Being present is not the same as being included: more thoughts on inclusion in the classroom

Inclusion is a bit of a buzz word, I guess. It is thrown around to assure everyone that schools are supportive and understanding of students with extra support needs. But the reality of attending school as a Neurodivergent person is a bit more complicated than being told you are included.

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image above: green circle with the words ‘A persons physical presence in an environment is not actually an indication that they are included in a meaningful way.’

It is possible for a persons presence in an environment to be treated in such a tokenistic way that being “included” actually makes them more of a victim, and no one notices because it is called “inclusion” and words like “positive” and “support” are used.

Let’s talk about school again for a bit.

The way the school system is set up relies on compliance to work.

Everything is on a schedule, even eating, drinking and bathroom use.

Read for 15 mins, spelling for 15 mins, write for 30 mins. Be quiet, concentrate, keep up. If you don’t, you are “falling behind”. If the pace set is too slow, too bad. Even unstructured time has a structure….. sit here to eat, walk in lines, no running on concrete, only play on the equipment on Tuesday, etc. etc. etc.

If you are a person who finds it difficult or undesirable to comply it is likely that you will do things that will be labelled as “problems” or “defiant” or “troublesome”. You are likely to be subject to a behaviour management technique known as “Positive Behaviour Support”.

PBS is there to encourage compliance.

The teachers track and log “problem behaviours”. They look for patterns, then devise solutions for the kids to comply with. They do sometimes change the environment or schedule (this is when it can work well), by my experience is usually that they “teach” the kids a strategy.

There is a strong emphasis on rewards, which sounds good….. unless what happens in reality is this: The high achieving, already compliant kids get lots of rewards, the kids who draw attention to themselves with “problem behaviour” get lots of rewards for doing little things that everyone else is just expected to do with no reward, and the kids who are “average” or manage to hold it together at school and achieve surface compliance get overlooked.

How does this impact students? Well, high achievers love it, unless they are singled out by other kids and labelled as ‘teachers pets’ or ‘favourites’ and experience shaming or bullying, or unless they just prefer to not be the centre of attention. The “problem behaviour kids” get lots of attention and rewards, leaving other kids (because kids are smart) realising the “problem kids” are being coerced with rewards to do very basic stuff – this often leads to resentment and frustration (eg “Mrs Sutton, I’ve been finishing my spelling test properly every single week, and I find them really hard, but I’ve *never* had a reward for it like {child} does” and “Mrs Sutton, can I please have a turn on the iPad this week, I haven’t had one yet this term because {child} always gets them in free time for not being noisy in maths”- both said to me when working as a relief teacher). The kids in the middle somewhere ….. they start to think that it doesn’t matter what they do they will never be good enough or get noticed. They are probably right.

There are other issues that contribute to the creating of victims within a system of “inclusion”.

If you ask for environmental accommodations, the school is limited in what they can do because of the availability/willingness of staff to supervise and the physical constraints of the existing buildings.

Teachers are not trained to support children with a variety of needs, learning styles, challenges, disabilities, or even really at different stages on the learning continuum. By this I don’t mean that all this is not mentioned at Uni or in classrooms. I mean that it is mentioned…. given lip service to… but ultimately teachers are neither properly trained or properly supported to do these things well.

The assessment system still requires teachers to measure against a standard, so they teach to that standard. Teaching to that standard requires a certain amount of time and paperwork, leaving the teacher tired, stretched beyond one persons mental, emotional and physical resources, and relying on compliance from the kids to get through it all.

So, back to PBS. Evidence based it may be, but I’m not convinced it is a good approach in schools. The evidence may prove it does what it says it will do. PBS identifies unwanted behaviours, and looks at when they are occurring, and tries to look at why and that information is used to devise strategies to eliminate behaviors.  But, we must ask: at what cost? and who gets to decide what behaviours are unwanted?

