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COMMENTARY: Matthew's journey was a learning curveball that tested inclusion's limits

Inclusion, as it is practised today in a classroom setting, did not work for Matthew. It did not work for his teachers, nor did it work for the other students. No one came out better because of it. It held everyone back in many different ways.
I am not an advocate for inclusion (as it stands now). Before you jump all over me, relax for a minute. I am not in favour of "segregation," either, writes Tracey Hilliard. (Wikimedia Commons)


There are problems with inclusion in the classroom. Someone was finally brave enough to say it out loud, and not just someone: a teacher. Thank you, Sally Capstick. Thank you for standing up for all the children in your class, and thank you for wanting the best learning environments possible for all your students.

I am not an advocate for inclusion (as it stands now). Before you jump all over me, relax for a minute. I am not in favour of "segregation," either.

I speak today without a Masters in Special Education behind my name and without a psychology degree hanging on my wall. My decision to speak today is brought to you by the letters ASD, NLD, and ADHD. Does this make me an expert? Sure does. It makes me an expert with 20 years' experience — 14 of those years saw me front and centre with a vested interest in my son’s education.

Early in my son’s Grade Primary year, we knew he was having a hard time settling. Group activities weren’t his thing. Getting him to pay attention was like pulling teeth. He wasn’t blending in with his classmates. He was a year older than most students because of his birthday. Back then, he had to be five by Sept. 30. His birthday was Oct. 7. I didn’t push sending him early because I knew he wasn’t ready. Now I was quickly seeing that even though he was older (in age), he certainly wasn’t more mature socially. Actually, he seemed quite behind the other children socially. So started our journey.

In April of Matthew’s Grade Primary year, he was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Medication was recommended. After much discussion, debating and researching, his father and I decided this was our next step. The results were immediately noticeable. Matthew could focus for longer periods of time. He was more willing to participate in class activities and sat at his desk without crying.

Even though he made great progress, his teacher and principal felt it would be best to have him repeat his Grade Primary year. That’s right. He didn’t "grade." He did not move to Grade 1 with his peers. Why? Because he did not meet the necessary requirements set forth by the Department of Education to allow him to advance to the next grade level. He didn’t have the basics he needed to go forward with his learning. While he did show great improvement, there were concepts and tasks he still needed to grasp.

Was it devastating? Absolutely. Looking at my son and telling him that he would not be "grading" on what was to be his first “grading day” was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do as a parent. Knowing it was for the best, in the long run, we did what we had to do, commended Matthew on his progress and explained that his next school year would see him continue to build on what he needed to get to Grade 1.

And he did. But now he would be two years older than his peers. What was this going to mean? Unbeknownst to us at the time, it actually meant that Matthew would fit in better with his peers. Socially, he was lacking in many of the innate concepts of socializing that you and I can sometimes take for granted.

Upon reaching Grade 1, Matthew started exhibiting different issues. Frustration and lack of self-confidence became quite apparent, especially to his teacher. Rather than copy work from the board, Matthew would fidget with items in his desk. He came home crying every day, saying he hated school.

He was a smart boy. He could grasp any concept he wanted. Why was he having so much trouble in school?

His teacher recommended a psycho-educational assessment but explained that it might not happen for a while. In the meantime, his father and I worked tirelessly to get him through the year. Homework was hours of tears and frustration for all of us. The simplest of tasks was absolutely daunting. Printing out spelling words five times each was exhausting. School shouldn’t be this draining on a child. I couldn’t imagine how he was feeling in the classroom if this was what I was seeing sitting at the kitchen table at home.

Early in Grade 2, the psych-ed assessment showed that Matthew lived with a nonverbal learning disorder and a reading disability. What? Considered to be neurologically based, nonverbal learning disorder, otherwise known as nonverbal learning disability (NLD or NVLD), is characterized by verbal strengths as well as visual-spatial, motor and social skills deficits.

Once we read the material provided to us by the school psychologist, we came to understand that, indeed, Matthew was frustrated in ways we couldn’t imagine because there were tasks that he simply could not complete without some modifications or adaptations to his program.

Once a few changes were made, we could see a drastic improvement almost immediately. While Matthew didn’t have the dexterity to write his spelling words five times each, he could spell them verbally for fun. He could also form words by typing on a keyboard or by using magnetic letters. He was feeling accomplished instead of defeated. When he had three math problems to complete on a page instead of 20, he didn’t become overwhelmed and he could focus long enough to correctly complete the exercise.

