My middle son, who has severe disabilities, turns three in September (I’ll call him James). Time to start considering preschools! This, it turns out, is an entirely different task than it was when we decided for our oldest typical son. There is an educational trend toward full inclusion of special needs students in a typical classroom. Even severely disabled kids. Here‘s a nice summary of research and some of the pros and cons.
Inclusion seemed like a good idea in theory. Special needs kids learn from peers and emulate peers. Better to supply peers who are not exclusively disabled. Moreover, it could be beneficial to the typical kids, as long as it didn’t distract them. Learning to deal with people who have very different mental lives from one’s own is vital to true maturity.
Obviously, inclusion is more easily accommodated with milder disabilities. If any severely disabled kid would be a good candidate for inclusion, I think it would be James. He is non-ambulatory, which of course makes it more difficult. But other than that, he’s a good pick. His cognitive skills are at about the developmental level of a 12-18 month old child. His social skills, however, are higher – at about 18-24 months. He is more aware of his environment than many kids with his level of disability. He is extremely socially interested, and especially interested in what other kids do. On playdates, he frequently imitates the other kids. He’s not at all aggressive. Indeed, his disposition is insanely easy-going (we like to say he has mood swings from merely pleased to absolutely thrilled). He never has temper tantrums, and he is impervious to noise and crowds (it is something of a joke in our family that when there is a loud noise, it is our oldest typical kid who will be covering his ears and having a complete meltdown – not our special needs kid).
If James goes into our county’s preschool program, he will be placed in a program that only includes kids with severe and profound disabilities. Basically, as long as you’re non-ambulatory, that’s where you go. The county school system is well-funded and has a good reputation. The ARC runs a private preschool near us that is full inclusion. Typical kids to the most severely disabled. This is somewhat unusual in practice at the preschool level, so I was really excited to visit. So we took a tour.
In a classroom of about 15 kids, there were one or two who appeared more disabled than James, and the rest higher-functioning. Maybe a third to a half were typical. That seems like a good mix. I don’t want him to be the most disabled or least disabled kid in the class. But there were only three adults. That teacher-student ratio is more than adequate for typical kids. But severely disabled kids need some serious attention. My kid can’t get in and out of a chair by himself. He often can’t reach toys he wants. He’s apt at any given moment to put something in his mouth he’s not supposed to. And he’s basically non-verbal, so he can’t ask for help. If you’re attending to him, he can make his desires perfectly clear, but if you’re paying attention to a zillion other kids, it’s not going to work. He is never one to forcefully demand attention.
The classroom floor was entirely linoleum, which surprised me. Like many severely disabled non-ambulatory kids, James gets around on the floor (in his case, a bizarre patented one-sided-commando-crawl-barrel-roll — it ain’t pretty, but he gets wherever he needs to go). He will explore his environment for hours on the floor, and gets extremely antsy if he’s in his wheelchair too long. Also like many severely disabled kids, he is apt to topple over suddenly when sitting. So how was he ever going to get safely out of his wheelchair? Would he be stuck in there all day because that would be easiest on the teachers? I asked about this, and the tour guide suggested I get my kid a helmet. When I replied that a simpler solution might be a play area with a couple of gym mats, she didn’t respond.
In the playground, I saw two kids in wheelchairs being walked around in circles. They were not being put in swings, or helped down a slide.
There may well be wonderful full inclusion programs. Maybe James will attend one someday. But what I saw was a preschool for typical or mildly disabled kids that seemed to have no concept of a good environment for severely disabled kids. If full inclusion is actually achievable to the benefit of all, it requires an enormous amount of planning and care. I saw good intentions, but no planning. I would rather he miss out on having typical peers than be in a classroom that can’t handle his needs.