Yesterday I headed out to our elementary school in Taber, St. Patrick, and visited our pre-kindergarten program, “Playful Spirits.” I was invited by our Pre-K leader, Mrs. Lastuka, to participate in her room’s celebration of Austism Awareness Day. I knew I was in for a treat when I was told to wear blue and be prepared to play. Mrs. Lastuka had partnered with the grade 4/5 class and together the “bigs” and “littles” played in blue sand, painted, colored eggs, decorated blue puzzle pieces and read books. Tucking my tie into my shirt, I had a great time “playing” with the children. As a superintendent, it is these times, around the children, that I miss the most!!!
However, there were a couple of things that made that morning a very powerful learning experience for me. The first was when we all gathered on the carpet and listened to a mother of an autistic child speak about autism. She spoke of some symptoms and challenges that faced the autistic child in simple language that was clearly understood by all of the students. It was about him, about their family and about all of us! Why do I say about us? Well, the statistics are alarming as autism affects 1 in 88 children and in particular 1 in 54 boys. And so, learning the signs and creating a better understanding is crucial. This is especially critical for our schools so that we can give the gift of doing and witness the gift of being. The understanding and the ability to work and play together is what community is all about.
And that leads me to my second powerful learning of the day, the importance of COMMUNITY. When I wasn’t coloring eggs or painting a puzzle piece I stood back and just observed. What did I see? Children, as young as three and as old as ten, interacting together without any barriers. There was no ‘we’ and ‘they,’ only a collective ‘us.’ There was only community, where everyone was accepted and welcomed. Yesterday’s event may have been the finest example of inclusion that you are going to find. Inclusion is not about space, but about community. Community is that relationship where ALL childrens’ gifts are recognized and celebrated.
The 1/2 hour drive back to Lethbridge allowed me to reflect on the morning. We’ve come a long way since the days when I began teaching high school in the mid 80’s. Back then, we really didn’t spend much time or effort, as regular classroom teachers, on diverse learning needs. In fact, when the student didn’t “get it,” or just acted differently, we just sent them to another place or into a different stream. We still have miles to go on our journey, but it is promising when we now focus on the assets of the children and what they can do instead of the deficits and what they can’t do. Our children, and ultimately our society, will be far better off when we can experience that type of community in our classrooms. Because that community will build a world of acceptance and support for ALL!