Monday, April 25, 2011

The Inclusion Teacher's Toolkit

Picture it: This is my fantasy. I am wearing a beautifully tailored pantsuit, unstained and wrinkle-free. And I’m walking in the cutest pair of high heels ever. Every hair is in place and my makeup is appropriately alluring and dewy for school.  Calming classical music plays as I enter the classroom, Bach or Mozart. I see little cartoon birds chirping pleasantly outside my window, peering in as they hop from branch to branch. And Bambi is pleasantly munching grass with Flower and Thumper. All my students are seated with both feet on the floor, hands resting gently on their opened books. They are waiting with patient anticipation for the wisdom of my words and the wonder of my lessons. And most importantly, every child is exceeding expectations on state tests, behaves beautifully, and loves me totally.

Then a phlegmy spit-ball hits me in the eye and my Disney fantasy dissolves suddenly into the stark reality of my classroom. I’m wearing a coffee-stained and wrinkled T-shirt with khaki cargo pants. I look down at my feet and see the sneakers I bought at Wal-Mart, old and worn, but comfy. My hair is wildly tousled in that psychotic killer kind of way. And my makeup resembles that of a clown performing for the Cirque Du Soleil. My students are playing some rap/hip hop techno bubble gum pop thing that I don’t understand and, according to them, am not “cool” enough to listen to. No birds are at my window since that unfortunate slingshot incident involving my apple paper weight, and I haven’t been able to find my DVD of Bambi in weeks. My students are out of their desks, practically climbing the walls. I’m completely convinced that they are planning my ultimate demise. And most importantly, I have all levels of academic performance and all behaviours, and sometimes they hate me totally. This is my perfectly imperfect classroom.

All students deserve an education in an appropriate, least-restrictive environment (LRE) placement. This is both a moral and legal obligation. The education of all is enhanced by the inclusion of students who in the past would have been tracked into alternative education. Thus, many schools are instituting inclusion. This means that there will be students in your classroom who are not at level in terms of their academics and/or behaviour, but have every right to be there. I have always had inclusion students in my classroom. But, even for someone such as myself, with experience, inclusion can be daunting. On days when you’re discouraged, the task can appear impossible. 

Here are some practical tips I’ve added to my own "toolkit" over the years to maximize academic and behavioural success for all students.

  1. Work closely with your special education and/or targeted behaviour team to integrate included students. These people include special education and targeted behaviour teachers, guidance counselors and social workers, and administration, such as principals and vice-principals. My first principal believed that when presented with a problem, you should throw adults at it until the problem goes away. Teaching inclusion students takes a whole team, so don’t be afraid to use the resources available at your school. You are not less of a teacher for doing so.
  2. Review all previous assessments done on the student. My sister is a behaviour consultant, and her one annoyance is teachers who never look at assessments. Previous assessments can provide valuable information. You need them to develop your preventative and academic plans. Sometimes these assessments can be grossly out of date, rendering them close to useless. Either way, the teacher needs to know who is entering the classroom.
  3. Develop a preventative plan to handle any problems the inclusion student in your classroom will present, be it academic, behavioural and/or logistical. For example, I had a student in my classroom who became verbally and physically violent when over-stimulated by his environment. In this student’s preventative plan, my educational associate would take the student out of the class before such behaviour occurred. Such plans make the classroom run more smoothly.
  4. Make a list of short- and long-term academic and/or behaviour goals for each inclusion student, or check the IEP for existing goals. These goals do not have to be complex. I have developed such goals as:
    • The student will use appropriate language and say “Present” rather than using profanity during attendance.
    • The student will progress with the Life Skills Math group and transition away from one-on-one instruction
    • The student will develop appropriate self-care skills, such as using a tissue in a sanitary manner.
    • The student will sit for at least 15 consecutive minutes each period.
  5. Keep a parallel dayplan book. Like most teachers, I make my own planning sheets and keep them in a zippered binder. I have the larger class’s plan on the left, and the plan for any inclusion students on the right. This format allows me to see what the inclusion student is doing, and how it fits into the larger class, and vice versa.
  6. Keep a visual schedule within the classroom. I had my schedule on its own whiteboard. I made cards that included both the word and visual symbol for each part of our day. Then, I stuck the cards on the far left of the whiteboard with fun tak (you could also use adhesive magnets or Velcro), and wrote any notes beside them. This was useful for all of my students, because they knew what to expect at all times. Even my students who struggled with reading could follow our schedule.
  7. DO NOT over-decorate your classroom. It makes kids with attention deficit, kids on the autism spectrum, and obsessive-compulsive students squirrelly. Also, try not to hang things from the ceiling. They’re like cat toys; some students just love batting them around! And lastly, remember that school may be the only safe place for some students, so make the classroom homey. Student-created decor should be prominent in the classroom.
  8. Be a neat freak and keep your class very clean and organized. You may want to colour-coordinate sections of your classroom with coloured paper. I had a red papered wall (actually the main chalkboard), where my daily schedule whiteboard, calendar, and announcements were located. Though I wish that I had a less vibrant colour, the colour was great for differentiating that part of the room.
  9. Keep a calm, straight face through everything. You don’t have to behave like a Zen master, but mainstreaming is not for the faint-of-heart! Many inclusion students are authority-defiant and will deliberately push your buttons. Try not to take it personally. Use a quiet voice and try to use the student’s name. One student of mine used profanity every time he needed to leave the classroom. I would just quietly say, “Johnny, if you need to leave the class, just ask.” It’s important to choose composure.
  10. Know when to ignore certain behaviours. Some students will seek attention by making rude remarks, calling out, making noises, or tapping a pencil. If other students are not too distracted by the behaviour, and if the behaviour is not harmful to your other students, you can ignore it to encourage the student to seek attention in a more appropriate manner. Remember: “What you focus on, you get more of!”* Never underestimate the power of the other classmates’ disapproval. With attention seeking students, make sure that you are giving them appropriate attention when they are not engaging in these behaviours.
But the best tip I can give is…Just Relax! Allow yourself to be as imperfect as your students. Imperfection improves teaching, and makes teaching a lot more fun--or as my students say, “more funner!”

*Quote by Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline

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