By Dan Coulter
I think kids need each other. Kids don’t just learn from parents and teachers, they learn from other kids. One of the most important lessons they can learn is how to get along with people who don’t look or think or act exactly like they do.
That’s why I believe everyone -- typical kids, gifted kids, and kids with special needs -- should be interacting in schools. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to advanced placement classes or self-contained classrooms for special needs kids. I’m in favor of these kinds of groupings, as long as they’re really designed as the best way to teach the students involved -- and are not an excuse to isolate kids from each other for reasons that don't benefit the children.
Whenever it’s practical, I think it’s good to have kids with special needs in mainstream classes with other kids -- and to have schools actively support positive interactions between kids of all ability levels in and out of class. Active support is crucial here. Special needs kids interacting with typically developing classmates without adequate supervision and support can get eaten alive.
There are a range of conditions such as Asperger Syndrome, Higher Functioning Autism, Pervasive Developmental Delay, Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder (the list goes on and on), that can make kids appear different to their classmates. Many of these kids have normal to superior intelligence and can do the academic work that’s required in regular or advanced classes. Their differences, however, can serve as a wall between them and their peers. Maybe one has a processing problem that makes his speech slow, a second is sensitive to loud noises and a third has a hard time making conversation.
If the other kids in the class avoid these kids because of their differences, they may never find out that one is an expert on fish, another is an astronomy prodigy and a third can do complex math problems in her head. Or, the “different” kids may actually have similar interests to their typically developing classmates.
While these artificial walls isolate kids who are different, they also diminish the other kids in the class. Not only do they miss out on knowing some interesting classmates, they risk forming a habit of only seeking out and associating with people who look and act like themselves. Countries are becoming more culturally diverse. National economies have largely merged into a global economy. Kids who learn to investigate differences and interact with a variety of people will have a tremendous advantage when they leave school and enter the real world – and kids who don’t will be at a disadvantage. When we judge people only by their differences and don’t look any deeper, it’s easy to make false assumptions or to miss opportunities.
I got a lesson about making assumptions when I worked in the corporate world. In a team-building exercise, I was with a group of co-workers given a challenge to cross a pretend river. Standing in a field, we were given some wooden two-by-fours to make a narrow bridge. As a team, we had to figure out how to lay the boards across some rocks so we could all cross the “river” without stepping off the boards. There were some other conditions that made it a brain teaser to lay out the boards and get us all across inside the allowed time limit.
To make it more interesting, one of our group had a bandana placed over her eyes and was labeled, “blind.” We gamely took on the project and managed to get everyone across the river. That was when the folks running the exercise evaluated how we’d treated our blind colleague. While we had carefully guided her over the boards, we hadn’t once asked her advice or tried to include her in our planning. We’d seen her only as a liability.
Suppose the “blind” person was actually the smartest and most inventive in the group? What if she’d been an engineer? We’d ignored her possible contributions because we hadn’t even tried to look past her disability.
It’s easy for most of a student body to do the same thing with kids in “special ed” or kids in regular classes who are a bit different. Whatever these kids’ capabilities or challenges, classmates will never know what they might contribute if we don’t actively encourage kids of all stripes to interact in positive ways.
That’s why schools need programs and materials to educate all students to look past differences and see reasons to connect. These sorts of connections can help every kid. They can help students with serious disabilities learn to deal with others and be as self-sufficient as possible, making more of them employable and fewer of them candidates for public assistance. They can help typical and non-typical students see each others’ strengths. They can help gifted students see the benefits of sharing their gifts unselfishly. And they can encourage an entire student body to become the enlightened, compassionate people whom we want running the world in the next generation.
I’ve seen this kind of culture in a number of schools. I’d love to see us commit to develop it in all our schools. The widespread creation of school anti-bullying programs is a big step in the right direction.
Academics are important, but helping kids learn to reach out to each other as human beings can be the glue that holds us together as the world gets more complex.
Our kids need more than degrees.
Our kids need each other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the videos, “INTRICATE MINDS II: Understanding Elementary School Classmates with Asperger Syndrome” and “INTRICATE MINDS III: Understanding Elementary School Classmates Who Think Differently.” You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter (Revised 2014) All Rights Reserved Used By Permission