Friday, September 14, 2007

Encouraging Tolerance and Acceptance in Public Schools

(No, this is not the ‘Acceptance’ post that I keep saying I’m going to write. But I have started it…)

I’ve been thinking about tolerance and acceptance for a while now, and with the Bear’s entry into Kindergarten the subject is very top of mind. Recently (at least in ‘Ian time’) Kristina posted What is your dream autism school? over at AutismVox. One of the comments particularly struck me:

"The public school’s sole responsibility is to educate children. It is not the public school’s responsibility to dictate sociological norms, ethical norms, and religious norms. The public schools have repeatedly displayed time and time again that they will never be able to adequately parent a child. The society that expects a public school to parent to the children they teach is always weakened by that expectation."

To which I responded:

"Other than on the last one (religious norms) and softening the word ‘dictate’ (I would suggest something between disseminate and encourage) I would disagree. Part of educating children is teaching them about the rights and responsibilities that come with being part of society. Building ‘good citizens’ has been an implicit - where not explicit - part of the public school agenda since the beginning of universal public education, in the U.S. and much of the world. In the Western world the rise of the nation-state and the introduction of universal public education went hand in hand. This is not the same thing as ‘parenting’.

Teaching tolerance and acceptance of diversity is a legitimate social goal, especially as societies themselves become increasingly diverse. At least in my daughter’s school this is stated as one of the benefits - for the entire student population - of inclusion."

What amazed me in the back and forth that followed was that there should even be any debate about this. (What didn’t surprise me was the typical practice of responding to ‘what I want to say you wrote’ rather than what I actually did write.) Regardless of whether public schools ARE teaching tolerance and acceptance – which is a different, although related issue - do people not feel that teaching tolerance and acceptance of others is one of the school system’s responsibilities?

To those who argue that the school’s responsibility is to educate, do they not feel that social education is also part of this? Children do not sit isolated in cubicles but are part of a classroom and a school, and ultimately of a community and a society. Are schools not responsible – along with parents - for teaching students how to behave, interact, and treat others in that classroom, school, community and society?

To be clear, I'm not arguing against educating autistic children in separate classrooms or separate schools (or private schools), where appropriate, required, or desired by the family. Instead, I am stating what I believe is the responsibility of the public education system to all students and to society.

In the Bear’s first ‘Friday file’ (the school batches up a lot of communication into a folder that is sent home every Friday, to be read and initialed by parents for return on Monday morning) was a pamphlet entitled “Safe and caring schools”. In this the School Board stressed the importance of school safety, and that this is a shared responsibility between the school, the student, and parents. The Board indicated that:

"We work with parents and the community to help children and teens develop social skills and appropriate behaviours as they learn and grow. We teach all children about safety, healthy choices and positive values and behaviour."

Further, the pamphlet indicated that it is the school's responsibility to (among other items):

”- teach positive behaviour and good citizenship"

" - teach acceptance of and respect for others”

and that it is the student’s responsibility to (among other items):

" - be courteous to fellow students and staff"

" - show respect for the rights and feelings of others"

Parents also have the responsibility to look for ways to reinforce the same messages at home.

The School Board further indicated that "We do not tolerate violence, harassment, racism, verbal and physical abuse, bullying, fighting… intimidation… or any other dangerous, detrimental or inappropriate behaviour" and also that "there are clear consequences for inappropriate behaviour". At a minimum, the School Board has at least accepted and taken ownership of this responsibility.

Some might say that this is just a pamphlet, paying lip service to concepts that are quickly forgotten. But at least in the Bear’s school, this appears not to be the case. In various ongoing talks with the principal and the ASD coordinator, they both have specifically indicated that the school takes a very inclusive approach, where possible, and that one of the benefits of this was that of teaching tolerance and acceptance to all of the children. They also indicated that they ‘buddy-up’ special needs children with peers and older children to help them fit in and find support within the wider school environment. The policy is not one of forced inclusion (there are other options available besides mainstreaming, where appropriate), but of accommodation and support within the school and community environment.

My neighbour’s children previously attended the same school (the youngest finished her last year there in June, before moving on to the next school level this September). I had earlier asked them about whether there were any autistic children at the school, how they were treated, etc., and specifically asked about bullying. The younger child was a ‘buddy’ to one of the autistic children, and indicated that the child was an accepted part of the group and was fun to play with. She considered him a friend. She and the rest of her family also indicated that bullying was not tolerated, and that it was not an issue at the school or in the community.

Since the Bear is new to the school, I can’t say how well the school system will ultimately live up to these ideals in her case. But what I can say is that these principles are an accepted part of school policy and appear to be part of the school and community culture. Today when I dropped the Bear off I talked to the EA about how she was doing, and how well she was interacting with the other children. One of my questions was ‘How well are the other children accepting her?’ So far so good. I indicated that I thought it was just as important that the other children learn to accept the Bear as it was for her to interact with them, and the EA strongly indicated her agreement.

In Ontario, we’re now in the middle of a provincial election campaign. One of the big issues is public school funding, and whether it should be extended to religious schools. I’m not going to dive into the issue, but what I would say is that all three major parties are committed to the idea of Ontario schools being a place of social integration. The party supporting the extension of funding to religious schools is discussing the issue at least in part in terms of bringing them into the public system, teaching the standard curriculum and adhering to provincial guidelines. The parties opposed to this reject the move in part as being counter to the objective of integrating various cultures and religions within the public school system. What is interesting is that all parties appear to see schools as a method of integrating various cultures within a multicultural society, not via conformity but through tolerance and acceptance of differences and diversity.

