learning to live and love from a new perspective

Archive for April, 2014

Teaching Inclusion

For the last four years, I’ve been teaching a social skills curriculum at a local preschool. The curriculum is called “Second Step” (http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step.aspx), and it’s full of all kinds of good stuff. Mostly, I teach the lessons in the order laid out in the curriculum. Occasionally, one of the teachers at the school will approach me with a concern (my students are having trouble sharing, my students are experimenting with bad words, etc.) and I’ll use my “Friendship Circle” lesson to address whatever is happening in the classroom.

Without fail, each spring the teachers will let me know that it’s time to teach the inclusion lesson. A lot happens in the spring. The snow melts. The flowers bloom. The birds return. And the kids start saying, “I don’t want to play with you.”

While we do teach, model and encourage inclusion year-round… my favorite lesson is centered around a book called Can I Play Too? by Mo Willem.

can i play too

 In this book, the two main characters (Elephant and Piggy) are just about to commence a game of catch, when they are approached by their friend Snake. Snake asks, “Can I play too?” Elephant and Piggy are baffled by the request… because, of course, Snake has no arms.

Eleph_Pig_can_i_play_too_INT_lg

But the three friends try valiantly to find a way to include their friend in the game.

The illustrations in this book are hilarious.   By the time I’m halfway through the book, the kids are rolling on the floor laughing. (The teachers are laughing too. Trust me, this book is a must-read.) However, after trying every solution they can possibly think of, poor Snake is on the verge of giving up. With a crestfallen look on his face, he says, “Well, I guess I can’t play after all.”

The room is silent. I pause. All eyes are on me. Their faces mirror the disappointment that Snake is feeling at the prospect of being left out of the game. Snake had tried SO HARD to participate in the game. Were they going to give up now?!? It didn’t seem fair. So I ask the child next to me, “Snake looks so sad. Why is he so sad?”

The child replies, “He really wanted to play with Elephant and Piggy, but they can’t figure out how he can play catch.”

I say, “You’re right. He really wants to play, and now he’s starting to feel excluded. What do you think they can do? How can they solve the problem?”

And with that, a new energy takes over the group. Hands shoot up in the air and ideas are released with enormous power and enthusiasm. Snake can catch with his tail. Snake can hit the ball back with his head. They could roll the ball instead of throw, and Snake could block it with his body. They could play a different game. Not one child suggested giving up on Snake. Not one child suggested that Snake sit on the sideline and watch, or that Snake should find someone else to play with. They were invested in Snake, and determined to find a way to include him.

Back to the book. Just as Snake is about to slither off by himself, Piggy plants her arms on her little round hips and proclaims, “WAIT! I want to play catch with my friends. YOU are my friend. I want to play catch with YOU!!”

I pause again. It’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. I say, “Piggy is a GOOD FRIEND. She knows that Snake wants to play. She knows that Snake is feeling sad. She doesn’t want her friend to feel sad and excluded. She’s not going to give up until she solves the problem.”   The kids are nodding in agreement as I speak. Finally, I turn the page. There is a light bulb over Piggy’s head. I turn to the final page. Piggy has come up with a solution.  (Don’t worry.  I won’t spoil it.  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore/library.  I’m serious.  You HAVE to read this book!)

The room is lit up with smiles. I take one more opportunity to remind the children that they have chances every day to be a good friend like Piggy. Invite a friend to join in. Find a way for everyone to participate.   Be a good problem solver. Don’t say, “I don’t want to play with you.”

It’s an ongoing process. It takes more than just a story once a year. It takes ongoing conversations, lots of repetition, and continuously sending the message that everyone’s feelings are important. And, that everyone has the power to be inclusive.

MEANWHILE ACROSS TOWN IN MY KID’S CLASSROOM….

A few days ago, G’s teacher sent an email that they were getting a new friend in their class. We should all be welcoming to our new friend, Evan. As a room parent, I’m on the look-out at drop-off and pick-up, so I can connect with the new parents.

Today at drop-off, Evan is escorted into the classroom by a Special Ed teacher. The teacher helps Evan hang up his coat and put his lunch box in his cubby. Then, she guides him to the carpet where a group of children are playing with blocks. Evan immediately reaches in and grabs a block out of another boy’s hand.

The teacher gently removes the block from Evan’s hand and returns it to the boy (we’ll call him Greg). With a kind and soothing voice, the teacher tells Greg, “Evan is learning the rules of this classroom. You need to help him learn by telling him if he does something you don’t like. Evan really wants to be here, and he wants to be your friend. Can you help him?”

