Positive Steps for Social Inclusion
For students with and without disabilities, the social experience at school is as important as the academic experience. Both are necessary to ensure post-school success. Colleges and employers want to see strong interpersonal skills in addition to the other qualifications they may be seeking.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Social inclusion is a critical issue for every student with a disability, regardless of whether the student is educated entirely in special education classes or is fully or partially included in regular education classes. Hopefully, students educated in all of these scenerios will eventually live and work in the community, where they need to be able to interact with people of all ability levels. The following steps will help students develop friendships with their non-disabled peers in the classroom, if applicable, or in other school or extracurricular activities.
One of the critical components of social inclusion is that other students see children with Down syndrome, and those children see themselves, as full participants in the classroom and the school.
Every time that a child with Down syndrome participates in an activity or assignment, even one that is modified or adapted, this point will be underscored. Before long, the child and his or her classmates will see each other in terms of similarities rather than differences. They will begin to measure success by looking at the progress they have each individually made rather than by comparing their own achievements to those of others. This creates a positive learning environment for everyone.
If parents or guardians believe it is appropriate for their child with Down syndrome to be educated to any extent in regular education classes, it is important that they start inclusion as early as possible.
If a child may benefit from being held back a year, parents should start him or her in kindergarten a year late. They should try to avoid holding their child back later, after friendships have been formed with classmates.
The teacher (and paraeducator if applicable) should receive training or at least be aware of the importance of facilitating friendships. The best way to do this is to put a social goal on the IEP and specifically request staff training.
In the younger grades, parents of a child with Down syndrome may want to talk to their child’s class and to all the classes that will be at lunch or recess with the child. This can be especially helpful if there are obvious modifications or adaptations required for the child’s assignments, if the child requires any special equipment or if the child has significant communication issues. Parents can explain Down syndrome and its effect on their child in very simple terms. They can also explain the need for adaptations and/or equipment as being the same as a person needing glasses or braces. Then, they can spend time talking about all the ways their child is just like his or her classmates: loves pizza, movies, sports etc. They only need to do this for a couple of years. After that, students who have previously been in the same class as the child who has Down syndrome will start sharing this information with new students.
Parents may also consider sending a letter to parents of their child’s classmates that provides the information they shared with the students. In this letter, they can communicate their willingness to answer any questions that other parents may have about this information and about inclusion. This may help when it comes to arranging activities with classmates outside of school.
Parents should try to ensure that a few of their child’s friends or supportive acquaintances are in his or her class every year. This is especially important during transition years to middle school and high school. The students who know and are supportive of the child will model positive relationships and promote the expectation that the child will continue to be an important part of the group. The fact that the child’s friends may be in “gifted” or higher level classes in middle and high school should not be an obstacle. Many of these classes have a greater focus on group discussions than the regular classes and may be the best classes in which to promote the communication goals of a student with Down syndrome. Modified materials for these classes can be found as easily as for the regular classes.
Parents of a child with Down syndrome should make sure that their child is a full participant in all class and school activities. No matter how challenging the task, there is always a part that a child with Down syndrome can do. The teacher should look for the objective in the assignment that is most meaningful for the child and adapt the assignment and materials accordingly. Example: groups of students are playing a math game based on prime numbers—the adapted assignment for a student with Down syndrome is to keep score using a calculator.
Children with Down syndrome should participate in any homework or projects that will be presented to the class or hung up on the walls. If the workload needs to be reduced, teachers can cut out homework and assignments that are not shared with the class. Any work on below grade level skills should be done when students are working independently at their desks rather than during a group activity.
Children with Down syndrome should always partner with other students for group activities. Aides or teachers can help, but shouldn’t act as partners.
Paraeducators (aides) should be seen as helpers for all the students, not just the students who have disabilities. They should play as small a role as possible at lunch, recess, PE, art and music. Class work should be adapted to let any students with Down syndrome work as independently as possible.
To the extent possible, children with Down syndrome should participate in after school and weekend activities like carnivals, math nights, plays, concerts, dances, club meetings and sports events.
As they get older, their friends will naturally provide support at these events. At this point in time, adults may observe from a distance or may not need to be present at all. It is important for each parent to be sensitive to his or her child’s growing sense of independence. This is a difficult transition that can involve taking some risks. It is important that parents ensure that their children receive as much information as possible about risky behaviors. School health classes usually do a good job at starting this dialogue.
If a child with Down syndrome likes sports but cannot participate on a school team, he or she can be a manager. It is easier to make friends in small cohesive groups like teams and clubs than in the classroom. He or she can also explore volunteer opportunities that are available to students at school, like putting up decorations or collecting canned goods.
OUT OF SCHOOL ACTIVITIES
Parents can sign their child up for scouts or community sports teams to provide additional opportunities to meet with classmates outside of school. Involvement in youth groups and religious education classes sponsored by a place of worship also achieves this goal and can provide a child with social inclusion in his or her religious community.
Parents can also arrange community service projects with other classmates to provide their child with an opportunity to build friendships.
Parents should make sure their child has one-one time with a variety of classmates outside of school. Initially, parents may need to be proactive and initiate these get-togethers. This is not necessarily an issue with the other students’ interest in the child with Down syndrome. Often it is others students’ parents who are uncomfortable because they have exaggerated ideas about the needs of persons with Down syndrome. Inviting the other parent along can help with this issue.
If friendships are still not developing, parents can explore school activities that facilitate friendships, such as a peer-mentoring program.