Making It Visible: Inclusion in the Early Years – Conference Summary. Part 1 of 4
Kayla Wilcox is a stay-at-home mother of three children, one 4-year-old and two 2-year-olds. Her oldest boy has Asperger’s, and her youngest boy is currently undergoing a psychological assessment. She describes her life as always interesting/never dull and she believes that the most beautiful things in life are within the mundane. Sabrina and I met Kayla through our Facebook Group and are amazed at how Kayla manages twins + autism. She recently attended the “Making It Visible: Inclusion in the Early Years,” conference hosted by the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, which neither Sabrina or I could attend. After hearing how much she enjoyed the conference, we asked her if she’d be willing to do a write up. We are pleased to announce that Kayla will have a series of posts (four) on the conference, which we will run over the course of the next 1-2 weeks. These posts will give an overview of each speaker and some very useful tips and takeaways. We hope you enjoy.
Parenting includes a steep learning curve; and once you get a handle on a phase of development, a new phase begins. In July of this year, my 4-year-old was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, more specifically, Asperger’s. The learning curve then became much steeper. I instantly jumped into researcher mode and began reading as many resources as possible to increase my understanding of EB’s needs and how I can meet them.
When I received an email invitation to The New Brunswick Association for Community Living’s (NBACL) conference entitled “Making It Visible: Inclusion in the Early Years,” I RSVP’d immediately—it was a learning opportunity I could not pass up. I anticipated learning a lot about how Early Childhood Educators could include children with disabilities in all aspects of school, and how I could advocate for my son to ensure that was the case. I did not expect that I would come away with a course on parenting and on life in general.
It is difficult to summarize the wealth of knowledge that I gained, but I will try my best. Bear with me.
The conference got off to a great start with our keynote speaker, Carla Kolada, who is an elementary teacher and part-time curriculum development instructor within the Education Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of New Brunswick; she is also a parent of a child with Down syndrome. She asked attendees to think about a time when they did not feel included or seen, and what happened to our self-confidence as a result. Feeling invisible is a daily reality for many children with an intellectual disability. Ms. Kolada showed a video through the eyes of one such child. As he walked through the school halls and into his classroom, he felt that no one saw him, and all he wanted was a friend. Emotions got the better of me as I thought of my son who often goes off alone at school away from his peers. He is verbal but will shut down if stressed and generally waits for peers to leave an area before he plays there. My hope is that by Kindergarten, he will build more social skills and more confidence in social situations; and also that his school will help facilitate social interaction as his preschool teachers and autism support workers have been working to do.
Ms. Kolada spoke about the importance of peer intervention for children who are lonely or who need help with things like zipping up their jacket. As adults, we are generally aware of the needs of those around us, but children need to learn this skill as well; and peer assistance helps those who feel invisible feel like they belong. A sense of visibility and belonging will ultimately increase a child’s motivation to contribute, to take risks in social interaction, to feel secure, to feel free, successful, supported, and needed. This is what inclusion is all about—it truly gets the most out of our children as it is with their peers that they learn best. We don’t want our children to feel like the ‘other’; we want them to feel like they belong, like they are important too, and that they have potential.
Children with disabilities are often underestimated to their detriment. It is important for parents and educators to not believe those who say our children can’t do [insert random area where some have had low expectations of your child]. A moving story that illustrated this point, which will always stay with me, was about a boy with an intellectual disability whose parents were told that their son would never read. Ms. Kolada was at the meeting with the neurologist where these words were spoken. After the parents left, she stayed behind to probe deeper as she did not believe that outcome was written in stone—she wanted to find out what this child was good at, what he could do, so that she could implement a plan to help him learn to read. Apparently he was excellent at building, actually remarkably so. Ms. Kolada used his love of building to help enhance his literacy skills; for example, she taped letters to blocks so that the class could build words with them. This is an excellent model for how we can build a bridge to children by using their strengths and interests to enhance skills in other areas. Fast forward a couple of years, Ms. Kolada walked past the little boy’s grade 3 classroom and saw him reading to his friends!
One last point in Ms. Kolada’s presentation that I have to note is the difference between integration and inclusion. Integrating a child into a classroom means you change the child to fit the system; whereas practicing inclusion means changing the system to fit the child. She used the analogy of not trying to fit a square peg into a circle hole. She believes strongly that if we find out how children learn, we can tap into their potential, and that in order for them to believe in themselves, they have to see that others believe in them.
My favourite part from this post is the explanation of the difference between integration and inclusion. I agree with inclusion when it is done right, however, I think sometimes I hear more often about integration examples being labelled as inclusion. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, please let it be the true definition of inclusion. Stay tuned for post 2 early next week.