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Creating Inclusive Experiences for All Children

Preparing children for lives where individuals with and without special needs can live, work, and excel together begins where so many things do, in positive social and educational environments. A number of Colorado schools and organizations are busting down barriers and discovering the benefits and challenges of inclusive experiences.

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David and Heather Wier, of Louisville, learned that their third child, Ethan, would be born with Down syndrome. While preparing for the challenges this would bring, they learned about the inclusive education program at Bal Swan preschool in Broomfield. The Wiers not only put in an application, but actually sold their home and relocated to Louisville in order to be in the Boulder Valley School District. They knew that after Bal Swan they wanted Ethan to attend Louisville Elementary, which, like Bal Swan, is known for its well-implemented inclusion program.

“Honestly, we are not that unique,” says Heather. “I know several families with special needs kids who have moved in order to be in Boulder Valley for their inclusion. We didn’t want Ethan to be somewhere with a pullout or center-based program because everyone we have ever talked to about it says the same thing—inclusion in a regular classroom makes all the difference.”

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While some might assume that a child with special needs would be best served in a program specifically targeted to his unique disability, the Wiers discovered that a large body of research supports the opposite conclusion. According to a 2014 report on preschool age children published by Philip Strain, Ph.D., professor at the University of Colorado Denver, “No study that has assessed social outcomes for children in high-quality inclusive environments versus developmentally segregated settings has found segregated settings to be superior.”

The Letter of the Law

Inclusion refers to opportunities for individuals with special needs to learn, play, and participate alongside their “typical” peers. However, that basic definition can be misleading, since a truly inclusive approach goes beyond simply placing individuals with special needs in a regular classroom, camp, or recreational setting. Inclusion is a system of beliefs and strategies that support a customized experience for every student and participant, both with disabilities and typically-abled, and regardless of ability level or ethnic, linguistic, and economic background.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was written to ensure that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities are educated with children who are nondisabled; and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

With research in support of inclusion, why did the Wiers have to move to find an inclusive opportunity for Ethan? In fact, IDEA was most recently amended in 2004 to stipulate that inclusion is not required. Instead, the law requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment appropriate” to meet their “unique needs.” This rewording has resulted in the lack of a precise shared national definition and understanding of inclusion.

The language leaves room for interpretation, meaning that some schools and other locations place more focus, emphasis, and effort on inclusion than others.

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“Often, choices are not made in response to research or student needs, but rather based on the needs of the school district, budget restraints, or convenience,” says Shirley Swope, parent advisor at the PEAK Parent Center, a resource center with services for families of children with special needs, one of which is providing training around inclusion. “We always advocate for inclusion as a long-term goal because we believe that inclusion is always the best fit for everyone.”

Inclusion for One, Inclusion for All

Ethan Wier started at Bal Swan at three years old, and admittedly, the transition was tough. “He couldn’t sit still. It was so hard to follow a routine and learn to interact with the other kids. He was a mess—he would just run around and try to escape all the time!” Heather says. But the Wiers are adamant that in spite of the challenges, being in a typical classroom has been essential to Ethan’s progress.

“One of the many advantages of inclusion is that the children serve as role models for each other, not only academically but also behaviorally and socially. Students are encouraged to do things that would not occur naturally in a classroom solely comprised of children with special needs,” says Robin Wood-Mason, interim executive director of Bal Swan. “They learn all those things alongside academic content.” While the Wiers do appreciate that Ethan has role models, they are even more thrilled that he has friends.

When parents of children with special needs are asked the question, “What developmental outcomes are most likely to lead to successful post-school adjustment?” social skills is usually the answer. Parents most desire that their children develop friendships with their same-age, typically developing peers, according to Strain.

“Children don’t think of themselves or their peers as disabled unless we tell them that,” says Swope. “Separating or segregating children tells them they’re different from each other, and that message sticks making it harder and harder for them to integrate as they get older.”

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Amanda Boldenow, development manager at TLC Learning Centers, agrees. “In pullout or alternate programs, children don’t form the same relationships. In fact it’s the opposite. Kids may be made to feel different which could invite exclusion and bullying.”

It’s easy to see how programs like the ones at Bal Swan and TLC are beneficial for a child with Down syndrome, autism, ADHD, or cerebral palsy. But is it a good choice for a child without special needs? Many families say yes.

Brian and Julie Morris’ four-year-old daughter Hazel has no special needs and attends Bal Swan. Hazel counts Ethan Wier as one of her besties. “It’s a 20-minute drive for us, but besides being an excellent school we just think it’s really important for kids to learn early on that people are all different, for whatever reason,” says Julie. “We want Hazel to have all kinds of friends and know that people are just people.”

