a big thank you to baby Sammy who loves me so much, he decided he wanted to see me every two hours last night…)  I’ve worked out  that what I am feeling is guilt and regret.

Before going to bed last night I sat down to catch up some reading for my Masters. My current course takes a closer, in depth look at Autism Spectrum Disorders. As a relatively experienced educator, I foolishly believed that just having taught children with A.S.D gave me a licence to ‘pretend’ I knew what I was doing. The more I read, the more I learn, the more I learn the more I realize that I knew nothing. I have actually come away from this work feeling like I owe a big fat apology to the children and families of the A.S.D children I had taught in the years before ‘we knew’ what we were doing.

If I could turn back time…..

I would never haver made him look me in the eye. The sheer anxiety  that we caused him would have been crippling. He was still listening.

I wouldn’t have insisted that he ‘colour his worksheet’.  It really had nothing to do with his learning, and was more to do with his teachers demonstrating their power. He was petrified of making a mistake and not being perfect in our eyes .

I would’ve realized the noises he was making weren’t because he was trying to annoy me, but because he was frightened that he didn’t understand what we were doing.

I wouldn’t have made him sit on the carpet, because to him it was like sitting on razor blades. 

I wouldn’t have arranged for other children to play with him at break times. He really just did enjoy being alone and needed that time to regroup. He was safe in his space.

I would have allowed him more time to celebrate his obsessions, because one day this would be his career.

The list could go on forever.

(Including some very ‘off topic’ regrets such as not trying to drink a bottle of  Jim Beam before a blue light disco at the age of 15 resulting in a drunken hug with the school principal and for thinking taking a job at a place called ‘Burger Hop’ was ever going to lead to fame and fortune)

 I have learnt more from reading the works of Temple Grandin, than I could have over the next twenty years in a classroom. Who better to steer us in the right direction than somebody actually living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, not some researcher who his good at collecting data and telling us what the statistics indicate would be best.

I only wish that every pre-service teacher was made to read her recommendations for classroom teachers.

Several Movies have been made of her extraordinary success, well worth looking her up, particularly’  Grandin, Temple 1995, ‘Learning style of people with autism: an autobiography’,. 

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The Annoying Mature Aged Student

It wasn’t so long ago that an 18 year old me sat in the back of the lecture theatre laughing at, mocking and becoming insanely irritated by the ‘mature age’ students in our course. Come on, you know the ones……..

I hated the way they would turn up to classes twenty minutes early so they wouldn’t miss out on the seats in the front row. What was it that they constantly scribbled down on their lecture pads? If the lecturer had of farted, I was sure they would’ve included that in their notes. I wanted to let them into our little secret….that no one else was competing for their seat, we were all quite happy to be at the back where we could avoid the disapproving glares of the lecturers as we caught up on what had happened at the pub on Saturday night. Some also avoided the front row as the alcohol from the Sunday Session was still steaming and escaping from every open pore. Bourbon anyone?

It didn’t matter which class you were in, there was sure to be an annoying mature age pest amongst a sea of irresponsible teenagers wearing Pearl Jam and Tool t-shirts. Why was is that while we were all watching the clock, counting down the seconds before we could escape,  ‘they’ had been saving the dumbest question known to mankind to ask  2 minutes before home time ? ‘ Shut up! Shut Up!!!! I would scream (in my head). We know you’re old, yeah you’ve been around for a while, but it doesn’t make you any more qualified than the rest of us. Who cares about how to do the assessment, It’s not due for another two years!! They were always so ‘over eager’ and organized and to be honest, absolute annoying pests! They would also enjoy boring the rest of the class with mundane, irrelevant stories about their families or children. What the hell does that have to do with your ability to teach science? SHUT UP, WE DON’T CARE!!!!!

I also thought they received undue ‘extra’ attention and privileges. Like eating lunch with the lecturers, and getting extensions for every assignment because clearly they couldn’t manage their time correctly. Not like us eighteen year old’s.

