Kids Benefit from Integrated Environments
Thu, 8/19/2010 3:19 PM
Danielle Keeton, M.A. CCC-SLP is the Director of Le Bonheur Early Intervention and Development and Therapy Outreach at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Danielle has been an integral facilitator of the inclusive environment concept, which as she states in her own words below, is beneficial for all children – those with special needs and those who are developing typically.
Now that school has started, it’s a good time for parents to talk to kids about the importance of accepting all of their peers. Kids should be taught that it’s o.k. to be different, and being different provides good learning experiences. Danielle shares her personal thoughts and expertise on the benefits and learning opportunities that come from an inclusive environment.
"Parents of children with special needs have long sought to have their children included with peers who are developing typically. Research shows that children with special needs make greater developmental gains when provided with peer modeling in an inclusive environment. In an effort to make the best choices possible for their kids, many parents of children who are typically developing question the benefits of an inclusive environment for their own children. I would love to share those benefits with you, as a professional and most importantly, as a mom.
As a Speech Language Pathologist, specializing in early intervention, I have coached students, parents and other caregivers on ways to include all children to maximize the learning for everyone in early childhood environments. Children who are typically developing learn so much by serving as peer models for their friends with special needs. Children modeling sign-language or picture symbols to aid in communication, for example, develop a broader vocabulary and combine words at an earlier age than children who are not exposed to alternative communication methods. Children who are typically developing continue to learn at their natural pace and are not "held back" by sharing a classroom with children who have special needs.
As the mother of two boys, now entering first grade and kindergarten, I have personally experienced the social and emotional benefits of an inclusive environment for kids with typical abilities. My sons attended an inclusive early childhood center (the LEAD program at Le Bonheur) from age two until they were ready to leave for kindergarten. They shared daily life with children who ate, breathed, moved, slept, played, and spoke differently from them, and at the end of each day, what they noticed most was that they were all just kids. My boys learned to help when a friend needed it, to wait when someone took a little longer, and to find what's the same about us all. I'm not saying that they didn't notice the differences. They did. They asked questions about why someone got their food through a tube in their tummy instead of their mouth. Then they pretended to feed their stuffed animals that way! They asked about why a friend still crawled around the classroom while everyone else walked. They asked why one child colored with his feet and why he didn't have arms. I was able to use these daily observations as teachable moments. Reinforcing that everyone in the world is different, and there's nothing to make fun of or be afraid of. It's ok to focus on the things we all CAN do.
I'll finish with a story from my younger son's classroom when he was just 4. Their class was studying Black History Month and listening to a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech. Their teacher asked them all to draw a picture of something they dreamed about. My son had a friend in his class who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and used a walker or wheelchair to move around the room. A little girl in the room drew a picture of her and this child under a rainbow. She was standing up, holding his hand, and he was standing up too. Beside the two of them was a scribbled out, empty wheelchair. Above the rainbow was a blue cloud, and in the middle of the cloud, the words read "I dreamed he was walking."
As I stood outside the classroom admiring this drawing hanging on the bulletin board, my eyes filled with tears, and my heart filled with pride. That's what an inclusive environment is all about - little people learning to wish for the best, for everyone."
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