This is not to say that we don’t have problems, or that everything works here. There are major issues connected with public education in this province (including funding), as well as social issues that need to be addressed. But I would suggest that the idea of the school system being an agent of societal integration, with a mandate to encourage tolerance and acceptance, is a very mainstream idea in this province.

I believe that one of the things we need to work towards is ensuring that autistics are ‘just another group’ towards whom tolerance and acceptance is extended, accepting autistics for who they are now and for whom they will become. Regardless of whether one takes a neurodiversity perspective, a ‘cure’ perspective, or is within the great swath of opinion in between, we all have an interest in having society accept autistics, and accept and endorse the right of accommodation where required. This is one of the areas in which presumably the whole community of those touched by autism could agree? For those who take a neurodiversity perspective I’d suggest that this is probably obvious, but even for those pursuing a cure, presumably the rights of autistic children to acceptance and accommodation as autistics should be accepted and respected until their cure is achieved?

Social change can sometimes happen quickly, but some changes take time to permeate through society. The public school system is probably the most universal of all social programs (the Ministry of Transportation / DMV probably comes close, but it would be difficult to teach acceptance of diversity as part of a driving test). If we do not expect – and where necessary, demand – that the school systems take ownership of their responsibility to teach tolerance and acceptance to the next generation, and ingrain this within society - and hold them accountable for doing so - then who instead do we expect to do this?

Maybe Oprah?

Again, I fail to see why this is controversial.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Ch.. Ch.. Ch.. Ch.. Changes

Today marked the transition of the Bear from pre-schooler to student. She bravely marched into her combined Jr and Sr Kindergarten class, head held high, backpack on, and, well, a little tearful. But her day went well.

Everyone accidentally overslept this morning, and despite the previous night's preparations for the Bear’s first day at school, of course everything went wrong. Wrong snacks, wrong clothes, no 'first day artwork’ done, etc., and no time to make everything right.

I also missed taking the Bear’s ‘first day of school’ picture. Momma Bear has a picture of her first day at school, taken on the driveway before heading out, and I thought it might be a good tradition to follow. But with the rush and a big outburst of tears I thought that this might not be a Kodak moment. Without a picture we can let glossy memories fill the void.

I drove the Bear to school, as we do not have bus service ‘there’. We couldn’t arrange transport between the Bear’s IBI program – which is ‘out of area’ - and school, and the bus pickup time was unworkable unless we could teleport the Bear home. Once there I put her backpack on her and walked her across the parking lot to the Kindergarten door, and her EA came out to meet her. The Bear was a bit tearful, but walked in, and I had a very brief chat with the EA regarding the contents of her backpack, etc.

“What do we do if she cries?” the EA asked. “Well, give us a call and I guess I’ll come and pick her up”, I answered, thinking with my overprotective pre-school hat. The EA gave me a look and I realized that no, that was no longer an appropriate answer, if it ever was. “How do you calm her down?” came back a second question. I gave a lame answer and then it was time to go. I mentioned that I would be back at 3:00 PM, just in case there was an issue with the Bear taking the bus for the first time - feeling like the overprotective Dad that I told myself I would not be - kissed her goodbye, and left.

When I came back just before 3:00 PM, the buses were lined up, and three short buses were parked nearby. I went up to the drivers and asked if any of them had the Bear on their list. One did, and I introduced myself. I also asked if the bus driver had the same understanding I did (from the ASD coordinator) that the bus would come up our driveway. Nope.

I went back over to the school, met a couple of other ‘first day’ parents, and then the EA - who was helping with bus duty - came out. She said that the Bear had a GREAT first day. She was interested, looked all around the classroom, taking everything in, and went up to the other children and tapped or gently poked them - a cross between “Hello” and a curious “Who are you?” She ate her snack, only one diaper change, and she was now sitting in the Gym with the rest of the school, lined up in their bus routes. Would I like to go in and take a look?

I went in and was quite impressed with the efficiency with which everyone was being organized for the trip home. And in her line of two was the Bear, sitting and lounging back on the backpack she was wearing, smiling, and quite content to take it all in. Eventually she sat up and started crying. The EA went over to comfort her, while I deliberately stayed away and went outside.

Soon enough the kids came out and got on their assigned buses. The Bear came out and was still crying, until the EA took off her backpack. The tears stopped immediately. Dad kicked himself that he did not acclimatize the Bear to the backpack over the summer like he was supposed to have done. The backpack was fine, as long as someone else carried it. I think the Bear is destined for management.

She was supposed to get on her bus, but the EA first checked her seat and noticed that there was no child seat for her. She called over the bus coordinator and (nicely) called on him to make the obvious decision that it was not safe for her. So the Bear went home with me, while the EA indicated that she would immediately get the process started to get a seat installed for the Bear. Another issue, but I was impressed that the EA was conscientious enough to catch this and deal with it. On the way back to the car I noticed that the other two small buses had lots of children on them, which was also a relief. The ‘short bus’ was normal transportation here, rather than a source of stigma.

So, all round it was a slightly mixed up day with a few issues, but the Bear had a good first start, which is the most important thing. She is no longer a pre-schooler, but a public school veteran. Tomorrow she has her first full day, with IBI in the morning and Kindergarten in the afternoon, so we’ll see how that goes. But given how well the first day went, I think that the Bear might adapt to Kindergarten just fine.