The Wonderwood Academy presents
a new model of inclusion.
Since Sue Buckley’s ground-breaking research on inclusion, we have all been working together to achieve inclusive education for students with Down syndrome. Parents have fought for it. Administrators have broadened minds and policies. Teachers have accepted students of all ability levels and made super-human efforts to modify assignments, give generous amounts of individual attention, and learn new techniques. It has been one of the most revolutionary efforts in the history of public education.
“Step One” of the inclusion program has paid off, and elementary school students with Down syndrome have benefited tremendously from the examples of their peers. Because many students with Down syndrome are gifted in the ability to imitate, close association with peers has resulted in better speech, broader knowledge across every subject, and delightful social abilities.
Rather than resting on our laurels, however, it is time for the Down syndrome support community to take a careful look at how successful the current model of inclusion has been for students in the upper grades. We are seeing a serious decline, beginning about age 14 for most students in inclusion programs. Here are some of the indications that it is time for a revision of the current inclusion model:
- Greater than ninety percent of high school students with Down syndrome are no longer included in any general education academic classes. “Inclusion” now means these students attend gym, art, or choir with their peers, but spend the majority of their day in functional skills training alongside other intellectually disabled students. While typical students are developing independence, self-motivation, verbal and written communication skills, and fundamental skills in technology, math, history, and science, students with Down syndrome are on the outer fringes of both the cultural and the intellectual atmosphere of the high school.
- Social and emotional progress slows. While some students enjoy an active social life during high school despite the limited inclusion, many become isolated from the mainstream. Some students’ speech difficulties become an obstacle that excludes them from social integration. Students are more likely to feel discouraged, less willing to work hard, and less successful. The behaviors and widely differing abilities of other students in the functional skills programs may generate emotional distress, reduce stimulation, and motivate less advanced verbal interactions in students with Down syndrome.
- Mental progress slows. The intellectual gap between students with Down syndrome and their peers widens. As high school teachers move away from hands-on teaching and incline toward lecturing, students with Down syndrome tune out instructions, fail to process important verbal information, and miss the important right-brain input that helps retention. Their strengths, such as learning processes and patterns, fail to help them understand complex textbooks and discussions.
- Parents and teachers lower expectations. While other high school students prepare for college, parents of students with Down syndrome are persuaded to plan on transition programs that will “train” their students to ride the bus, wash dishes, or work a few hours a week at menial and less-than-challenging tasks.
- By the time they have turned 22, when other students are physically active, socially independent, skilled in technology, and preparing to start families and jobs, students with Down syndrome are “transitioning” to a period of stagnation, dependence, and inactivity. From that point on, most adults with Down syndrome will spend the greater portion of every day at home, with very limited social interaction and very few prospects for further progress. “Inclusion,” which seemed to be working during the early school years, has failed to result in inclusion in life.
Introducing: Inclusion — The Next Generation.
A new model of inclusion that works for older students with Down syndrome looks like this:
- During high school, students with Down syndrome are strongly encouraged to attend academic classes with typical students for up to three quarters of each day, including computer technology, health, science, government, financial literacy, and courses in the particular area of the student’s interest, such as food science or graphic arts. Essential points of each class’s curriculum are identified for particular focus. Peers and students with Down syndrome form partnerships that benefit both students. During the remaining hours of the day, students attend academic classes at their specific level of ability, and typical peers help teach and provide the repetition needed for mastery.
- For those students who still struggle with articulate speech to the extent that it becomes a barrier to their social integration and future success, speech therapy intensifies. Emphasis is placed on pacing syllables, articulating each sound, and using appropriate volume.
- Students’ families continue to teach life skills by supporting integration into the community and gradually shifting responsibility for self management, transportation, finances, and organization to the student.
- During the transition time between high school and age 22, when typical students are in college, students with Down syndrome also attend college, shadowing full-time students, participating in campus activities, and having experiences that prepare them to choose a job that is meaningful to them. During this impressionable time, those with Down syndrome learn to live an included adult life. They attend community events, choose to independently participate in public recreational activities, and exercise alongside typical college-age individuals.
- Because of these years of frequent interaction with community members, and because they have continued to study and gain marketable skills, young adults with Down syndrome are now better prepared to make connections that lead to meaningful employment. Through challenging work, self-motivation, and community activities, they have now found ways to lead a fully inclusive lifestyle that will not have ended when they “aged out” of the public support system.