Creating Inclusive, Diverse, Compassionate Communities
“Because you might be caregivers someday, I want you to learn compassion with your algebra.” ~ Judy Willis, MD, neurologist, teacher and author of Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom
We’re Baaaaack! Hello my dear Marshmallow Peeps! How we have missed talking with you over the summer. We hope you all had lovely summers and are slowly getting used to being back in the throes of the school year.
Yes, it is hard to believe, but another school year is upon us and my parental brain is buzzing with thoughts, worries, and aspirations regarding this year’s scholastic trajectory. I was sharing some of my thoughts and concerns with Maki as my daughter went back to school, (she went back in mid-August while Maki’s son just went back earlier this month) and Maki, as always, said a few things to me that got me thinking. To back up slightly, as Maki and I were catching up on the phone, I was relaying to her the things that were tripping up my daughter as she started at her new school. For the first few weeks, my daughter was coming home exhausted and overwhelmed. As soon as she would arrive home, for the first half-hour, she’d frantically pace about the house, bouncing off the corners of the room like some runaway pinball, spewing her thoughts out loud in a stream of consciousness, Beat Poet-like riff. The girl was in total overload mode. As I observed her, I thought to myself, “Well, she will get used to her new routine…” quickly followed by, “Is that a good thing?” It got me contemplating the structure of our current public education system and wondering who exactly it is best serving. Before I continue, I just want to be very clear that I support public education and think it is extremely important for our future that an equitable education is available to all. That said, I often think about how public education could be better.
So, as I told Maki about my daughter’s reaction to her new school, I asked her what I could do to better support her through this transition. While Maki didn’t really have a concrete answer for me, she said this, “I always feel conflicted, [is] school a prep for real life or is it a microcosm of real life made slightly worse? I just don’t know– but it’s the only time in life we’re expected to be good at EVERYTHING [and judged accordingly].” Hmmmm, yes, well it’s no wonder my kiddo is stressed out! Which also begs the question, in this stressed out state, how much is my daughter actually able to take in and learn? And subsequently, if she is operating in a state of constant overload– which we can all agree is not optimal for learning, how is this affecting how she sees herself as a student? How much of my daughter’s self-perception is being formed and reinforced by her experiences at school?
According to neurologist and educator, Dr. Judy Willis, “Children cannot be pushed through a developmental stage. They need time to assimilate information before passing to a higher cognitive level. The confusion and frustration caused by developmentally inappropriate lessons [in the classroom] can lead to withdrawal from active learning, disruptive behavior, and decreased motivation and confidence.” Gah! So what are we doing here in our current system? Why are we continuing to insist upon packing the curriculum with more and more material?
How do we help our kiddos get through this mess with their self-esteem in tact? Well, Maki just recently uploaded a very practical little post from the good people at Understood.org on our Facebook page to help caregivers support their kiddos with difficult school transitions. In addition to these strategies, I think it is important to look at the greater structures at our disposal in order to help support our kids if they are struggling and overwhelmed. I’m talking about the various communities that intersect our lives.
These communities will be different from person to person, but essentially what we all need for our struggling kiddos is to buttress their school experience with a counter weight, of sorts. A counter weight that comes in the form of an inclusive, diverse, and compassionate community. What constitutes a community in this case? Well, it can take on many forms. But at the heart of it, I’m talking about creating and/ or finding spaces where all students and (parents/ caregivers) know and accept “that everyone is unique– physically, emotionally, in the rate at which their brains develop, and in the way their brains learn.” (Willis, Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom) Outside of school, maybe this is found through a Dungeons & Dragons group that meets once every other week. Maybe it is a band or a youth orchestra, sports, or dance program or a volunteer opportunity. Basically, it is finding a community of people where your child feels useful and can feel valued for what they inherently and uniquely bring to the table. When value is placed on the social/ emotional health of each individual child and their unique type of intelligence*, space is given for each kid to learn and grow in their own way because they are comfortable with themselves and feel safe enough to be themselves.
If this attitude can also exist in the classroom, well, then all the better. “It is especially important that teachers demonstrate their own appreciation of differences and remain open to teachable moments that unite the class as a community. A team benefits from a diversity of specialized skills.” (Willis, Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom) When a group has lots of different perspectives, there are more opportunities to link disparate ideas together so they can spawn even better ideas. Diversity and creativity are inextricably linked. It is important that our children should feel valued for their unique perspectives because every human movement starts with the individual and an idea.
So, as this school year kicks off, think about honoring different perspectives and multiple learning styles. Encourage your kids’ schools to do the same. Remember that some of the most valuable qualities in life are not necessarily automatically recognized or rewarded at school. Empathy and generosity of spirit, self-determination, self-confidence and a calm enthusiastic mind, to name a few, are vitally important qualities that are overlooked in many schools. At home, as much as possible, model and reward the behaviors and values you want to see in your children. Try to show it instead of just verbally telling them about it. When your kids see you walk the walk instead of just talking the talk, they are more likely to behave in the way they see you behaving. By taking this on at home, maybe, just maybe, it opens up the possibility of true inclusivity catching on at school. It’s worth a try.
*Types of Intelligence:
Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner developed a theory that intelligence is made up of different and distinct learning profiles that can work individually or together. He called these learning styles “intelligences” and he lists them as such: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist intelligence, and emotional intelligence.
The Plan, Brain and Heart comic by Nick Seluk