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Inclusion in Secondary Schools: Time to Rethink Educational Assistant Support

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #19

By Jacqueline Specht, PhD

19.JacquelineSpecht2It is time that we rethink our inclusion of students with more significant challenges in our secondary schools.

We have been able to promote friendships at the elementary school level, but once we get to secondary we segregate rather than include. When we do include, we do so with Educational Assistants (EA) who appear to be attached to their side. We need to begin to create opportunities for all students to make friends and be accepted.

Teenagers need to be with each other and not with other adults. The best way to learn how to be a teenager is to hang with other teenagers. All kids have interests and passions and they come out. Sometimes I think we are afraid of the reaction of other students and worry if they will hurt the feelings our students with disabilities.

I have a story of a student who has a special interest in time travel. He was included in classes at the secondary level, but always with an EA. He did not sit with the other students and any time he was not happy with what was going on in the class, he watched movies about time travel.

In the beginning of the year, his classroom teacher for a computer course questioned this practice. She wanted to know why Bobby could not sit with the rest of the class during conversations and participate. It was quite a struggle to move to a point where Bobby was more comfortable. There was much discussion with Bobby, his EA, and his teacher. The teacher pointed out that Bobby was a member of the class and was invited to participate. If he chose not to, that was ok, but it did not mean that he could do whatever else he wanted because that was not what being a member of the class was about.

The teacher did many team-building activities and Bobby was quite reluctant at first. There were a few outbursts at first by Bobby but the teacher stayed true to her desire for Bobby to be a contributing part of the class. Slowly, Bobby joined. He was willing to be in groups, but not all the community-building activities. The teacher acknowledged his “right to pass”.

19.JacquelineSpecht3As the year went on, the classroom teacher wanted to give the students the experience of creating a PowerPoint and presenting it in front of the class. As a bit of a twist, she said it would be like Dragon’s Den, the popular TV show where entrepreneurs vote to give money for good inventions. She wanted everyone to think of a pitch and present it using PowerPoint. Each person had 1500 points to allocate to one or more of the pitches.

Bobby created a presentation on a time travel machine. The teacher wondered if the other students would make fun of the idea, as it seemed a little “out there.”

On the contrary, the students were glued to his every word and voted him the prize won by the best pitch.

The teacher reflected on the success she had achieved. She had built up the class culture so that all students had a voice that would be respected. She had truly included Bobby in the class. Rather than sitting alone with his EA, he was now sitting with peers with his EA roaming around the room and interacting with other students in addition to Bobby. Most importantly, she trusted Bobby to bring his best to classroom activities.

We need more of these kinds of stories; courageous teachers who are willing to say – “We can do better than this. That may happen in other classes, but it’s not happening in mine.”

19.JacquelineSpecht1Dr. Jacqueline Specht is a professor at Western University in London, Ontario. She has been involved in the research of students with disabilities for over 25 years. She is the director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University. She is a member of the IEC Network of Associates.