My daughter with Down syndrome is almost done with grade school. In a few days, I’ll be meeting with her current special education teacher and the middle school special education teacher to discuss what middle school will look like for my child.

I have been dreading this transition since the day she started kindergarten.

My daughter has been included in a regular classroom since she was 4 years old. She has, for the most part, always been accepted by her peers and teachers. She has never had a teacher who has successfully modified curriculum for her when she is in the typical classroom, but that is another story for another time. Through school, she has received occupational, physical and speech therapies, and she has always had a special education teacher who works with her towards academic goals — more specifically reading and math. This means that while she is for most purposes “fully included,” she has spent time outside the typical classroom for her therapies and special education program, which is therefore not considered on paper as full inclusion. If a child’s main teacher is the regular teacher and they spend a majority of time in the typical classroom, we often call this “full-inclusion,” when it’s technically not.

But how does this balance work in middle school?

This is the part where I tell you I wish I could go back in time. But I can’t.

In the last two years, I have gotten to know the middle school special education teacher from several interactions at school. I really like her. Not only that, when she saw my daughter’s name on her list of incoming students, she approached me to tell me how excited she was to have my kid in her class. I too, look forward to my child being in her classroom. But most students in her class spend the majority of the day with her, which is the opposite of what we have done to this point. I have had some conversations with the teacher and she seems very supportive of my child being included in as many regular classes as she can participate in.

My husband and I have been talking at length about what inclusion will look like for her this coming year. We have a schedule of the classes a typical sixth-grader takes, and we are taking a step back as we discuss: can our daughter really, truly keep up with these classes? Science. Math. Social Studies. English. Physical Education.

Because the regular curriculum is not accessible to her (adapted for her needs but also considering where she is at academically) and she does not have a one-on-one para, she often sits through classes she cannot keep up with. Long lectures of topics she cannot academically master leave her on the sidelines. Her reading is lagging behind compared to her peers, which also affects her ability and quality of learning. We found a video she made during a class where she tells the camera, “I have no idea what my teacher is talking about.” While it’s funny, this video also opened our eyes to the everyday reality of our daughter’s access to learning.

Because my daughter has Down syndrome, it means she has an intellectual disability. She can learn, but she absolutely needs to have an accessible curriculum and some one-on-one learning. 

So for the first time we are rethinking inclusion, or at least questioning how we have been doing it. We are also considering her strengths and the areas where she needs help.

What does inclusion mean for our child?

My kid could be in a science class if we want her to, but with her level of literacy and math comprehension, is that fair for her? Can she really learn best — the basis of inclusion — in the regular classroom if she has to sit through a class lecture she cannot follow and at a level that is not accessible to her? And if she has adapted curriculum, it falls under a paraprofessional (usually) to go through the lesson, but when would this happen? Not while the main teacher is presenting, so the last five minutes? Between classes? During study hall? So while all other students get an hour of solid teaching they can access without modifications, my kid would get just a fraction of that. 

I know all about the benefits of inclusion, and I do believe in them. But I also believe in setting up my child for success academically, but also emotionally and socially. For her, it could mean less time in a regular classroom as she moves on to sixth grade. And it may also mean making those times she is around her typical peers be opportunities where she can successfully join in and grow and learn. 

Ultimately, we want our child to look forward to going to school. We also want her to have friend (real friends) and those friendships most likely will be found in the special education classroom rather than connecting with typical peers in large classes where the focus is academic and there is limited social interaction.

I want my kid to feel happy, valued and successful at school, and to make that happen, we may have to rethink how we do inclusion. 

Is your child in middle school? What does inclusion look like for your child?

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