A Truly Socially Inclusive School Benefits Everyone | Edutopia
Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

A Truly Socially Inclusive School Benefits Everyone

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Can a school have a positive culture and climate when its special needs students are not strongly included in the mainstream of all of its activities? This is a question that is not posed often enough in the social-emotional and character development worlds, but it is asked constantly in the offices of Special Olympics International (SOI). Within SOI, Project UNIFY is tasked with creating programming that brings differently-abled students together in various forms of shared activities and purposes, focused on the mainstay of SOI, sports.

SOI and UNIFY just released a report, Project UNIFY: Social-Inclusion Lessons from the Field, describing the results of intensive site visits and case studies of 21 schools around the United States that have been implementing Project UNIFY successfully over the past few years. Below, I will describe UNIFY and share a quick summary of three of the case studies from the report:

What Is Project UNIFY?

Project UNIFY is Special Olympics' effort to create a constellation of programs for schools and communities, focused on sports, that respects the dignity of all youth and empowers them to act as agents of change for young people with intellectual disabilities. While students with intellectual disabilities are the focus, and have long been the impetus for Special Olympics' efforts, in practice, it is the genuine and respectful inclusion of all individuals (regardless of their specific abilities or lack thereof) that is desired.

The term that Project UNIFY uses often is "youth activation," and this refers to the need for everyone to see themselves as leaders and advocates for their own and others' well being. Among the strategies used by Project UNIFY are:

1. UNIFIED Sports involving youth with and without special needs developing skills and playing sports together both during school time (often as UNIFIED P.E.) and after school.

2. R-Word Campaigns involving youth getting together to create videos, assemblies, and other school-wide and community programs to eliminate the use of the word, "retarded."

3. Service-Learning and Leadership Development opportunities including inclusive Student Councils, Best Buddies, Youth Activation Councils, and Partners Clubs for join service project activities.

4. Young Athletes focused on toddlers and preschoolers and encouraging their motor development as a gateway to later sports participation.

5. Youth Summits and Forums where youth of varying abilities come together to share ideas, explore common social issues and community concerns, and generally enhance one another's common energy and capabilities.

6. Camp Shriver a summer sports camp for inclusive skill development and competition.

7. Community Awareness and Education which can happen through service projects as well as sport-linked activities like Fans in the Stands and UNIFIED Sports Pep Rallies and school or community-linked inclusive games and tournaments.

8. Volunteers which have always been the hallmark of SOI, are involved in coaching, skill development, organizing events, fundraising, and numerous other ways of supporting inclusive activity.

Social-emotional and character development (SECD) is at the core of how these programs work and succeed. SECD denotes the skills and attitudes needed for all of these activities to come to fruition and to continue past the "event" stage, to become integrated into the school and community culture and climate. So there is a strong and essential partnership between Project UNIFY's efforts to promote social inclusion and efforts that schools undertake to promote social-emotional learning and service, civic, and character education. Without social inclusion, can a school ultimately claim to be a school of character?

Social Inclusion as a Superordinate Value

All of the strategies and programs are designed to promote schools and communities in which the full and mutual inclusion of individuals with a range of abilities becomes the natural state. Social inclusion is viewed as a right, benefit, and value, not only for those who might have the kinds of labels traditionally provided by our special education systems, but for everyone. Those who have participated in Project UNIFY, and Special Olympics, more generally, can argue convincingly that those who have "done the including" have derived even more than those who have "been included."

Project UNIFY has extraordinary scope. It currently involves more than 2,300 schools across 47 states and has a growing international presence, as well. Over 37,000 Special Olympics athletes and 42,000 youth leaders are involved, with nearly 1,700,000 young people touched by UNIFY projects and activities. Between December 2011 and March, 2013, Project UNIFY team members visited 21 schools, conducting interviews, focus groups, document reviews and in other ways determining from all levels of the school and community what strategies were most effective in promoting genuine and deep social inclusion. This evaluation will serve as a springboard for follow-up studies on longer-term sustainability. But meanwhile, much was learned. A summary of three of the case studies follows; all 21 are in the full report.

White Pine Elementary School, Boise, Idaho

This school serves 468 students in grades PK-6. UNIFY started in PE, as a buddy program focused on fitness and friendship. Such programs focus on students helping one-another become more physically able while enjoying one another's company and building stronger relationships. This was extended to Reading Buddies and then Lunch Buddies. For more information, email Becca Anderson.

James C. Wright Middle School, Madison, Wisconsin

James C. Wright Middle School serves 242 students in grades 6-8, 83 percent of whom are Title I eligible. UNIFY is focused around an after-school leadership club enacting community service projects, such as Hoops for Heart and support of a local food pantry. This is part of a larger effort that extends into the school, via inclusive advisory periods, and an emphasis on a school culture and climate that is actively affirming and respectful. For more information, email Diana Miller.

