I don't write as a professional, nor am I a special educator. I am 'only a parent'. Therefore, my opinion should be regarded in its proper light.
We are now living in an era where the words 'Inclusion, Mainstream, Desegregation,' etc. are begging for recognition in the world of special education. Theoretically, it seems very sensible. Special children should be included in everything that 'normal' children are so accustomed to, and both parties will gain much from their 'inclusion' experiences.
However, as the mother of 3 beautiful children B'H, 2 of them 'normal' and my son being 'special', I harbor many mixed feelings about the entire educational system. As a family residing in Brooklyn, with our 2 children attending private religious schools, a/k/a 'yeshivas', I cringe at the makeup of the school population. My 10 year old is in a class of 25 students with one teacher. The classroom was most probably built to accommodate 15 individuals. As soon as winter arrives my daughter quakes at the prospect of going to school. It's her 'mazel' to be placed next to the radiator every year. The steam comes in at full strength and she is sizzling on her right side, while from the left she is getting gusts of wind from a large window which must be opened, or else she'd faint. Colds and sinus infections are the norm for her all winter. Also, the learning is so intense, that at times I wonder how the whole class can keep up; after all, there are varying degrees of comprehension among the students.
My 3-year old recently came home with a note from her teacher: 'Dear Mommy: Your daughter has been chosen to be the Shabbos Mommy this Friday at out party. Please send along enough 'nosh' for 35 children."!!! Thirty five three year olds in one class!!! I am not writing this to bash the school; in the community it happens to be rated as one of the best girls' schools. But, we KA"H live in an area where Yiddishkeit is blooming and families are growing at an unbelievable rate. It is almost impossible for the 'mosdos' to be able to keep up with, and provide properly, for all this growth.
Now, take a child like Moishey. He is now seven years old. He is attending a special ed program; there are ten children in his class and three teachers. During the course of the day, individual students are 'pulled out' for their therapies, there is music education every day, there is physio therapy every day, individually and in groups, with the students attending gym classes under the supervision and guidance of a gym teacher. There are also lots of extra-curricular activities going on constantly.
Because of the contained size of the class, it is possible for students to receive individual attention in the areas where they need it most, without having to leave the room. Therefore, their academic level very easily compares to, and even exceeds, a parallel-age child in a 'normal' school.
Life skills are the focal point of the educational curriculum. Proper toileting habits, eating habits, posture and behavior during sessions are vital lessons of the day. A major milestone was accomplished when the entire class was finally able to master walking down the corridor of the school, quietly, hands at the sides, straight gait, etc. They did not attract any attention because they are 'special'; they very well blended into the rest of the school population. However, these things don't come easily. I t takes the 3 teachers days and weeks of teaching something as simple as 'Keep Your Hands To Yourself'. But because of their perseverance, success prevails.
Now imagine taking these ten students and scattering them in ten 'normal' classes, with an aide to help them. Can a teacher who has 30 students even begin to understand the needs (or the pace) of this 'special' student? Can the 'special" student comprehend the fluency and speed of speech that is spoken around him/her? Can the 'special' student absorb a lesson that is taught, repeated once, and then reviewed? Can the 'special' student control his/her behavioral shortcomings, which the special educator is specifically trained to handle, and the 'normal' children in the class really open-minded enough to understand the difference between themselves and the 'special' student? Can we 3expect such maturity from young children? Will they control their laughter when their 'special' classmate will 'act weird'? Will the 'special' student feel 'included' when he will constantly have to be pulled out for 'resource room' study, extra tutoring, and therapies, in an environment where he is the only one receiving these services?
'Inclusion' is wonderful; more in theory than in practice. I have observed my son during the summer when he spent 2 weeks up in the country with us, after his 7 week camp stay was over. Moishey attended day camp with the 'normal' kids. Because the older bunk of boys had only one counselor, and Moishey is a handful, he had to be placed with 4 year old boys in a bunk where there were two counselors and they managed better. I must say that I wasn't thrilled that he was with 4 year olds. Moishey does have some behavioral problems; he is a tremendous manipulator and he doesn't listen to rules, buy on the other hand he can very well handle educational and recreational activities that are appropriate for his age. His toileting and eating habits are 'par excellence' and he can definitely serve as a teacher for younger children. Yet, when Moishey got into one of his moods, and started to perform loudly, the children's eyes almost popped out; 'Who was this nutty kid?!' I observed these episodes from the far without anybody being aware that I was watching; therefore I know that whatever I saw was really what it was.
So, I have convinced myself that our weekly 'Shabbos morning Kokosh Cake' breakfast get-togethers at my parents' home with my siblings and their children, is the perfect 'inclusion' setting for Moishey. Neighbors and their children are also perfect company for Moishey. As for schooling, please give me those 3 teachers who have years of experience, skills, college degrees, training, are themselves very often relatives of 'special' children, and leave the 'inclusion' for coffee break time.
This article first appeared in issue #4 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us