Teaching Children to be Inclusive


Our personal memories of exclusion can be our most powerful teachers of inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

A few days ago someone I follow on Facebook shared the following article: How to Teach Your Child to be an “Includer”. It’s an older article, so I found myself wondering if she was sharing this now because it felt particularly timely, or if it was more of an extension of her own consistent, personal commitment to inclusion. Either way, it resonated with me and had me immediately recalling a post that I wrote for this blog which was widely shared: Teach Your Children to Be Accepting of Disabilities. 

It’s easy to write blog posts and forget about them. We live in an age of immediacy. Often, if something doesn’t happen in the moment, it won’t happen at all. Instant gratification has become the norm, even when we know that delaying gratification and taking time to process and reflect can be critical. It’s why I pointed out the fact that the article shared a few days ago was written a few months ago. Life moves fast. So even when blog posts “do well” and people read and share widely, a week or two later those same pieces are forgotten; and citing something written a few months or even a year ago can seem outdated.

But in this case, I think the message bears repeating and re-sharing: We CAN teach our children to be accepting. We CAN teach our children to be “includers”. And, maybe most importantly, we CAN teach our children to be kind.

Children really will do what we do. We have the power to model for them each and every day. We have the power to teach, through our own actions, how to be kind, compassionate and inclusive.

Inclusive Teen Experiences



Creating Inclusive Teen Experiences; Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the highlights of my work is leading experiences with teens. I am passionate about adolescents and have relished each of my opportunities to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for nearly twenty years.

Building an inclusive teen program can be challenging, especially if you don't personally embrace a philosophy of inclusion. Unless you truly believe that every experience can and should be inclusive, you are bound to get stuck in notions such as, "Having her there takes something away from the other teens," and, "They shouldn't always have to look out for him." Until teen educators embrace the value of inclusion and recognize that an inclusive community is a stronger community for everyone, such fallacies will persist. I am exceptionally proud of the unique model we have built in our congregation. We have created a structure that affords all students, regardless of ability or need, the opportunity to participate fully. Including overnight experiences. And it works.

Synagogues across North America lament a significant decrease in engagement with Jewish life post-bar and bat mitzvah, but by offering a fully inclusive post b’nei mitzvah program, we maximize our students’ opportunities to continue learning, growing and engaging with Jewish life experiences. Further, we are socially engineering relationships between teens every step of the way, maximizing their potential for developing strong Jewish friendships. 

Professor Steven M. Cohen of HUC-JIR states that, “Jewish educators should have an explicit mission to bestow Jewish friendship networks on children and adults who are increasingly unlikely to find them on their own.”

Our teens are entitled to every Jewish opportunity possible. An inclusive program benefits everyone.

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Celebrating Our Mistakes

Is this inclusive? Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the things I most often discuss when leading inclusion training sessions to be more inclusive is the importance of reframing. We discuss reframing attitudes and reframing language, notions that tend to be fairly easy to understand, even if challenging to consistently apply.

Somehow, for teachers, the place they most get stuck is when it comes to reframing their lesson plans. Even with the right intentions, many teachers find it difficult to consistently design lessons with an eye toward inclusion.

There is also a lot that good teachers take for granted, especially in successful classrooms. I am guilty of this, too. When we have activities and strategies that have been successful, why would we think about changing them? Because to be truly inclusive is to look at every lesson, every activity, every strategy and ask ourselves, "is this inclusive?"

Accommodation isn't inclusion illustrates this concept. It might be "fine" to adapt an activity or add a component to it to make it more successful for specific students, but it is truly inclusive when we reframe the entire activity in a way that makes this addition a seamless part of the whole.

Celebrating Our Mistakes 
With thanks to Michelle Steinhart of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY for this excellent idea!

As teachers set up classrooms - organizing, labeling and decorating - many are also thinking about systems of behavior management. Most are reading student files and will reach out to begin getting to know their students before the school year even begins. Teachers may learn that a particular student is a "perfectionist", one who struggles to let work go when she thinks she has possibly made a mistake or who will have a meltdown when she does something "wrong". A typical system of behavior management (I am NOT a fan! Read why.) would likely have this student earning tickets or stars each time she is able to hand in an assignment with only one revision.

Reframe the system:

Celebrating Our Mistakes; Removing the Stumbling Block


Begin with a classroom discussion of making mistakes and failing as a part of the learning process. Create a system where each student gets to put a marble in the jar when he or she has made a mistake. Just as in other, more traditional systems, the class will earn a reward when the jar is full.

What's different? 
  • First, students are taught that mistakes are a part of the process of learning and growing. 
  • Next, the student who struggles to let work go or has a meltdown when he has made a mistake is no longer singled out. Rather, he is celebrated and comes to learn that he has something valuable to contribute to the classroom community. 
  • Finally, this is a system that celebrates diversity rather than penalizing students for not conforming to an arbitrary set of ideals.

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Prove That Every Student Counts

Uniqueness; Removing the Stumbling Block



See the child. 

It should really be that simple, right?

I think that for so many in the field of education, this seems like an obvious statement. See the child. Of course; that’s what educators are charged with after all, isn’t it? And yet, is it really happening? How many teachers develop preconceived notions about a student before they even meet based on a classification, a file or a teacher-to-teacher report? How many times do we allow ourselves to judge one another based on stereotypes, misconceptions or assumptions?

Some thoughts from my own behavior and practice:

Do not allow for preconceived notions.

In our school, I ensure that teachers have the information necessary to keep our children safe when school opens, but I intentionally wait a few sessions before sharing specific strategies and teacher-to-teacher information about classified students. Why? Because first impressions matter. No student should be underestimated based on his struggles from the year before. We shouldn't expect a student to behave poorly simply because she has had behavior issues in the past. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

When you encounter a child with a disability, speak directly to the child.
When you speak to a child’s caregiver, you automatically imply that the child is invisible. If you say hello to a child and she does not answer, it is likely that her parent or caregiver will step in to help facilitate the conversation. But it is on their terms. Ever say hello to a shy toddler? When she grips an adult’s leg, the adult typically says, “she’s shy”. This is the same concept. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

Involve children in appropriate decisions.
Just as you would involve neurotypical children in their own decision-making when it becomes developmentally appropriate, do the same for children with disabilities. Ask them to be involved in increasingly more mature decisions such as what they might like to wear or eat, what interests them and what they believe their strengths and weaknesses might be. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

Avoid assumptions.
Children with disabilities are unique. All children are unique! A child may have a classification of autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD or a learning disability; but that doesn’t mean he will demonstrate the same behaviors and competencies as someone else with the same diagnosis. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

Every child counts. It really can be that simple.




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