Tips for Achieving an Inclusive K-12 Education
For thousands of Albertan families returning to school is an exciting time. But for many parents pursuing an inclusive education for their child with developmental disabilities, one in which their child is well-supported to learn in a general education classroom alongside their same-age peers, back to school time can be fraught with anxiety, uncertainty, frustration, or fear. Asking for inclusive education from your neighbourhood school is your right as a parent, but unfortunately, it isn’t always honoured.
Pursuing an inclusive education is a heavily-researched and well-supported decision that has been proven to produce the best outcomes for children with developmental disabilities. Over forty years of research suggests that if your child is included in the general education classroom alongside their same age peers from kindergarten to grade 12 and beyond, in addition to better academic outcomes, your child will have:
- better health outcomes
- a greater likelihood of career and employment possibilities
- an increase in social relationships and networks
- improved communication
- a lower likelihood of experiencing abuse
Start by Sharing your Vision:
Building a collaborative relationship with your child’s school team is an essential ingredient to having a successful school year. As a parent, you know your child best, and you make the most significant investment in ensuring your child has an outstanding educational experience.
So, where do you start? Experience shows that it’s important to first share your vision for your child and their strengths at the start of every meeting. Your vision could describe what you hope this new school year will bring, what you see in the future for your child beyond school and your expectations for their learning.
Know your Rights – Standards for Special Education and The Education Act:
It’s good to remind yourself that your child belongs in the general education classroom, and for you to know that the inclusive setting, where the child is supported to learn alongside their same aged peers in the general education classroom, should be the first placement option considered by school authorities for all children with disabilities according to Alberta Education’s ‘Standards for Special Education’. The Standards for Special Education outline the expectations and requirements for how students with special education needs are educated within Alberta schools. The Standards are a Ministerial Order, giving them the force of law.
The Education Act is the law that establishes the rights of all students in the education system. Key areas from the act which may be relevant for students with developmental disabilities are:
- Part 1, Section 3: Right of Access to Education
- Part 1, Section 11, Subsection 4: Responsibility to Students
- Part 3, Division 1, Section 33.(e): Board Responsibilities
- Part 3, Division 5: Complex Education Needs Tribunal
Establish your Expectations:
Alongside sharing your vision and your child’s strengths with your school team, consider sharing the expectations you have for your child as a student in the classroom.
Here is an example of what learning expectations might look like:
- Student is given exposure to the same-age grade-level curriculum and program of study with appropriate accommodations and modifications as necessary.
- Student is given the opportunity to be a member of the class by taking on any student roles that others might do.
- Student is facilitated to capitalize on opportunities for friendships to grow and flourish through group projects, co-operative and side-by-side learning.
- Student is not expected to master every unit, but they will be challenged and will grow just like every other student.
What Supports are Needed for Success:
If you’re thinking about educational assistant support and what that might look like, this article, “The Golden Rule of Providing Support to Students in the Inclusive Classroom” by Julie Caustin-Theoharis, offers a careful analysis of adult support in the classroom. The article describes the various ways a student may be supported in the classroom and offers planning suggestions for inclusion.
You may have questions about how support is funded and what your rights are in asking for appropriate support. This article from our 2016 archives, “Education Funding in Alberta: Myth and Fact” (found on page 4) unpacks the funding method from the provincial level to the community school. The article is a few years old now, and while elements of the funding model have changed significantly in Alberta, the same ethical principle is relevant today. It reminds us that “the fundamental legal requirement of school districts is to provide every student with an appropriate education and as such, they are legally obligated to provide the necessary resources to this end.” The focus for parents should be only that their child is receiving an appropriate education. If a school tells you they ‘don’t have the resources to help your child’, it may be helpful to remind them that they are legally obligated to educate all students and provide the resources necessary to receive an appropriate education. For example, in Alberta, there is no legal right for a student to receive a dedicated full-time educational assistant; however, it is appropriate to discuss what an ‘appropriate education’ requires and as the article above suggests, “if a principal agrees that the student or teacher needs more support than is being offered, then there is a requirement to provide that support.”Nevertheless, quality inclusive education is rarely tied to a well-funded school instead, it is in the willingness and desire to be creative, curious, and committed where the greatest successes are seen.
The Learning Team Handbook is another helpful resource developed by the province of Alberta. The purpose of the handbook is to establish best practices for the teachers, principals and specialists involved in educating your child. In almost every district, you will find references in their administrative policies to ‘The Learning Team’ or ‘The School Learning Team.’ Familiarizing yourself with these best practices can be integral to ensuring your school is following what is expected of them when planning for an appropriate education for your child in the general education classroom. In particular:
- If you’d like to know who should be on the Learning Team, see Chapter 2 starting on page 9
- If you have questions about an Individualized Program Plan (IPP)/Individualized Learning Plan (ILP), check out page 28
- Tips for an effective IPP/ILP meeting can be found on page 33
Ten Tips for Successful School Meetings:
You may have several meetings throughout the school year, both scheduled by the school and others that you’ve called to address some concerns or to ask questions. Here are some tips for making these meetings more successful:
- Develop and share your vision with the school team ahead of any meeting. What do you hope your child will achieve in the week, month, or year ahead? Share your child’s talents, strengths, interests, and passions.
- Ensure you understand what any school meeting will be about and ask for an agenda (in writing by email is best) to allow time to prepare any questions or concerns you might have.
- Determine who will be at the meeting and evaluate if the right people are at the table to make the necessary decisions. If the person with the authority is not available, consider rescheduling until you’re able to have them present.
- If you called the meeting, develop an agenda and send a copy before the meeting. Take the time to write down and bring with you a list of questions and concerns you have and would like to have addressed. Sending this to the school staff prior to meeting will help them be prepared to address your concerns. If possible, try to keep your questions and concerns to three areas. Most people are unable to address more than three issues in one meeting.
- Know your rights as parents and your child’s rights as a student.
- Share the positives; let them know what is going well.
- Develop and come to agreement on a consistent, relevant method of communication between home and school, to ensure you know what is happening at school and how to support your child at home. Experience shows that many issues are related to inconsistent communication and misunderstandings.
- Share strategies that have worked for your child in the past and give examples if you can. Ask how the school will implement these strategies and in what ways they will monitor for success. Also ask the school how they will communicate this information to you, as well as their plan if strategies are not successful.
- Have someone attend the meetings with you (i.e. another family member or friend) who can take notes and be another set of ears at the meetings. Your supporter should also know and understand your vision for an inclusive life.
- Ask the school to involve their Inclusive Learning and District Support Services if they have not already done so. If they are involved, ask to see the contact notes from the Inclusive Learning team’s visits.
Most importantly, parents and guardians who are pursuing an inclusive education for their loved ones with a developmental disability should know that they are not alone. For over thirty years, there have been thousands of examples of successful inclusive education across the province and beyond. Get connected with others who are pursuing the same inclusive life as you envision, as it will be in our collaborative efforts that will eventually see real change.