SOESD / Learning Matters / Newsletter Archive / April 2007 / Making Friends – Inclusion in Action at Early Childhood Services
Making Friends – Inclusion in Action at Early Childhood Services
Pam Thompson Arbogast – EI/ECSE Supervisor
When you think back to your own childhood, what are the experiences you most treasure? As a parent what do you most want for your children, whether they are preschoolers, or adults raising their own families? As educators and therapists how do we judge “success” in our students? Our answers to these questions will vary certainly, but there will be some universal themes. We want our children, our students, to be accepted and included among their peers, we want them to have a full range of experiences at home, in the classroom and in the community that they can enjoy and learn from, and most of all, we want them to have friends.
An important core value of SOESD’s Early Childhood Services in Josephine County is to promote inclusion and community acceptance for people with disabilities. Our focus is on the youngest kids of course, those age 5 and under, but we believe that the work we are doing to foster understanding and friendship among preschool children with and without disabilities, has a ripple effect that spreads far into the future. It’s an effect felt by the children with disabilities whom we serve, their families, the typically developing children who attend our classes, their families, and the community. We are educating tomorrow’s parents, teachers, neighbors, and business people, and we believe that one of the most important things we can teach them is to value both the commonalities in our everyday experiences with each other and to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual.
Early Childhood Services offers inclusive placements for children with disabilities at community sites such as Head Start and other community preschools, as well as at the Little Learners (toddler) program at the Family Resource Center and the Gilbert Creek Child Development Center preschool. We have one of the highest rates of inclusive placements, as defined by the federal government, of any EI/ECSE program in Oregon. In community placements itinerant staff including an Early Intervention Specialist, Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, and Autism Consultant are available to consult regularly with regular preschool teachers about how they can modify their classrooms or adapt curriculum to ensure that all kids have the opportunity to participate. Direct services to children are provided at these sites using the naturally occurring routines and activities of the preschool, so that children with disabilities don’t have to be removed from the classroom to be served. Staff deftly weave work on language, cognitive and motor goals into play with blocks, “oobleck”, pirate ships, cooking projects and other fun activities. And they are there to recognize and carefully fan the sparks of a budding friendship.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak to some four and five year olds at Gilbert Creek Preschool about what it means to be a friend and to have a friend. The question was a little abstract, yet their responses showed insight beyond their years. “Be nice, kind and friendful” said Lindsay, “and no biting!” “Give gentle hugs and play nicely,” exclaimed Emily. “My friends teach me different tricks” beamed Spencer, “like I got a friend Haley—she taught me the trickiest one—I can do a cartwheel!” “I teach my friends silly walks,” bragged Evan as he proudly demonstrated. Others offered that “friends smile when they play together, they listen to each other, and they be nice to each other.”
The ease and quickness with which children answered this question might make it seem as if the development of friendships is a simple thing, but in truth, especially if one of the children has a disability, fostering that relationship requires purposeful planning of the environment and activities at the preschool, and adults who can support children as they learn to negotiate the conflicts that are part of being in a community of peers. Teachers, therapists and assistants at Gilbert Creek and other ECS supported sites can be seen interpreting the communicative attempts of a non-verbal child to a peer, creating or reading circle time stories that raise awareness and address issues of tolerance and acceptance, and teaching typically developing children some simple sign language that will help them better understand and be understood by their peers who use it to communicate. Staff actively teach social skills, such as how to get a friend’s attention (and what to do if they don’t respond), how to give a play idea, how to share, and how to give a compliment. A “solution kit” in each classroom comes complete with a set of laminated visual reminders (share, take turns, ask if you can trade, get an adult, find something else to play with, get a timer) that prompt children who are trying to solve problems with each other. The classroom library is stocked with books that tell stories of friendship, respect, and learning to manage feelings or resolve conflicts. Many of the books feature children with disabilities.
A recent interaction between two children at Gilbert Creek says it all. The girls, one of whom uses a wheelchair, were quizzing each other about their favorite activities. They listed many in common “Hey!” beamed Lily, “We’re the same!”
We’re not statisticians or researchers here, but we’ve been in business long enough to see the results of our efforts; a former typically developing preschooler who now aspires to be a music therapist, another former preschooler, now a young adult with ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome who delivered an inspiring graduation speech, and the many parents who return through the years to tell us stories of their children’s accomplishments. We feel fortunate to have been part of those early years.