Greg says, “Evan, I didn’t like it when you took my block.”

With a small amount of coaching, Evan replies, “Sorry.”

The teacher says, “I know! How about if we build a tower together?”

The playing continues. Greg is learning to advocate for himself. Evan is learning to modify his behavior. Both boys are learning that we can all find a way to play together.

It’s an ongoing process. It takes more than just a story once a year. It takes ongoing conversations, lots of repetition, and continuously sending the message that everyone’s feelings are important. And, that everyone has the power to be inclusive.

 

Teaching Strategy Tuesday: Kid Connections

G receives many hours of services and support at school and home.  People often ask me questions about the content of those services.  I had this idea of dedicating one blog post a week to describing some of the skills G works on in various settings and how it helps him at school and home.   So….  welcome to “Teaching Strategy Tuesday”!  This week’s post will be devoted to Kid Connections.  Kid Connections is a Social Pragmatics curriculum that is offered to kids in our town at the elementary school level.  Twice each week, G meets with his “Social Smarts” group.  The group learns about a new social skill each month through stories, games and activities.  G enjoys this group.  A couple of months ago, I was working on a project for G’s teacher, and I was stationed out in the hall for about an hour.  During this time, the Social Smarts group had their meeting.  They were playing “Hi Ho Cherry-O”, while also learning about “Thinking About Me vs. Thinking About Others” behavior.  Throughout the game, the teachers encouraged each child to consider the effect their statements and choices had on their friends.  For example, when one child INSISTED on having the green bucket, the teacher asked if he was “thinking about me” or “thinking about others”.  The child concluded he was “thinking about me”.  The teacher said it was okay.  Green was the child’s favorite color, and it’s okay to “think about me” sometimes.  But, if this child was going to get the green bucket (over the protests of another green-loving child named Corey), what was a way he could think about others next?  The child pondered this…  then came up with a solution.  “How about if I get the green bucket, but I let Corey go first?”  And there you have it…  thinking of me followed by thinking of others.  All young children need support in this area.  Our kids just need a little extra.

The curriculum comes with an excellent newsletter that is sent home once a month.  Reading the newsletter has really helped me develop a common vocabulary with G and his teachers.  This is an example of the first Kid Connection unit way back in September:

photo 1

The curriculum is based on the work of ASD guru Michelle Garcia Winner.  If you are an ASD parent and you haven’t read this book….  you should.  I highly recommend it!!

photo 2

Something New

Our experience at the Tikvah Family Shabbaton gave us a lot to think about.   Finding ourselves in the majority and feeling like our family was completely in the mix of all the activities was unfamiliar. It felt good, and it was intoxicating. In the three years since G’s diagnosis, there have been so few environments where we felt like we could just walk right in and know that we were going to be included. Not just tolerated, but welcomed. G’s integrated preschool was like that. And his adaptive gymnastics class. G and S’s elementary school tries to be that way, and succeeds more often than not.

Our synagogue tries to be inclusive as well. When other parents of children with special needs have approached the rabbi or education director to discuss ways to help our children be included in activities or events, the leadership has been mostly receptive to our requests. And that’s been mostly okay with me. But now I wonder if I can hope for more.

Some time in the next month, my husband and I will make a visit to Gateways Jewish Education program. What is Gateways? According to their website:

 Gateway’s Sunday Program offers a thematic Jewish education curriculum to students ages 5-18 who benefit from highly structured programming, individualized attention and small class sizes. Special education teachers utilize visual supports and differentiated instruction to present a multisensory curriculum.

We’d been hearing great things about this program for quite a while, but we’d never given it any serious thought. After all, G was doing okay at our synagogue’s Hebrew School. Isn’t the goal to keep him in the “least restrictive environment”? Wouldn’t that mean our home school? And wouldn’t we be stretched too thin… pulled in too many directions if we opted for Gateways? And what about the joy of having our kids in the same school, being part of the same community, having the same experiences?

But then we went to the Shabbaton. A few days later, I watched the video on the Gateways website for the first time. It brought me to tears. These are our people. This is G’s environment. Not the environment where he merely exists, dabbling around the edges of what everyone else is doing… but the one where he fully participates. Where he can flourish.

And for us? I find it challenging to be part of too many communities. I like that my kids are both at the same school. One Back to School Night. One End of Year Picnic. One set of parents and teachers to get to know, and social circles that seem to overlap more and more as we continue to put down roots in this community. It’s good.

I feel the same at shul, which is why I’ve been dragging my feet about pulling G out of Hebrew School. All of his classmates are my former students, or siblings of S’s friends, or kids of our friends. Many are all three. The web of connections has been forming for years. How will it feel to start from scratch?

