Monday, May 6, 2013

The Straw That Broke The Mainstream Camel's Back

In my teeny tiny life span as a special needs mother, I have heard:

"I don't want my child to go to that program. There are SPECIAL NEEDS kids in that program! They will totally slow down my genius Johnny's progress!"


"I don't know if it's a good idea for sweet Susie to be in that program with typically developing children. It will hurt too much to see everything she's NOT doing compared to them. Plus, I'm not sure she can keep up with the fast paced environment. What good will it do her?"

I feel inadequate to write about the topic of mainstreaming in education at this point in my life since I haven't truly lived it from the parent's side. But in my experience with this little subset of students living with me day in, day out- I have noticed something that I would be remiss if I didn't share.

Let me back up for a minute. 

We have provided every available opportunity for Addison to be in therapy. Speech therapy, Physical therapy, Occupational Therapy, Behavioral Education Therapy. Those that have followed us for any length of time know that for three years, we had these four appointments almost weekly.

We have had the best of the best work with Addison one-on-one. Teaching with creative strategies, writing up long notes with observations of her strengths and weakness, discussing in great length her next goals, pushing her where she needed to be pushed, waiting where she needed to be waited on.

One of the big things we worked on with her OT was learning how to drink out of a straw. Addison was born with extremely low muscle tone around her mouth. I remember the NICU doctor telling me the morning of her g-tube surgery that hopefully SOMEDAY she would be able to enjoy food by mouth since it was one of the simple pleasures of life- but we would have to work very hard to get there...if at all.

Her very first OT was the one who helped coach me through teaching Addison to drink out of a bottle so that we could have her g-tube eventually removed. Then her next OT worked with me on trying to find a sippy cup that she would tolerate. Addison would take liquid in her mouth and then most of it would escape out the sides of her mouth before she could swallow. Alongside the cup work, we consistently kept going back to the straw- trying to somehow get this to work for her. Nope and nope.

Enter: Carter

Carter does not have trouble with low muscle tone around his mouth. In fact, lead him to a straw and he will hover vacuum up any and all liquid with a flourish. Well, back up a little bit more. It was when he started switching over to the sippy cup that Addison decided to make friends with a sippy cup (she did the best with the ones she stole from Carter). But since these sippy cups were really just tip-back-and-swallow types of deals, I didn't get too excited.

In Addison's IEP meeting last week, her OT was saying how Addison was doing so well out of an open cup (losing less liquid out the sides of her mouth) because of her good work with the sippy cups, but since she still would only bite the straw, we were just going to move on for now. Clearly, the straw and Addison were not friends and might never be.

The last few weeks I have had a bit of a thing for McDonalds strawberry banana smoothies. McDonalds is the only thing close to our house with a drive through, and this smoothie is one of the few things that I like there. 

Carter Henry learned very quickly that with minimal begging, he could participate in the goodness with a few sips out of the shared straw. When we were out and about, it was much more difficult to share with Addison. I would open the top of the cup, but Addison would end up getting it all over herself and it was a giant mess. Let's say it was one of the inconveniences I referenced in my last post. (JUST USE A STRAW ALREADY!!!!!!)

But what I didn't realize was that Addison was watching Carter. Even though she didn't express it, the mess must have been frustrating her as well because she was searching for an easier way to get that delicious smoothie in her mouth without wearing half of it.

To my embarrassment, I have to tell you- I had given up on Addison using a straw. We had worked so hard with much professional help- and her mouth just didn't seem capable of that kind of strength. So for the past few months I haven't worked with the straw use at all. It was too exhausting to keep teaching something she clearly didn't want to learn.

So Carter Henry took over with the lessons. He didn't realize it. He didn't plan it. He just did his thing- living with ease- sucking from a straw at every available opportunity with appropriate "mmmmmm"s and smiles of glee. While his student watched carefully, plotting and planning how she too might do this strange thing with such huge rewards.

Saturday was a very full day for us. We had lots of appointments and parties that caused a day of running around town. It was also a very hot day. What did this mean for a quick pit stop between events? A strawberry banana smoothie, of course.

I was sharing with Carter, eyeing Addison and trying to figure out a way to do this without getting her super cute her outfit covered in stains right before the next party. Tired and not willing to fight, I just stuck the straw in her mouth, expecting the usual biting and attempt to pull the straw out of the cup with her mouth.

You can imagine my shock and surprise when she quite calmly and effortlessly did this:

An onlooker wouldn't understand why such a simple act by a cute little girl would cause such a jaw dropping response. But the truth is? This was huge.

Did she just store up all of that teaching and decide one day to just give it a go? Did Carter really teach her? I truly think it was an equal combination of the great teaching she got plus her peer teacher that gave her the confidence to finally master this skill.
And that's where I bring this all back to mainstreaming education. If this was an isolated incident, perhaps that application would be a bit of a stretch for this story. But the truth isn that I have seen this happen over and over and over again in different ways in my children's interactions. This specific story finally let me put my finger on this concept in an explainable way.

All of our children have different strengths and weaknesses. Carter's and Addison's strengths lie in entirely different places. Watching them adjust from teacher to student to teacher again is an amazing dynamic that benefits both of them.

I want Addison to be around as many typically developing peers as possible because that is a key ingredient to her learning process. Watching. Observing. Learning details that she can use later on her own.

You never know when your child needs to be taught by their peers...or learn. Just because your child doesn't have a disability doesn't mean that they don't need to learn things like- patience; kindness; treating others how they want to be treated. And those fabulous skills that your child has? Maybe there's a reason they have them. Maybe they have those skills to help teach another child how to get there faster. You never know.

As we get deeper and deeper into the education system, I'm sure my perspective and thoughts will change and shift many times. But one thing I'm sure of? Addison will learn from therapy; she will learn from me; she will learn from her educational DVDs; she will learn from school- but most of all? She will learn from the peers in her life who model the things that she struggles to achieve.

I hope you aren't the parent to refuse to let your child into a program as to not be "tainted" by the special needs child in the program. I hope you see that instead for what it really is- a chance for your child to teach and learn in a new way.

Carter did for Addison in a few weeks what I (and many therapists) couldn't do over the past three years.

Can't wait until Carter is potty trained.

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