"Aren't you afraid of the other children hurting your daughter?" asked the mom at the playground. “Oh no,” I hurried to reply. “Mia gets more grief from her little sister than from any of the kids at school.”
I’d expected a lot more reactions like the playground mom’s to the news of our choice of an inclusion preschool for our daughter, who tests without developmental delays. But most parents I told just took it in stride, as did Mia. Since the passage of the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, children with vastly different skills learning together in the same classroom is becoming a commonplace reality.
In our area, there is a wealth (ha! "Wealth" is for sure!) of choices for private preschool with philosophies ranging from Waldorf to Montessori to "montessori-lite," from Emilio-Reggio to something called "Best Practices." (Wondertime magazine had a great recent article breaking down the differences between these approaches. You've got to check out the hilarious cereal boxes that illustrate the schools of thought.)
Years ago I’d studied the benefits and challenges of inclusion while getting my degree in education. I liked the idea of Mia learning lessons about patience and tenderness, acting as a role model, and forging friendship with children who had skills and abilities different than hers. I loved the idea of a classroom environment that embraced difference. I know that special education methods, such as varied repetition and using a variety of senses to explore an idea, can be beneficial to all children.
(But this all sounds rather lofty and I must be completely honest. Mia had had some episodes of fury probably not untypical of a two-year-old but pretty alarming to me. With my tendency to catastrophize, I felt most comfortable with her surrounded by unflappable professionals who were experienced with challenging little ones. And as the school months unrolled without incident, I figured out Mia was just saving all her love for me, if you know what I mean. Me and my lack of patience, that is.)
Two miles down the road from us, inside six classrooms within a public grammar school, we found Connecting Kids, a play-based inclusion pre-school. Services are without charge for children who test with special needs. The program's goal was for the classes to be balanced with half the kids having IEPs (individual education programs.)
After an initial visit to the school, my husband and I were happy with the ethnically diverse population of the children, the small class sizes, and the state-certified teachers. Two aides assisted each teacher in addition to the physical and speech therapists who worked with all the children as a group and individually. Mia did love the jumping and balance work of physical therapy and I was happy the lovely speech therapist could work with her on "the yadybug yives in the yog."
The classroom was large, colorful and bright, filled with neatly sorted toys and decorated with student work. Children played happily in this sensory rich environment with clearly delineated areas for reading, circle time and table work. A water table was periodically filled with snow, leaves, sand and other fun-to-touch materials. The education professionals appeared happy in their work.
Despite our initial idealistic goals of Mia acting as a role-model and such, the joyous real life tangle of playing and friend-making and interacting with the other kids was never a story of "us" and "them." The kids were all just kids. Like another playground mom said, "Hey, we ALL have special needs."
The actual day-to-day experience of Mia’s school seemed to require more adjustment from me than from my daughter. Mia made friends and loved going to school. But I was the one who felt impatience rising during classroom visits when the teacher and aides spent what I considered too much time teaching a student to sit quietly and still during circle time. So what if he wanted to flop around instead of sitting with "criss-cross-applesauce" legs?
"Is this a lesson in conformity or self-control?" I wondered to myself. I've taught high school and I've felt guilt over the imbalance of attention spent on my students, with the compliant ones usually getting the least. But this was not my classroom, these were not my students and Mia going to this school was not my experience - it was hers.
Mia came home one day and said, “Mike is funny! He says, ‘Muh-muh-muh-Mike!’ when he says his name!” Then she broke into peals of laughter. I knew Mike and his wonderful mom. I was horrified, picturing my daughter turned into a finger-pointing toddler-bully, but I pulled a mom-in-control face and replied, “Oh really?”
Then I couldn't help slipping into lecture mode. “Honey, you know you shouldn’t laugh when someone is trying to talk.” She gave me a blank look and I hustled to schedule a minute with the teacher.
“Is Mia making fun of Mike?”
“Oh no,” replied the young (so young) woman. “Mia LIKES Mike. And he likes her. They’re friends. She's not hurting his feelings.” It never occurred to me that Mia wouldn’t see anything wrong with the way her buddy Mike talked. In the innocent way of a child, she thought he was genuinely funny and just perfect the way he is. Chalk one up for Mia teaching Mommy again.