Many feel that a private school signals exclusion, but for students on the spectrum or with other neurodiversities, private school can equal full participation.
Inclusion as a word is everywhere. Especially here in Minneapolis, after the murder of George Floyd, people are talking much more about diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. What those words mean in different settings — the workplace, the neighborhood, government programs, colleges, schools, healthcare — let alone how to live them, are an ongoing focus and should be.
Through our K-12 private school for neurodiverse students, we’ve been part of the inclusive conversation since our very beginning in the 2000s. People see “private” as a red flag signaling that we keep people out. From education professionals we hear the argument that neurodiverse students, such as those on the autism spectrum, do better when they’re in a classroom of neurotypical peers. From the community we hear: “You have to support your public school.” When parents come to tour Franklin Academy, they voice concerns about their child being “separated out.”
Actually, we are separating people in.
Neurodiverse Students in the Mainstream: Are They Truly Included?
What used to be called mainstreaming — putting special needs students in the regular classroom (instead of in a special education class) has morphed into inclusion. Generally the term means allowing students with special needs access to the full curriculum with no restrictions. Here’s how we look at inclusion at Franklin Center, from our after-school programs at Franklin Enrichment to our K-12 education at Franklin Academy. It means you include the person with a different ability in everything with full participation.
Inclusion means being on the football team and actually getting to play. It means serving on student council, performing lead roles in school plays, and being invited to birthday parties. It means teachers who adapt curriculum to your needs, right there in the classroom, not out in the hallway. If inclusion for the neurodiverse student is true, they’re not sitting on the sidelines, or tucked away out of sight, in the building but (literally) not sitting at the lunch or classroom table.
Falling Through the Cracks of Supposed Inclusion
Many of our students from public schools or other private schools tell a story of exclusion, not only from their peers, but from teachers as well. They’re frequently taken out of class to work one-on-one with a specialist, making them feel singled out and apart. Plus, they miss the grade-level work their peers are doing, not to mention the camaraderie and social/emotional learning that goes along with it. In extreme cases, schools who don’t have the expertise or the resources separate the neurodiverse and leave them with little to no learning. “At my old school, they didn’t know how to redirect or reprimand me, so they put me in the basement,” said one of our students. What he was most excited about was learning “real stuff” as he put it, and getting back up to grade level.
We frequently find that students in our K-12 school who come from other schools are months if not years behind. And let me be clear — part of this is directly related to their neurodiverse learning needs. But some of it is because they were moved from grade to grade, but never taught in the way they could learn.
One of the drawings I like that illustrates equity shows kids who can’t see over a fence, because each is at a different height. Equal treatment would be giving each child the same box to stand on. Equitable treatment is giving each one a different way to see over the fence, based on their needs.
Imagine taking someone who’s sight impaired to a library where none of the books were in Braille or audio. No parent or teacher would say that giving printed books to a sight-impaired student was inclusive or fair or right. But when the issue is neurodiversity, we struggle to acknowledge we need different approaches.
Feeling Included: Is the neurodiverse student truly “one of us”?
Beyond visible inclusion (are the neurodiverse playing with others at recess? Are they sitting with their peers in class?), what about feeling included?
One of our Franklin Capstone adult program participants, who graduated from public school, described being with her neurodiverse peers this way: “I feel like my fellow students understand me in a way that I’ve never experienced before, and I can just be myself without worrying about making myself more palatable like I do with my neurotypical peers.”
One of our younger students expressed it this way, “I like that I’m not different.” If you watch any of our stories on our website, you’ll hear that theme of friendship over and over again. That feeling of belonging is so important, both to happiness and to learning.
Full Participation Through Inclusion
The beauty of a private school for the neurodiverse is that the whole class is a class of kids who are included.
At Franklin our whole focus is available inclusion, or participatory inclusion. To go back to that drawing, we make each box for each student so they can see over the fence. We invite them to an experience, like a classroom, and then with our accommodations, we make sure the learning is available to them.
Need sensory breaks? We have them. Need extra time to work through a concept? We make it happen.
Is anxiety blocking the ability to focus? We have registered behavior therapists at every grade level in
Franklin Academy who can teach students strategies to address that.
To me, that’s what inclusion means. It goes beyond offering to adapt.
What’s Best for Your Child
For some families, their child fits effortlessly into a magnet or a community school. For others, it’s trial and error. I understand the emotions around wanting to find the best fit for your child. I have four children, and each one needed a different approach.
We all celebrate individuality, as a country. Why not celebrate individuality in neurodiverse students?
A tailored education, just like a tailored suit, can be the best fit.