What if, for example, the behaviour identified is a coping behaviour? What if it is lashing out at kids in the playground, when usually the child is quiet and “well behaved” in class? The teachers might see that and think because it occurs in the playground it is being caused by something in the playground (reasonably logical assumption for a lot of kids). But what if the real cause is in the classroom and the child involved has been holding it together in the classroom because the rule there is ‘be quiet and concentrate on your work’? The teachers might be insisting on the wrong change. Then when that doesn’t work they slowly but surely revert to strategies like shaming and punishment without looking further. The child becomes overwhelmed then and shuts down. The behaviour stops. The PBS is deemed effective. The child is traumatised, but now there is no behaviour to track, so no one notices or cares. Backs are patted and outcomes are achieved. Inclusion and mainstreaming are deemed successful. Celebrations all around, but what really happened was a child was broken.

Then, because it “worked” for some kids, when it doesn’t work for others (remember the “problem behaviour kids”?) they are labelled as “just disruptive” and the goals for them become condescending things like “doesn’t disrupt others learning”. Their presence is tolerated, but the teachers pretty much give up on them and just want them to not interfere. These are the kids who later on it will be recognised “slipped through the cracks”. We aren’t told the system failed them, because admitting that would mean we’d have to look at the system, and besides…. it worked for everyone else, didn’t it?

The other thing PBS fails to take into account is effort. It is assumed that  high achievement equals high effort and low achievement equals low effort. We know this not to be true. In my family I have one son who barely tries and archives top marks, and one who tries so hard he exhausts himself, but still can’t “keep up” with his age peers. PBS requires effort from the kids, but does not acknowledge that high effort can still result in not meeting goals set for you by other people who do not understand the real problem.

One thing I have found over the years is that consistently, when I presented my document about my son to the new years teacher/s, the ones who choose to implement my suggestions have without fail commented to me at some stage in the year that the whole class was benefitting from the changes they made for L. Simple strategies can prevent the “need” for behaviour modification programs.

I also want to say that my Autistic kids aren’t the only ones I feel are failed by PBS. 10 yr old K is happy at school, involved in many extra creative and performing arts activities, and achieving well academically. Last week she said to me “I just don’t get chosen for awards, Mum. I try and try, and I think I’m doing well, but the teachers don’t notice”.

I  would love to see someone ask  kids how they find PBS, as it is done to them.

I think that is probably the key to why I object to it, actually. It is done *to* the kids and for the benefit of the teachers. Learning should not be done to someone. Teachers are seen as gatekeepers, not partners. If the student does’t do it the teachers way they are “wrong”. The teacher is not seen as having an obligation to figure out how to do it differently to support the child, the child is expected to respond to being shown how to do it the teachers way, then become “successful” using the strategies imposed on them.

In my sons years in school he had one teacher who really understood that. My son flourished in that class. He loved it. It was the best year ever for him, and every year at school after that was a slide further into frustration until we pulled him out in favour of homeschooling.

The rub for me is I am a big supporter of both public education and inclusion, but I cannot wait for things to change while my kids attend. It is not safe for them. They are at home, and I continue to advocate for change while people look at me incredulously because “why should you care? your Autistic kids aren’t even at school!!”

The fact is, I care because all children miss out when we fail to approach education from a mindset of inclusion. I have non-Autistic children attending school (because they want to). I want them to be able to attend a school that accepts their siblings and supports them well. That is not going to happen in the next 10 years. The system as it stands is too broken.

For inclusion to be real, and successful, it requires measures to be put in place in the planning phase. Those things need to be physical, structural, environmental, and taken into account when drawing up plans for buildings. They need consider the social, emotional and academic needs of students and be taught to teachers while they are training. They need to be included in policy document and curriculum.

While inclusion continues to be an afterthought to satisfy policy makers and quiet those who celebrate diversity but are seen as dissenters, the education system will remain a dangerous place for my Autistic children to be. But I will keep speaking out in support of real inclusion and real acceptance of diversity.

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