Well guess what, today I became my own nemesis, the annoying mature aged pest. For a while now I have been looking into finishing some postgraduate studies in Special Education with a focus on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Having worked with many wonderful children with A.S.D over the years, It has always been a passion of mine. I kept putting it off and making excuses but last week I decided to jump in head first. Today was the first day and even as I typed in my silly little question to the lecturer, I realized what I had become. The mature aged student who didn’t know how to post on the discussion board. Worse still was that after panicking about it, I worked out how to do it and then had to send another stupid email explaining that I had ‘jumped the gun’ (over eager, over anxious mature aged pest).

Sadly I now realise that ‘they’ were twenty minutes early because they needed that extra twenty minutes to study so that they wouldn’t have to do it while their children were awake.

They were writing down everything on their lecture pads because if they didn’t, there would be no way of remembering what the hell had just gone when their memories failed them at 11pm, or  when they re-entered the real world and went back to work after the lecture instead of just heading over to the uni bar for a drink.

The reason they bored everyone with stories of their children was because they were so proud, and were probably feeling guilty about leaving them in childcare while they attended uni, or that it made them feel closer if they talked about them at every opportunity.

They were asking about the assessments and extensions in week 1, because they knew their father was dying, or that  their son’s birthday was approaching and they wanted to get it finished early in case ‘life’ prevented them from completing the course on time. If they didn’t finish on time it meant their husbands would be working overtime for an extra 6 months to cover the costs of you not working.

They ate lunch with the lecturers because they were the same age and at least  both remembered being at uni before the internet had swept the globe, before you ‘typed’ your assignments and before Iphone’s were invented. They didn’t want to sit alone.

Thankfully It is an external course so I haven’t embarrassed my self in person….it is just my ‘online self’ that will be shamed.

In light of my new ‘annoying’ persona, I aim to keep my pathetic questions to an absolute minimum. Sorry to my 18 year old classmates, I hope you had fun at the pub last night…and I’m only jealous that I wasn’t there with you!

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Where is your Safe Place?

Nerves are high. Excitement and anticipation builds outside the classroom.  Familiar faces reunite after a long summer. Some have grown taller, some are missing teeth and there is always one new broken arm courtesy of uncle Pat’s unsuitable Christmas Present.  A friendly smile does much to ease the anxiety, most of it oozing from the parents desperately searching for a ‘Kindy Mum’ to chat with in the crowd. The children are usually much calmer, oblivious to what lies ahead. Mums and Dads milling around, re-adjusting bags on bag racks so they don’t have to stand alone like plonkers, checking lunch boxes for the tenth time. ‘Don’t forget to ask if you need to go to the toilet’, ‘Can you find your name on the door?’

The start of a new school year can be a very scary time. Full of unknowns for both the parent and the child. I remember back to one particular January as my thirty little people made their way into what would be their new home for the next year. All of my new little friends, a little bit quieter than they would later prove to be, a little nervous and a little lost. Like most years, there was one little person whose anxiety was running much higher than everybody else’s …or at least  looked like it was. His name was ‘Toby and he had Special Needs, well…his were diagnosed. I like to think that ‘All’ of my children have a Special Need, and it is my job to uncover exactly what it is, and how best to cater for it in the weeks that followed.

To help the children settle in and to calm their fears, I would always commence the first day of school by allowing them to choose from a range of activities, naturally they would gravitate towards the one that was closest to their ‘safe place’. It is always amazing to watch as the personalities unravel. Before even meeting the children, you can tell much about them from their chosen ‘place’. Some immediately dive in to the building blocks and cars , these would be the hands on learner’s. Some head for the colouring in or the computers, enjoying the quiet independence of the task. Other’s simply watch, observing the people around them. Toby chose the big box of musical instruments. It is from this very moment that the scene  was set for the rest of the year. Music would be his ‘safe place’ to turn when the going got tough. To this day I am still amazed by the affect that the loud, clanging tambourines had, so crucial in calming a mind that was exhausted from racing, exhausted from trying to make sense of the people around him.

