A few months ago, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at The Matan Institute for Early Childhood Educators. My topic? Defining inclusion in order to build a classroom for all students. The audience? Thirty Jewish educators representing schools from five different states. All of these educators are already devoted not only to learning about best inclusion practices, but also dedicated to implementing them.
I truly wondered, “What can I teach these people that they don’t already know? What I can say that will be worthy of their time?”
So I began by telling them a story. The story of my one of my sons, who has disabilities. He started kindergarten this fall.
When we started thinking about his educational needs what I knew I wanted for him was the same sense of belonging I felt at Hebrew school as a child. Such a sense of belonging is especially important because I grew up in and live in a small and highly homogenized state.
For our son, we found a Jewish Day school that we loved. It had a small student to teacher ratio, a welcoming environment, a sense of community, a great curriculum, everything we hoped a school would be. Almost. Ultimately, I shared, we decided against it because it wasn’t equipped to handle our son’s needs.
“I don’t think that’s the fault of the school,” I told those educators. “I think they want to be inclusive, but I don’t think they’ve thought about how to be deliberately inclusive of Jewish kids with disabilities of any severity.” So the question I faced was, “Do I want my son to be the child around whom a school begins to define inclusion?” And the answer was no.
That’s because I don’t want any school to create a definition of inclusion that begins by looking at one child. I want schools to think about and embrace inclusion globally.
In my career, I’ve heard this word “inclusion” often. Inclusion is a hard concept to think about, let alone talk about and define. Even the very word “inclusion” implies that there is exclusion.
Without exclusion, we wouldn’t have to talk about inclusion because it would simply exist. The way to define inclusion isn’t by first defining exclusion. Inclusion isn’t the opposite of excluding one child; it’s building a place for all children.
After I told this story, I had my PowerPoint ready to go. I had things to say, points to make, teachings to expound upon. But then I asked my audience a question that changed the course of my keynote.
“How do you define inclusion?” I asked them.
And then we began a conversation. I heard stories of inclusion done well. I heard stories about the challenges of creating inclusive programs. I was told about parents who didn’t want their child to be in the same classroom as children with disabilities.
We talked about how to manage difficult situations, puzzled through real-life problems. We realized together there are no perfect answers, but that having other people of whom to ask the questions makes it much easier.
I stayed beyond my keynote speech for the next session and I shared lunch with the group. Because as I sat in this room full of earnest, eager Jewish educators, I realized I felt at home in a way I wasn’t able to put into words.
Maybe it was our shared mission, maybe it was our shared heritage, or maybe a combination of the two. But I felt accepted and at ease in a way I didn’t even notice until a few days later when I was telling somebody about the experience. I realized that’s what inclusion is. It’s what we want for our kids and what we are striving for—the feeling that you are at ease and belong without even having to think about it.
Inclusion isn’t a place. It isn’t something we can create specific parameters for and then put those parameters into place, expecting inclusion to happen. It’s a feeling of community. It’s a sense of belonging and when it’s there, you don’t even notice it.
I thought I was there to teach those educators something about inclusion, but in the end, they taught me something. I learned that even if you can’t always define something, you can still experience it.
Amanda Morin is an education writer and a special education advocate. She also holds a degree in education and has completed Special Education Law and Advocacy training. She uses her experience as an early interventionist, teacher and a special needs parent to inform her work. She is the author of three books, The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids’ Learning Activities Book and On-The-Go Fun For Kids. She is a contributing writer for Parenting Special Needs magazine and on the editorial team of Understood.org. Additionally, her work appears on many websites, including the the National Center for Learning Disabilities website, Education.com, PopSugar Moms and About.com.