But this new feeling that is taking root is that the Gateways community, the cohort of families who have children with special needs… these are our people too. It will take effort to create connections and establish bonds with a whole new set of people. It will take work, but it will be worth it. These are the families that we are missing in our lives right now. The ones with older children who we can learn from. The ones with younger children whom we can support as they follow in our footsteps.

The bottom line is that I know G could be successful in our synagogue Hebrew School. We could make it work. We could continue advocating for him, continue urging the school to adapt.   We could seek out the resources he will need, and work with the school to implement our ideas. We could hold our breath and hope it works. And on the occasions that it doesn’t work, we can continue to be the family sitting out in the hall while others are enjoying a program that doesn’t quite work for us.

Or we could try something new.

group shot davening picture scheduleIMG_8946 IMG_3129 IMG_3130IMG_3131

 

 

Tikvah Means Hope

Our family spent last weekend at Camp Ramah in New England’s first-ever Tikvah Family Shabbaton. Tikvah is Ramah’s special needs program. It is unique among Jewish camps.   Within the Tikvah program at Ramah, children with all types of disabilities are welcomed and supported.   The Tikvah program is the main reason we selected Ramah for S’s first camp experience this summer. As soon as we discovered the Tikvah program, a glimmer of possibility took shape. When G was first diagnosed on the autism spectrum, we mourned the fact that there were so many experiences we’d hoped for our family and our kids that might not come to pass. We knew S would go to our neighborhood school. Would G ever go there with her? Would G go to college? Have a job? Live independently? Fall in love? One of the experiences we wanted our kids to have together was to go to Jewish camp. We feared that was out of the realm of possibility… until we heard about Tikvah. This weekend, at Ramah, surrounded by an amazing group of families so similar to ours, we could begin to visualize our kids off at camp together. It was a beautiful image.

Aside from the heartwarming thought of G and S at camp together sometime in the future… the Shabbaton was amazing, inspiring, and uplifting of its own stead. I felt a little nervous going in. First off, we didn’t know ANYONE who would be there. Second, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the other participants. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know very many people with special needs. My experience with individuals with special needs is pretty much limited to G’s little buddies from his integrated preschool. I remember my own adjustment period when G started at that school. It took a while for me to acclimate to the sight of one kid walking down the hall with his electronic communication device, while another rolled up a ramp in his motorized wheelchair. It took a while for me to adjust to the guttural sounds and the unpredictable behavior. But once I did, I could see these little guys were just like my G. I began to spend lots of time at the preschool, and I loved it there. But even having had that experience, I still felt a little nervous about the Shabbaton. I was worried about my behavior. Would I stare? Would I say the wrong thing? Would I offer to help at the wrong time, or fail to help when I was needed?

It turns out I had nothing to worry about. The other families were so easy to be around. I sat back and watched the other parents interact with their kids, and for the most part, they looked at ease. It made it easy for me to relax and feel comfortable. There were some challenging moments. One child had meltdown in the middle of services. But two staff members continued with services, while another counselor helped the mom calm her child and shepherd him to a quieter space. Half an hour later, the same mom and child were playing basketball in the gym with big smiles on their faces.

So what made it so easy? So comfortable? The other parents and families were living lives similar to ours, so there was a lot of common ground on which to connect. That was a big part of it. The exceptionally strong leadership from the camp directors was also a big part of it. The National Ramah director, the Tikvah Director, the Director of Vocational Services were all present for the weekend, and set a tone of respect, understanding and inclusion. But there was more.

It was the staff. There were about twenty-five young adults who came to camp to serve as counselors for the weekend. Most were Ramah graduates from the various camps around the country. Some came from nearby, some traveled great distances to be at this event. They came from Philadelphia, Manhattan and Baltimore, all the way to Palmer, MA, just to staff this weekend. Of all the inspiring things I witnessed during the weekend, watching the ease and comfort with which the staff interacted with the kids gave me the most joy.

These young adults are a product of the Ramah movement. They have been at camp, side by side with kids with special needs for years. They have listened to and absorbed the rhetoric about valuing all people, celebrating differences, and welcoming diversity. They have seen leaders who make these values concrete and real. Inclusion is second nature to these young adults.

“Tikvah” is the Hebrew word for “hope”. I left the weekend filled with hope. Hope for our family to have access to experiences I never thought we’d have. Hope for our son to be included and celebrated for his own unique self. And hope for our society, as young adults with such commitment to people with disabilities move up and take more and more leadership roles.

 

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