Thornapple Kellogg — When Vicky Damico takes her students at Lee Elementary to activities around the school – recess, gym, holiday parties, etc. – she’s not always sure how the activity will go. As the teacher of Lee’s classroom for students with autism spectrum disorder, many of her students do not communicate verbally and can sometimes struggle with regulating themselves in loud or chaotic environments.
But when they do go, Damico says, they love it.
They’re students like Ozzy Fredenburg, who enjoyed attending a gym class with general-education student Jackson Stone, a third-grader who made sure Ozzy scored multiple points as the students threw red bean bags into buckets on the gym floor. Jackson used different types of communication, like high-fives and claps, to encourage Ozzie and to celebrate his efforts. All of this happened naturally, without an ounce of awkwardness from Jackson.
The reason Jackson might be so comfortable playing with students from Damico’s classroom? He and other general-education students at Lee have been taking part in a new program designed to build understanding and develop connections among students of all abilities. Damico created the program, called “Choose to Include,” alongside gen-ed third-grade teacher Vikki Boersma, whose son uses a wheelchair.
“We wanted everyone to be aware that we all kinda work different, and it’s cool – it’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Boersma.
Each month, students are learning about different challenges, such as vision impairment, epilepsy, Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. Many of the monthly themes have direct connections to staff or students at Lee. The goal, said Boersma, is to help everyone in the school community feel comfortable when, for example, a student is having a seizure or experiencing emotional dysregulation.
“In my classroom…we talk about different emotions and what we can control, so if someone is having a little breakdown, they’re not scared of that,” said Boersma. “Instead of running away from it, a lot of (students) come towards them and ask ‘Can I help you?’”
‘They’re Just Kids Together’
According to Principal Angela Jefferson, Lee students are having no problem embracing the spirit of the Choose to Include program.
“We have great kids. We see evidence of this day in and day out of them including each other and taking care of one another,” she said.
‘Kids are naturally accepting… (their) hearts are always in the right places.’– Vikki Boersma, third-grade teacher
Part of the new emphasis on inclusion at Lee is intentionally connecting students like Ozzy with general-education students. Classes regularly sign up to take part in activities with students from Damico’s class.
“We go to snack with one of the classes and when my kids walk in they’re very comfortable in there … and you can see it both ways,” she said. “They’re just kids together.”
During Autism Awareness Month in April, students at Lee will get the chance to create their own special way to communicate – a board, a picture, or anything else they might dream up – to experience what it’s like for nonverbal students in Damico’s classroom to interact with the world.
“We all have a different way of doing things. Just because (my students) would not be able to say (something) doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say,” Damico said.
Like the rest of the inclusion activities this year at Lee, Boersma foresees her students having no problems with the assignment.
“Kids are naturally accepting,” she said. “(Their) hearts are always in the right places.”
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