Inclusion is a state of mind

At my mother’s request, over the years I’ve dialed down the amount I speak about my children here. And besides, they’re almost getting to the age that they can start reading my blog. But this post is all “mom” in Indulge me.

Laini, now 10 years old and in 4th grade, has been receiving special education services since she was 2.5 years old. I knew there was something “off” about her when she was around 8–9 months old, but as many new Moms do I kept pushing down the little voice that was telling me something was wrong. It wasn’t that obvious. It was little things…how she played with toys, how she reacted to people, how she was able to sit and entertain herself for hours (if I let her) without calling for attention. The pediatrician wouldn’t take my concerns seriously, so on my own I found out about Connecticut’s Birth to Three system and had her evaluated. Of course she qualified for services and that led to a diagnosis of PDD/NOS (pervasive developmental disorder/not otherwise specified) when she was about 2.5. PDD/NOS is a disorder that’s under the umbrella of Autism, but it’s higher-functioning. There are a lot of disorders under the Autism spectrum, including the more common-among-geeks, Asperger’s. Laini’s issues are part sensory, part NVLD (non-verbal learning disorder) with a little autism on the side.

Back in the day, I spent a lot of time learning everything I could about autism and PDD, talking to other parents, investigating therapies, etc. I even started a support group for families of children with special needs in Stamford that is still going strong without me. Laini made a lot of progress and by Kindergarten/1st grade it was in Laini’s best interest to ignore her “diagnosis” and just concentrate on her strengths and weaknesses. She was so high-functioning for many skills, that to treat her with an assumption of Autism was limiting what was offered for her. She is very bright.

She was always in the mainstream class, getting lots of services and support and she was doing okay. Her teachers loved her and for the most part she kept up with the class but I always felt that she wasn’t really understanding what she was doing. She just got good at memorizing what she needed to know when she needed to know it, and they let her get away with spacing out in class as long as she could come up with the right answer when asked. When Laini was first brought into the school district she was in a self-contained special education preschool with children with all sorts of labels and issues. I fought hard to get her in the mainstream classroom, and that’s where I thought she’d always be.

We moved to New Jersey for the schools. The school district we’re in now is one of the top districts in the state, and is up there on national rankings. Where Emily was at the very top of her class in Connecticut, she’s middle-of-the-pack here. I’m just glad she’s not behind.

At the first meeting with the special education folks here, I said that Laini was fully included in Connecticut and I wanted her to stay in a “regular” class.  After all, my only picture of a self-contained classroom was from Connecticut, where the kids were isolated because of extreme issues or behavioral problems. So Laini started out in a regular classroom, with aides and services. I agreed to resource room for Math and Language Arts. Even with an aide, Laini would be behind in the classroom. They move very fast here.

The teachers and staff at Laini’s school are excellent. It’s nice to be in a school where finances are the last reason considered when a decision is made. They don’t throw money away, but they want their test scores up and they’re not afraid to spend when it’s needed. After the mid-term report card, and based on conversations with Laini and the staff it was clear that it wasn’t working out. Laini was becoming frustrated, it was taking her 2.5–3.5 hours to finish her homework and she wasn’t getting basic concepts that I knew she should know. Her schedule was ridiculous. She was spending more time in the hallway going to resource or a related service provider (speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy) than she was in the classroom. The friends she was making were all kids with similar issues. She’s at the age (10) that she understands that she’s “different” than other kids and we’ve had to deal with that, while still working to keep her self esteem high and help her appreciate and embrace her strengths.

Last month, we made the hard decision to move Laini to the school’s LLD (learning and language disabled) class. My perception of a self-contained special education class where the kids are on track to bag groceries couldn’t be further from the truth. I observed the classroom before agreeing to move her, and I nearly cried. It was a room of 8 little Lainis! All the kids appeared to have similar issues. No resource room. They joined a larger “regular” class for lunch and specials. The classroom is physically smaller, the kids sit closer to the teacher and an aide walks around and makes sure the kids are on track through the whole lesson. I just knew…this was the perfect classroom for Laini. It didn’t make sense to have her struggle through another 3 months and move her next year. She has already been through so much change this year, but let’s get it over with this year so she can start fresh (and be with the same kids) next year.

The difference in only a couple of weeks is amazing. Laini knows the name of everyone in her class, which she has never done before. She calls them “her friends.” The curriculum is the same, so she’s working on the same lessons as she did before, but they’re broken down and presented in a way that she can now digest the material. The other day she announced that she got an “A” on a math test…she was so proud!

So as the subject says, inclusion is a state of mind. I have to believe that just because a large, cluttered classroom of 22 kids and a teacher is the way everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right. Many parents would kill to have their kids in a classroom of just 10 kids, with a teacher and an aide and where their child gets individualized learning all day long. I know there are people back in Connecticut who would be very disappointed that we did this. Our goal is still to get Laini back in a mainstream classroom. There is no reason to think that she won’t go to college, get married if she wants to and have a wonderful, independent life. But for now I can’t deny that my only objections to her being in this self-contained environment are my issues, not hers.


3 responses to “Inclusion is a state of mind”

  1. That’s good news. As long as she is happy and learning, you’re doing the right thing.

    I just can’t believe she is so old now! 10 years old! Wow!

  2. any chance you’d share your district with me? I live in NJ and seek a district that can help me determine inclusion as an option for a daughter who is same as yours, but only 4.5