My younger child is what many may call “special” and “unique.”
His cognitive and developmental delays will not allow him to be as academically proficient with his same-aged-peers. His speech is sometimes hard to understand, and he acts on impulse and immediate needs in a manner that others may find inconvenient.
He will never score high on the very standardized tests that other students will excel on. His Individual Educational Plan (IEP) is as long as some novels that I have assigned to my high schoolers. He needs extra time and attention during classes.
His having an extra chromosome and being in the middle of the autism spectrum might clinically frighten some, but not to those he spends his days with at a traditional elementary school. Why? Because he still learns and his progress can be measured in so many ways.
And the one aspect of his education that has helped him the most is a rather simple notion, yet one that seems to be overlooked in many places: inclusion.
Children with Down syndrome tend to be mostly visual learners. My son watches, emulates, copies others to learn his social cues and behavioral expectations. He absorbs words and movements and learns how to be a part of and not be apart from. Every year, when his mother and I go to his school to rework his IEP and meet with his teachers, our top educational goal remains the same: the ability to participate as much as possible in this society and learn from other typical peers.
Inclusion cannot work if it is just one-sided, and what has made my son’s school experience most rewarding so far is that there are so many other students at his school who accept him, seek his company and interact with him. For a parent of a child with special needs, that far outweighs any test score, any measure of proficiency or any stellar report card. Truth be told, it is a lifeline.
Our society has become so enamored of test scores, standardization and being above average. In my 22 years of teaching more than 3,000 public school students and watching the onslaught of testing and curriculum standards that have come and gone, I know that the average standard student does not exist. Yet we still seem determined to ascertain whether a student is intelligent rather than seek how every student is intelligent.
Inclusion helps to span any bridge for my son and others with special needs. His ability to navigate his ever-widening world is markedly improving. His vocabulary is expanding. His fear of something unknown has turned more into a chance to pursue curiosity. And if it has ever come at the expense of someone else’s educational growth, then I have never been made aware of it. In fact, research shows that when children with special needs are placed in activities with typical peers in school settings, everybody benefits. Peers helping other peers and teaching and learning from each other is quintessential collaboration and that fosters a positive community culture. All the research for the last 40 years has shown that even typically developing kids benefit academically, socially and emotionally from inclusive settings. Yes, their test scores went up on standardized assessments.
The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system is currently seeking a new superintendent and a person to head its Exceptional Children’s Division, both of whom set the tone for inclusion in schools. My wish is that whoever fills these positions will extend the opportunity for inclusion for all of students with special needs, giving them and their parents the array of choices for their children that are given to typically developing students in this school system of choice.
If it happens to be a matter of resources, then I hope our new superintendent and ECD leader will fight to make those resources available, whether by petitioning the state or local government for more funding and/or reaching out to the community at large for assistance. I hope that they will allow outside services to work with schools to help provide for the needs of any legitimately eligible child.
And I hope that our new leaders will encourage an atmosphere of inclusion in each of our schools for those students who may not be easily measured by a prepackaged assessment because it benefits all students, typically developing or not.
No standardized test could ever measure those rewards.
Yes, I have a “special” and “unique” child.
Just like every other parent.