New Iberia Senior High School, New Iberia, Louisiana

New Iberia Senior High School serves 1,591 students in grades 9-12, and when UNIFY started, the school had above-average dropout and special education rates. UNIFIED Sports was embraced by the football teams and coaches, leading to UNIFIED Flag Football including members of the Varsity and JV team. This has led to UNIFIED PE, an increase in socially inclusive activities after school, and much more active encouragement of special needs students trying out for and participating in a range of school sports clubs and activities. This has led to a transformation of the mission statement: "NIHS, together with families and the community, will create a superior educational experience for all students by offering a positive and innovative learning environment." For more information, email Cindy Landry.

In my next blog, I will share Project UNIFY's lessons learned about how you can make your school into a more inclusive school.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Wonderful information for the benefit of both Special Educators and General Educators.

Elvinah Obuya's picture
Elvinah Obuya
Learning support teacher from Arusha Tanzania

Interesting! I can't wait to read your next post. I agree with you that inclusion should not only be limited to classrooms but should be extended in all other areas so that we produce confident students. We do not have this in Arusha although we do have buddy reading. Having a lunch buddy is something i would like to try with my learners. I would also like to know how the you do inclusion in sports. As a special Ed. teacher with a passion to make a difference, I think this program is what my learners really need. I can't wait to learn more about SEL. May be I should be the person to introduce it. Thank you for the insight

Rachel's picture
Rachel
8th grade math/science special education 8th grade

I found this article very interesting. I have been doing a lot of research as it pertains to inclusion and resource room placements for students. Throughout this process I focused a lot on inclusion as it relates to a classroom setting, but I haven't thought of it enough as it relates to the child's experiences outside a classroom. I would love to implement a program like Project UNIFY to get a variety of children involved and to enable children to see inclusion more as the norm and less of a rarity.

Kaila's picture
Kaila
Special Education Teacher from Alberta, Canada

Thanks for the insightful information. This week I was approached by a parent who was looking for after school activities or groups for her daughter who has Asperger's Syndrome. We discussed the need to have her involved with "mainstream" kids, while stretching her outside of her inclusive classroom peer group. I suggested regular activities that any parent might consider such as art classes, sports, music groups. Cushioned by connecting with the instructor and including one or two friends, the young lady will benefit from the inclusive aspect of these activities. Your article provides critical insight on the positive impact that exceptional students have on others; it is a mutually beneficial experience, one that can shift the mindset and enrich society. Thank you! I look forward to future posts!

GS's picture

Thank you Maurice for the resourceful article. I am completely in agreement with majority of what you had said. The one topic that stood out was the "R-Word" Campaign and to create an environment to educate our youth about the impact of the word. This can be a hot button for many people and we can use a couple of ground rules for this difficult dialogue. If this pushes a hot button of the youth, it is ok for them to let the group know how it makes them feel. This can bring empathy and have the offender connect with each other. We should realize that we are all teacher and learners, and simply educating the youth on the impact of the word and how it offends people can go a long way. We should also focus on the behavior rather than the person because they have be getting this phrase from social media or media in general. A campaign can go a long way to changing the norm of this offensive phrase.

Janely's picture

The one topic that stood out was the "R-Word" Campaign and to create an environment to educate our youth about the impact of the word. This can be a hot button for many people and we can use a couple of ground rules for this difficult dialogue. If this pushes a hot button of the youth, it is ok for them to let the group know how it makes them feel. This can bring empathy and have the offender connect with each other. We should realize that we are all teacher and learners, and simply educating the youth on the impact of the word and how it offends people can go a long way. We should also focus on the behavior rather than the person because they have be getting this phrase from social media or media in general. A campaign can go a long way to changing the norm of this offensive phrase.

Colleen Barnhouse's picture
Colleen Barnhouse
Middle School Special Education Teacher

I found this to be a very enlightening article! This information can be used by all individuals in the field of education - general education teachers, special education teachers, administrators, paraeducators, etc. We have a lot to learn from each other, and this program supports the development of healthy, social relationships between all students. Creating a culture of sensitivity and respect is important and this article provided several ideas to keep in mind when working with inclusion. I loved the Service Learning and Leadership opportunities suggestion; all students have the ability to become leaders! Great article!

Lacey H's picture

I had the opportunity to be involved with Best Buddies and UNIFIED Sports when I was in high school. These programs are truly beneficial to everyone involved. Providing an environment where kids can develop diversity consciousness is such an important thing.
It's exciting to see that these types of programs are carrying on to higher education. At the University of Tennessee there is a program called FUTURE. "The FUTURE Postsecondary Education Program is a two-year course of study which empowers students to achieve gainful employment in the community." (http://futureut.utk.edu/) It's a newer program but it has been a success so far!

Parker's picture

I love the thought of tackling inclusion outside the classroom! I feel as though this will create a meaningful bond. This gives the students the ability to interact in a more social setting. Communication skills in the classroom are so beneficial for all students. They will begin to respect each other with the more they know of each other.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.