October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month and it gives us the chance to share with you what inclusion looks like here at West Side Christian School.
You may have already read our blogs from earlier this week about WSCS students Nolan and Alahni. Although you can notice a difference in how they look, think, and learn; these differences are only part their story! Like ALL children, Nolan and Alahni are image-bearers of God. God created each with unique gifts and purposes for His world!
WSCS plays an important role in developing these gifts. In celebrating Down Syndrome Awareness Month, we also want to celebrate that WSCS is an “inclusive” school.
What does that mean?
If you were to visit Nolan’s preschool class or Alahni’s 3rd grade class, you would see that both students learn alongside their peers in their general education classes. These students belong first to their general education classrooms, and support service staff work alongside general education teachers to plan and provide services that are tailored to their specific needs, and can include both in the classroom and individualized, out-of-classroom support. That’s inclusive education.
Children with Down syndrome often have many interests just like all children. The main difference is in the speed and amount of what the child might learn. For a child with Down syndrome, learning to read will likely take longer than it does for their peers.
Some children will be able to master only those words that are used in everyday conversations; it really varies. Here at West Side Christian, Alahni read a story to her classmates at the end of a project, and also recognizes the names of her third-grade classmates that are written on their desks.
Like their peers, children with Down syndrome also have strengths! They are often great visual learners and learn best by having the support of pictures, gestures, or objects. Nolan LOVES working on puzzles in his preschool classroom. Alahni LOVES to color pictures of almost anything.
Inclusion is about much more, however, than just academic services. Inclusion is also about relationships.
Alahni and Nolan’s classmates are their friends. They play with them, help them with things that are hard, and hang out on the playground with them. Beyond their classmates, students across the different grades know these students and count them as their friends. When Alahni and Nolan walk down the hall you’ll often hear fellow students greeting them by name and waving to them!
But inclusion isn’t just for the benefit of the students receiving inclusive services; all of our students and staff benefit from inclusive education.
Friendships formed and shared help develop abilities in all of our students to value and celebrate the ways God makes each of us unique. Because our inclusive students are in traditional classrooms, this kind of community is everyone’s normal. Learning and playing altogether is normal. Unique learning styles and needs is normal. Alahni’s classmates want to pair up with her to give spelling tests. Nolan joins groups making cakes at center time in preschool, and he’s welcomed in!
Students are experiencing and building community here that is intentionally focused on helping and serving. We talk about following Jesus’ example to love and serve. Inclusion provides opportunities for our students to tangibly put this into practice. Loving and serving includes patiently waiting for our friends who need more time to finish assignments and snacks. Looking out for them on the playground and choosing to do what they want to do. Accepting and giving affection differently than with their own friends.
Inclusive classrooms help all of our students understand and experience that everyone in our school is a reflection of their heavenly Father. Their friends with Down syndrome are a reflection of God himself. We see God in them! In Matthew 22 Jesus reminds us that the most important thing is that we love God and love our neighbors. When Alahni spontaneously hugs a friend and says “I love you!” she is reflecting God’s love, and like her teacher Mrs. Van Til noted, “she keeps us all grounded and reminds us that that’s what is most important. That we love each other and show love and speak love.”
“That’s more important than the lesson we are studying. That’s more important than the book we are reading. And that’s such a powerful and lifelong lesson for our students.”