And the Morris’ choice is backed by research. Heidi Heissenbuttel, president and CEO of Sewall Child Development Center, references a 2013 study which reports that children become better listeners when their peers speak differently from them. “We encourage inclusion on every level at Sewall in part because ages three to five are a crucial window for brain development,” says Heissenbuttel. “Current research confirms that for acceptance and appreciation of differences to endure and become a lifelong value, children should be exposed early to peers who look, behave, dress, and speak differently from them. Acceptance becomes much more challenging later on in life.”

What Does Inclusion Really Look Like?

Best practices for inclusion recommend that no more than 25 percent of the group population should be comprised of individuals with special needs. Inclusive programs are equipped with a team of teachers and specialists who receive ongoing training, enabling them to customize and differentiate activities and instruction.

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One such program is Camp Shai in Denver, one of the very few fully inclusive summer day camps on the Front Range. Kelley Smith Bramlage is the inclusion specialist who, along with her team of interns and volunteers, creates a customized plan for each camper. Camp Shai welcomes children with everything from mild learning disabilities to severe behavioral or mobility issues, and they all integrate with equal success. Children learn to include and interact with participants of all abilities.

The bonus is that team counselors and onsite specialists are available to all children, not only participants with special needs. Counselors are equally prepared to serve typically developing children.

“The reality is the opposite of what people might expect, because while those specialists and therapists are there for a child with special needs, they are available and attentive to all the children in the room,” says Boldenow. “They’re going to assist all the children, help shape the learning, and sometimes catch issues that wouldn’t have been noticed in a segregated setting. In an inclusive setting, all children end up with more attention, not less.”

It’s not unusual for learning issues to be quickly and easily identified—issues that parents might not even be aware of.

Having experienced the benefits, both the Morrises and the Wiers say that they would always choose inclusion for all their children. Heather Wier wishes that her two older children had attended Bal Swan, but they didn’t learn about inclusion until they had Ethan. “We’ve provided care for disabled adults in our home and my kids’ teachers report to me regularly that my kids are the first ones to make friends and be a helper to the kids that need it,” says Julie Morris. “That’s not by chance.” According to Strain’s report, typically developing children have shown only positive developmental, educational, and attitudinal outcomes from high-quality inclusive settings.

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Why is Inclusion Hard?

The Morris’ older daughter Lilly attended a school where inclusion was practiced but not well implemented. “The disabled child was a huge disruption to the learning environment,” says Julie, “and what bothered Lilly was not that he was disruptive, but that this boy was not getting what he needed.” While a lack of understanding, information, and agreement have been the main reasons for so few well-implemented inclusion models, there are other challenges, too.

Heissenbuttel cites accessibility and convenience as obstacles for many. “If people can’t get to you, they can’t benefit,” says Heissenbuttel. To help solve this, Sewall Child Development Center has centers in nine neighborhoods around Denver, providing both full- and half-day options. In addition, Sewall partners with Denver Great Kids Head Start to provide consultative inclusion services right in the Head Start classrooms.

Heissenbuttel also acknowledges that finding quality inclusion beyond early childhood is a significant challenge. As a result, Sewall partners with REACH charter elementary school in Denver to provide a fully inclusive model through grade five. REACH offers programs for gifted and talented students as well as English language learners. However, REACH, much like Camp Shai on a recreational level, is fairly unique.

Private or nonprofit programs such as TLC fundraise extensively to provide well-trained staff and extensive supports and services. “Because TLC is private we depend on scholarships, low-income participants may [also] apply for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, and insurance or Medicare pays for certain kinds of services,” explains Matt Eldred, executive director of TLC. “We use blended or braided funding to give children what they need to meet their highest potential. It looks different for every child.”

Public schools receive federal and state funding for any child with an identified need and an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If a child is eligible for an IEP, based on a professional assessment or physician’s diagnosis of their developmental, physical, or social needs, schools are required to provide services starting at age three.

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This is why as children get older, it becomes increasingly important for family members to advocate for inclusion. “To make changes in how the law is applied, you have to understand your rights and have a vision for what’s possible, so we put a big emphasis on educating parents alongside their kids so they can become advocates and agents for change,” says Wood-Mason.

This is where the resources of organizations such as PEAK Parent Center and REVEL come in. These organizations provide services and connect families to funding sources, and teach families how to advocate to ensure inclusion in the best learning environment.

REVEL serves people ages 14 and up who are on the autism spectrum. In addition to classes, and counseling, they have a mentor program to help people learn simple skills to live independently. “It’s important,” says Stephanie Hill, executive director of REVEL, “because by interacting with normal-needs individuals—particularly people on the autism spectrum—people learn healthy interaction, and also how typical individuals understand those on the spectrum. Ultimately, the goal of inclusive programs is to prepare people on both sides for inclusion in the world—in life.”

Swope agrees: “The big picture goal is always inclusion into society because we don’t have special education gas stations and stores and theaters, nor should we,” she says. “Real life in our society means to be included.”

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