A few weeks ago, I attended the 12th Annual Summer Inclusion Conference which was put on by the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education. I had been really looking forward to the conference as both a parent and an educator and I thought it would be helpful to bring information to the table that I had learned from other facets when discussions would come up next year about Colin's progress.
The one main thing that the conference taught me was that inclusion does work BUT it takes a lot of hard work on the part of the school AND home in order for a student to be successful. I'll be honest, that's what scares me the most about our upcoming year with Colin in an inclusive Kindergarten; ensuring that the work is being done from all sides to help him to be another successful student.
The keynote speakers on the first day were twins who spoke about their experiences of being raised together and learned through inclusive education. They were a brother (with DS) and sister (without DS) and both spoke of their experiences growing up together. They were not in the same schools most of their education until high school and the sister shared a lot of her anxieties that she was feeling prior to her brother joining her in high school. However, what she learned when he DID start attending was invaluable to both her and the other students in the school because he was such a valued member of their school. Because of those experiences today, she is extremely involved in the Down Syndrome community and has even led the siblings portion of the conference at the NDSC annual convention. It was great to get a perspective from someone OTHER THAN a parent or teacher.
While there were some other great talks that I listened to on the first day, the most valuable information I received was from a mom and son duo, Colleen and Shaun Tomko, whose talk was titled "Building Lifelong Visions: The Vision and Reality of Inclusion (Shaun's Journey)". That is where I got the most helpful information regarding inclusion. Colleen talked about why she thought inclusion was so important for Shaun and shared lots of pictures of him with his friends (his very typical friends) throughout his school years. She also shared with us "Shaun's Vision" which was something they wrote for Shaun for what they saw of his future and would share at every IEP meeting. Chris and I always shared what we wanted and expected for Colin but this would certainly be something that is invaluable to have in writing and share each year. It's a great way for everyone to know what we expect of Colin and his future. Unfortunately, there are still some stereotypes that exist in terms of what kind of job opportunities Colin will have when he is at that point and that's not what we see for him (although if that's what he WANTED we would also be ok with that as well). As Shaun got older, the Vision Statement changed so then it was written more FROM Shaun and what HE wanted.
I also listened to a talk on "self-regulation" which was geared more towards students with autism but I walked away with information that is also helpful for Colin. Self-regulation involves teaching students how to handle things they are feeling when they don't always know how to do that. The professor talked about how we ALL have self-regulation techniques (think about the things that YOU do when stressed or worried in different situations OR how you handle that stress and anxiety) but a lot of times, students with disabilities don't know how to do it or do not have the appropriate behaviors, so they need to be taught.
We are really excited at what opportunities lie ahead for Colin in the future because of including him in general education with his typical students. We see proof every single day with how Colin learns by modeling his peers (including his sister) and expect that there are so many things he will learn in a typical school environment. Unfortunately for Colin, everything takes a little bit of extra work (right down to learning appropriate play with peers) and we are willing to do what it takes for Colin to be successful. We just need it to also come from one of the most important places for him....SCHOOL.