The other day one of my kindergarten friends had a birthday. Every time someone in the inclusion kindergarten room has a birthday the classroom teacher has her kids make a book for the Birthday Star. Each child makes a page that says "_______ is my friend because…" The students draw a picture as the teachers go around and write each child's thoughts about their friend.
A lot of them end up reflecting typical kindergarten friendships–we play together, we sit at the same table, we have the same lunch box. For this friend in particular, I wasn't sure what to expect because, as can sometimes happen in an inclusion setting, this child tends to work alone during the day.
She has a different routine and classroom expectations. These types of adaptations make us adults worry that we aren't creating a good community for her. We worry that in-class isolation isn't appropriate and that it creates a wedge between the students in general education and special education.
As adults we worry about a lot of things. Is it fair to have different expectations for this student? What will the other kids think? Are we sending the message that this student is different? Would a smaller environment be better because it wouldn't so outwardly show the difference between the student and her peers? What about the other kids? Are they learning? Are their needs being met? All of these questions become a part of the ongoing conversation about how we are meeting every student’s needs in an inclusive setting.
So I watched the 5- and 6-year-olds nervously, wondering what their pictures would reflect about how they viewed the student. Did they even know the student? Did they think of her as a friend?
As I watched the class become absorbed in their work, their little heads down as they selected the perfect crayons and worked their hardest, I noticed something. They were taking this picture very, very seriously. In fact, their concentration on this particular birthday page was out of the ordinary. This was serious work. When we asked them why she was their friend we were given genuine answers.
Sure there were some of your typical "we play together" or "I like her," but the majority of comments were about what the student had done for them–drawn them pictures, colored a drawing they liked, or made a flag for the class. "One time she drew a picture and I really liked it." Their pictures all included the student's favorite things without a teacher telling them to do so.
They knew the student. They thought of her as a part of the class. They remembered little things she's done for them or special moments between her and the class. There wasn't one child I talked to who needed to be coached through coming up with a reason why they were friends.
Sometimes as adults we don't give kids enough credit. We worry about how they will handle an inclusive setting, how it will change the class dynamics, or if the kids will resent a student because of the different rules and expectations we make for him or her. Perhaps the students have a better understanding of what a class community is than we do.
In our classroom there has never been resentment or frustration. We don't hear, "but she gets to do it!" Without our adult interventions the classroom community built itself to include everyone. The kids are able to see that everyone belongs together as a group despite their different needs. They aren’t fazed by the different rules and schedules. Perhaps it is a lesson we as adults should learn from our students.