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The First Day of School and Following a Child's Lead

Jenna Garrett, mom to JoLynn, shared a great story recently about the first day of school and some things she came to understand about inclusion and her daughter:
Scientific literature demonstrates that there is “clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings confer substantial benefits for students with AND without disabilities.” IDEA (a federal law) establishes that disabled children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive (read: most inclusive) environment. Furthermore, isn’t inclusion just “the right thing to do?”
In the 18 preschool meetings that I have attended in the last 6 months, I have cited these studies and federal laws. I carry them in my back pocket like a security blanket, or a weapon. Everyone is enthusiastically on board with “inclusion”. But I have learned that in practice, sometimes that just means the child will be given the chance to prove they can be just like everyone else. Or, that they will be allowed to sit on the outskirts as long as they don’t cause too much trouble. I started to believe that meaningful inclusion is complicated and fraught, perhaps even unrealistic.
Today was JoLynn’s first day at a new preschool. I came into the day with trepidation, she with excitement. We arrived early and stopped in a coffee shop, where she beat me to the counter to place a hopeful order for a “PB & J and a really juicy peach. Can you cut them into 4 pieces, please?” We walked into her new school and she greeted each new face with a cheerful, “Hey buddy! I’m going to Montessori school today to do some work!” She found her name on her cubby and proudly showed me, “J-o spells Jo! This is mine, mommy. This is my spot.” She marched into her classroom with a heavy leafy plant in hand, spilling a little dirt and moving with a slightly awkward gait, her curls bouncing and her face beaming, without so much of a backwards glance at me.
I learned today that if her parents, educators, and peers can all learn to follow her lead, I have nothing more to fear about inclusion. I will continue to show up with pages of research and detailed lists of adaptive supports and goals. But all of it will be for nothing if we take our eyes off her and miss the obvious truth that she exudes with clumsy, loud, cheerful self assuredness:
Jo belongs here, just as she is.