Today, we have laws that entitle all children – disabled or non-disabled – to an education in the "least restrictive environment." Inclusion is a part of the least restrictive environment, providing differently abled children opportunities to consistently interact with their peers in the regular classroom. Inclusion plays a vital role in any child's education " especially in pre-k. Our students are so young and their view of the world has not yet been completely solidified. By interacting with differently-abled children on a regular basis, our students learn that we're each unique. We are giving them valuable experiences that will leave lasting impressions for life.
I have had inclusion students in my previous classrooms. On my current campus, we have a developmental center that serves children with severe disabilities. When I first heard Jonathan was coming to our class from the developmental center, I wasn't sure what to think. Most of my experiences with inclusion up to this point had been with students who were autistic or had Down's Syndrome, but were otherwise physically independent. I had no prior experience with students like Jonathan who were in a wheelchair and required constant care by a nurse. I have learned from my prior experiences that four year olds are four year olds no matter what " I was certain everything would be fine. Of course, on Jonathan's first visit to our class there were lots of questions and stares from the students. I was careful not to label Jonathan by saying "Jonathan has ______," and instead allowed the students to make their own observations and ask questions.
“Why is he in that chair?”
His legs don’t work the same way yours do. He needs help getting from place to place.
"What happened to him?”
Nothing, he was born that way. We’re all different. I wear glasses because I can’t see very well. My glasses help me see just like Jonathan’s wheelchair helps him walk.
“Is he sick?”
No, he was just born different than you and me. Just because he was born different doesn’t mean he can’t be your friend.
“Can he talk?”
Jonathan talks in different ways, with his eyes and the expressions on his face. He doesn’t talk the same way you do, but he can hear us.
“Is that his mommy?”
No, that’s his nurse. She’s here to help keep Jonathan healthy
Once their questions were out of the way, the students seemed to completely embrace Jonathan as part of our class. They quickly memorized his schedule (Mondays and Wednesdays at 1:00) and looked forward to the days he would be coming to our classroom.
Alondra: (during morning calendar time) Oh! Today is Wednesday so Jonathan will come at 1:00!
There is a flurry of excitement as the topic of Jonathan is brought up.
Juan: Can I show him the picture I drawed in my notebook?
Me: What is your picture about?
Juan: Me and Jonathan are playing on the playground.
Many of the students have been including Jonathan in their pictures in recent weeks. They draw similar pictures featuring a small figure inside a black square (the wheelchair) with two circles at the bottom (the wheels). They include him in their drawings just as they do any of their other classmates.
Jose gets up and runs over to the Fairy Tales book box to grab a copy of The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett. He runs back and hands it to me excitedly.
Jose: Ginger baby! Jonathan like Ginger baby!
Me: Do you want to show Jonathan this book when he comes today?
Jose nods his head vigorously smiling; given that The Gingerbread Baby is one of Jose’s favorite books and sharing isn’t his strong suit, this gesture is especially poignant.
Octavio to Jose: Can I help you turn the pages?
The students enjoy "reading" their favorite books to Jonathan when he comes to our class during BEAR time (Be Excited About Reading). They are delighted when his face lights up and his eyes glance briefly across the pages. One student holds the book while another turns the pages, sometimes a third holds a pointer and moves it across the page following the print as I've taught them how to do in class.
It is obvious that Jonathan has taught us all much more than we ever expected. Instead of a 24th classmate we have received priceless lessons in compassion, sharing, and friendship. And the school year is only half over.