Author: Toni Riester-Wood, Ph.D.
Public Sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.
Every single student in our classroom is someone’s child – both a blessing and possibility for the future. Parents are our most important partners; their satisfaction literally determines the livelihood of public schools in that they either support the efforts (votes for funding requests, volunteering time and resources, etc) or not. In perfect concert with satisfaction is the quality of our partnerships with parents that determines the extent to which we meet our goals. We do, as educators, administrators and parents have the same goals for “our” students, right?
The path to appreciating and celebrating the parent role in an inclusive school community i foundational to the belief and practice of shared ownership. While the benefits of inclusive school communities are well established in the literature, many fears and worries continue to persist about what inclusion may look like or how it may impact the classroom and learning. Parents of students with special needs are often fearful that in an inclusive setting their child’s needs may not be addressed, they may not be able to keep up with the material being learned, that teachers and other children may not know or understand their child, or worse – their child may be left out, teased or made fun of.
During a recent program review, I had the opportunity to visit with parents of students with disabilities. One parent stated the following, “Some people just don’t know how to treat the disabled child and teachers don’t always have adequate training about disabilities and how to make appropriate accommodations or modifications. Many teachers still think that if a child cannot learn from the typical way of being taught, then they belong somewhere else…and often children in general education are not trained about different abilities either.” Another parent expressed similar concerns but with the teachers’ ability to effectively meet all of the diverse needs in a classroom resulting in some children losing ground or not being challenged sufficiently.
There is no easy answer or quick fix. It requires, however two essential elements:
1. Bring parents to the table in a true spirit of partnership to learn and work together.
Larry Ferlazzo (Educational Leadership, May 2011, p. 10) says that the right kinds of school-family connections are those build on relationships, listening, welcoming and shared-decision making that produce multiple benefits for students. Relating in this manner over time will result in parent engagement versus just involvement. Similarly, the Connecticut Department of Education (Educational Leadership, May 2011, p. 48) has forged data-driven learning “compacts” between schools and parents. These powerful collaborative opportunities “spark authentic conversation and listen to parents’ ideas for learning.” These compacts have turned into catalysts for learning action for students, teachers and parents.
2. Exemplify that inclusion is more than just being “located” in a general education classroom.
Inclusion is about being included in life and participating using one’s abilities in day-to-day activities as a member of the community. As one parent put it, “I can go to cheerleading practice, but unless I am going through the drills and routines I am not involved, I am just there.” Another parent stated, “There is no special ed library. There is no special ed. McDonald’s. There is no special ed. department store. There is no special ed. grocery store. You have to learn how to cope out in society with everybody else!” Several of these parents felt that having their child included, whether academically or socially, with the right supports, ultimately helps them to become more independent.
Another parent related that inclusion has benefits that extend beyond meeting the needs of children with disabilities. She witnessed her fifth grade daughter develop compassion, sympathy and a true sense of being grateful. She states, “my daughter was able to see her peers with disabilities as typical, normal fifth grade students with similar interests and abilities and just because some people have disabilities doesn’t mean they’re that different from them and they learn this only by working alongside children with disabilities.”
Ultimately, education is for improving the lives of others and leaving your community and world better than you found it. This means realizing that what unites us is far greater than what divides us and by working and learning together, we have a brighter future for us all!
Ferlazzo, L. (2011). Involvement or Engagement? Educational Leadership, Vol 68, No. 8, p. 10
Harvard Family Research Project: Family Involvement Network of Educators (FINE). (www.finenetwork.org).
Henderson, A., Carson, J., Avallone, P., Whipple, M. (2011). Making the Most of School-Family compacts: Three Urban Schools made their Title I school-family compacts a powerful tool for student achievement. Educational Leadership, Vol 68, No.8, p. 48.
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, Riverhead Books.