Though many questions were answered with the latest diagnosis, Matthew’s father and I knew there was still something more. We went ahead with private testing during the summer of Grade 2 and Grade 3. A further diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) was added to Matthew’s already complex educational journey.

Thankfully, Matthew was assigned a teacher’s assistant for the following three years of elementary school. An individualized program plan (IPP) was designed that allowed him to succeed, and we began to see an increase in his self-confidence. Slowly, his frustration levels began to drop and he was able to learn the way he needed to.

With a transition to junior high quickly approaching, we were faced with a new set of challenges. How would Matthew manage changing classrooms for each subject? How would he keep his subject material organized? How would he find his way through a maze of students coming toward him at every angle?

It wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t have the coping mechanisms necessary to successfully navigate the "typical" junior high school environment. Were we setting him up for failure and frustration once again after working so hard to have him achieve some success?

It was decided that Matthew needed a stable environment to learn. He needed routine and he needed consistency above anything else. The learning environment of a "typical" classroom setting was not conducive to his needs. Matthew was introduced to the Learning Centre at the junior high school he would be attending. With several other issues at hand, we were able to secure a full-time teacher’s assistant to transition with him for his first year — Grade 7. Even though the next few years presented challenge after challenge, Matthew continued to learn and advance.

Before we knew it, high school was just around the corner. With a much better grasp of what Matthew required, we set out to find the program and school that could best meet his needs. Again, it was determined that the Learning Centre at his chosen high school would promote achievement. With the help of the LC teacher who had the most of the resources she needed, Matthew had the best three years of his entire school experience from grades 10 to 12.

Why have I written about this at length? In order to show how inclusion failed and could have continued to fail Matthew, had he been left in a "typical" classroom setting. In the younger grades, the resources were not available to give him the learning tools that he required. When he was placed in an environment where he had the means to succeed, the sky was the limit.

He was not "segregated." He was not locked away from his peers to be forgotten about. He was where he needed to be to receive the education that he was entitled to receive, regardless of the means necessary to obtain it.

Inclusion was part of Matthew’s program in many ways. One or two classes per semester were adequate to achieve social integration with his peers. Anything more than that for him would have been more detrimental than beneficial. Inclusion was in the form of classes where he wasn’t required to sit at a desk for 60 to 75 minutes taking notes off a board and listening to lectures that would overwhelm him more than they would assist him.

He would join his peers during an art or woodworking class, where he wouldn’t be confined to a desk. He could create and learn in a manner that allowed him to move around and focus more on gross motor skills than struggling with fine motor skills such as note-taking in the company of his peers. Promoting success.

Inclusion, as it is practised today in a classroom setting, did not work for Matthew. It did not work for his teachers, nor did it work for the other students. No one came out better because of it. It held everyone back in many different ways.

Recent statistics show that 20 per cent of students have learning disabilities while five per cent follow IPPs. I would suggest that these numbers are well below average. Our teachers are required to teach a classroom of, on average, 25 students. So, for the sake of discussion, of those 25 students, on average, five have learning disabilities (which may not be "significant" enough to warrant IPPs) and 1.25, on average, might be following an IPP. This teacher may or may not have a teacher’s assistant in the classroom, yet is expected to deliver the curriculum to all 25 and promote success for each of them. How is this possible?

If five of the 25 students were visually impaired and one student was hearing impaired, how could the teacher perform her duties to the best of her abilities given little to no resources? Would inclusion be in the best interests of the visually and hearing impaired students in this classroom? And what about the other 19 students? Should their level of education be compromised because the teacher is doing her best to make sure those who needed extra assistance had it?

On paper, it might look like inclusion would work wonderfully, but at the end of the day, in the real world, it doesn’t. At least not the way it stands now. Inclusion can be as simple as spending recess with peers or attending gym class. There are many instances where inclusion in typical classroom settings harms more than it helps. I just gave you one example of one student. I’m sure teachers and other parents can share many more stories like Matthew’s.

The teaching environment in our classrooms has changed drastically over the last number of years. Teachers no longer teach the same page out of the same book to the entire class. Times have changed and the ways our teachers used to teach is a distant memory.

Our education system must reflect that.

Not having the money or the resources is no longer an acceptable response.

Perhaps if teachers, parents and students were able to give input on what could work best and how implementations could be applied to benefit the overall outcome, we would see a return of an education system that would actually educate our students instead of pushing them through with less than the bare essentials. We must reclaim the rights our students have to learn while allowing our teachers to do it the way they were intended to.

Our system is broken. Our teachers and our students are paying the price.

As a society, we all have to take the steps to make it workable for all.

Tracey Hilliard lives in Albert Bridge, Cape Breton