Toby  would go on to have regular meltdown’s, not unusual for a child dealing with Asperger’s. They were loud and disruptive, but so too were the thoughts in his mind that were creating his panic. His instruments saved him that year. At times they were the only thing to keep him from running home and never coming back. I wonder what it was that was so peaceful, what did he see in that box? He would play the instruments with conviction and rhythm , and often he would stop to let others into his world….albeit by his rules. What did he make of the noise? Or what it simply just to block out the rest of us?.

I realized that we all had our instruments. Our box of tricks. Our safe place.  When we feel anxious we all run to our ‘safe place’. A place where we feel calm, a place where the rest of the world can melt away until we are just left with our own thoughts. Of course our places look and feel very different. For some it is behind the gate having a cigarette, for others it comes from the fridge or inside a book.

Me personally, I run. My safe place is in my mind and in the silence and solitude of a run. I’m not the best at it, I’m not the worst at it but I love to do it. I love the feeling of being untouchable for that hour (30 minutes if I’m feeling like a lazy pants). No one can call me, or ask anything of me. I run for me. It is during my runs that the world becomes calm. I can sort my thoughts and organize things, collate to do  lists and plan my next movements, all whilst wearing my sneakers and dodging dog poo!

For my son it is his cars. He loves to line up his cars. He could do this for hours on end and still want to do it some more. He has a method to his madness, and an uncanny ability at aged 2 to tell his BMW’S from his Bentley’s. (not our influence, we own a humble Holden)

For my husband it is the soccer pitch. Not so long ago was his career of choice, and being lucky enough to have experienced being paid to do what he loved for so many years…it is naturally still his place to run. He also gains great calm from being part of a team, or being around a group of men, for which I grateful. The rubbish that he talks when with the boy’s ensures that I am only subjected to sensible, non sport related content.

For some it is just to be ‘near’ people. To talk, to touch and to be loved.

But It does beg the question, do we only enjoy activities in which we excel? Would we still find these ‘places’ so calming if we were crap at them? Image

Is your fish trying to climb a tree?

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’ 

I read this on-line this morning. There is still some debate as to whether it was an Einstein quote, but I don’t care if the spotty, teenage boy working down at Mc Donalds wrote it. What a great way to sum up what is happening in our homes and classrooms.

What skills do we value most as a society? What knowledge must we possess to be considered ” intelligent or successful’ and who is the judge?

Whilst our school’s pretend to acknowledge the Multiple Intelligence Theory, I feel we are still only accommodating for children who are Linguistically or Mathematically inclined. I still have not seen a single degree called ‘ Bachelor of Friendship” or  Advanced Diploma  in ‘ I’m really great at puzzles’.  If only there were such degrees….Everyone could feel like a winner!

Whilst the ‘logical’ me knows and understands that we can only value skills that will enable our children to be successful contributing members of society, I think back to the many children I have taught who would have excelled in their own area of ‘expertise’. I refer specifically to those special children with Aspergers/ Austism who were experts in their own obsessions but who may never be officially recognized for their unique abilities.

Last year I had the pleasure of teaching a beautiful 7 year old boy on the Austism Spectrum. He could tell me every thing there was to know about the Solar System. Ashamed to say he knew ten times more than his silly teacher!  Unfortunately the Year One curriculum didn’t require him to know any more than ‘ Day and Night’. There would be no formal assessment for Year One that would allow him the opportunity to strut his stuff.  He could also draw exact replicas of the school playground. Again…..no assessment for playground drawing.  We celebrated his talents as much as time would permit but I fear not enough time to make him see that whilst he couldn’t write…he was still a success.

Yes, this dear boy would one day come across a standardized test that would test his ability to recall the planets…but by then he would have moved on to another obsession, as is the nature of  Asperger’s.

This little boy felt like a failure during Literacy, A failure during Maths (could recall many numbers, but could never apply this them when needed) and a failure at learning. Our schools fast paced curriculum was forcing this little fish to climb a tree.

Celebrate your children. Celebrate every little thing they can do……there may never be a degree for being a ‘great kid’ but at least they will have the chance to feel like a winner for a while, before society rips it away again.