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Sports Day: Shifting From Competition to Inclusion

IMG_6764Last year at James Hill, we made the decision to move away from points and 1st-4th place finishes for our annual elementary school Sports Day. We felt that the focus on points and winning was misaligned with the goal of the day. Seeing students and parents arguing with grade 6/7 student facilitators about who finished 2nd and 3rd in the “Rubber Chicken Relay” made it fairly clear that something needed to change.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to competition (ask anybody I have coached or played with or against) and there is a role for healthy competition in youth development. I am not the guy that thinks we should give out participation trophies for everyone for just showing up at a tournament but I do think that we often put the focus on winning when the focus should be on development (that is for another post.. in the meantime, check out Changing the Game Project). I do think that our school’s “Sports Day” (which does not really involve a single “sport” and could be renamed) is a day in which the main purposes are fun, teamwork, and movement.

Last year, I did have some questions from parents asking if not focusing on competition was ill preparing our kids for the “real world”. I understand this concern and we do provide opportunities for our older students to compete in floor hockey, track, cross country, basketball and other artistic and academic competitions. For Sports Day, I strongly believe we need to align our activities with the purpose and goals of the event. I am not sure, though, if winning the “Bottle Fill Relay” is the real goal of sports day and helps to prepare our six-year-olds for when they are 18 and entering the world beyond school.  I do know that focusing on movement, fun, and teamwork is a great way to spend a day together as a school community.

When we moved away from the competitive nature of the day, we saw some significant improvements in teamwork, inclusion and fun. People were cheering each other on right through the duration of the activity and often there became a side-event that created even more fun for our students. For example, in our Bottle Fill Relay, rather than the only goal being to fill up the bottle the fastest, our grade 5s started splashing each other as they participated in the event and this resulted in more cheers, laughs, and smiles.  A teacher also recently shared this story with me:

Not having the points and placings has really helped to create more of an inclusive sports day. In the past, when a child with any type of physical or mental struggle(s) was placed on a team, there were statements whispered like, “now we are never going to win.” or “there goes our chances”. She went on to say that this year, not having the overt competitive aspect created the conditions that brought out the best in teams. Students were working together and cheering each other on more than in past years. The goal was not to finish first but, for some students, to simply finish with smiles. Those teams that had a child with physical and/or mental disabilities on their team looked to him/her as an asset rather than a liability (it bothers me to say that students looked at others as a liability in the past but for some, it was unfortunately true). Students with struggles were cheered MORE for their efforts and their accomplishments. Nobody said “oh man, we have Steven..”, they said, “let’s go, STEVEN, we can do this!”. More kids cheered. More kids participated. This was the most inclusive sports day ever.

The key lesson for me is that our purpose needs to guide our actions. Is there a role for competition in schools? I believe there is but elementary sports day should be about movement, fun, teamwork, and creating the conditions to bring out the best in ALL our kids.  Kids will still be competitive with each other in a fun way; however, when we shift our focus away from competition, we get more collaboration, more fun, and more inclusion.

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Inclusion Through Strengths: Learning With Logan

Note: this story of inclusion is shared with the encouragement and permission of Logan’s mother.

Logan has been at James Hill Elementary since kindergarten. During this time, it has been easy to pick out all of his challenges – his struggles to read and write, self-regulate emotions, say the right things (and not swear), and his struggles to build real friendships. He has Autism and Tourette Syndrome and the journey n school has been a roller coast of emotions for Logan and his family as he faced a few good days combined with many, many challenging ones. (There was a time when we almost made the mistake of planning a half-day program because he was not having successful afternoons – thankfully, we listened to his family andworked together to create an afternoon plan that tapped into his strengths and interests and created success.)

As Logan has grown, his interests in things like animals (particularly reptiles and insects) were noted and encouraged by staff and his family to be used in school through a variety of projects. One of his grade 3 teachers saw a snake she had never seen before near her home so she took note of the characteristics, came in to the school on the following day and ran it by our expert, Logan, and he was able to identify they type of snake it was. Another staff member embraced his love of animals and ran a school-wide fundraiser, led by Logan, to bring in Canadian Tire money to donate to the Langley Animal Protection Society to help out local rescued cats. During this fundraiser, Logan went around to all the classrooms to share details about the initiative. Because Logan had struggles in communication, he used an iPad to read out the information to the students.

IMG_5095Fast-forward to grade 5. In the past few years, although Logan still has a love for Kingdom Animalia, he has developed a keen interest in communicable diseases, nuclear disasters, and safety from these and all sorts of disasters that can be harmful to humans. His parents have embraced this and Logan can often be seen walking around the grocery store or the school with a gas mask and hazmat suit. He has almost become our leader in pest control at the school. Although Logan has been physically floating in and out of the classroom, his participation in class has been fairly minimal… up until a few months ago. At this time, his teachers and support staff started to notice that his strengths and passions could be used in the classroom more often.

Although there has been much effort over the years to include Logan more effectively in the class, during a unit on communicable diseases, Logan’s experience at school shifted to a much more active, positive experience. He then became a classroom expert on the topic. He participated more in class discussions, he was engaged in the tasks, and walked with more of a “swagger” at school. One of his teachers, Colleen Giddings, then asked him if he wanted to share his vast knowledge of viruses with the class. The next day, Logan waited patiently and then when it was time, brought out his iPad and didn’t just share a few bits of information, he actually taught a mini-lesson on viruses! He walked around with his iPad and showed pictures and shared his knowledge and passion for the topic. Rather than trying to get him to participate, the challenge then became how to teach him timing – when and where to share his knowledge!

As the class is a shared classroom, his other teacher, Kathy Lambert, continued to chat with Logan about other areas of interest and asked him if he wanted to bring his hazmat suit in to share his knowledge about safety.   Not only did he just bring in his suit… he taught a full 30 minute lesson on nuclear disaster and radiation safety! He lectured and shared his knowledge, asked questions, answered questions from peers and also used a variety of tools like pictures, maps, stories, and even finished with a historical video on nuclear safety. This same student that struggled to be in class, speak to peers, read, write, self-regulate emotions… gave a 30-minute engaging lesson to his classmates. Logan is on a new streak and for the past few months, showed his story and identity at school has changed.

Inclusion is not just about helping certain students be more involved in a class; it is a mindset about how we do things. Over the years, Logan’s family and staff at his school have embraced who he is and what he loves. They have started with his strengths and when these strengths were brought into the school, he became more confident, active and engaged in class. His struggles are still there but these have been overshadowed by his strengths.

When we start with strengths, students flourish.
When we start with strengths, we use these to build on our struggles.
When we start with strengths, we work to INCLUDE.

Thank you to Logan, his family, as well as the staff and students at James Hill for showing the power of using strengths in inclusion.

Check out the 3-minute video clip below of Logan in his element… teaching his classmates about nuclear disasters and radiation safety.

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The Wrecking Ball: A Story of Inclusion

15936739285_460b008ec5_zFollowing a thought-provoking session on inclusion with colleague Diana Wilk at our district pro-d day (as a follow-up to a memorable day spent with Paula Kluth in the fall), I tried to share a story with her but emotionally struggled to get through it. It is a story of inclusion being modeled by kindergarten students and one that we can all learn from.

As in the majority of kindergarten classes, we have some students that struggle with personal space and can demonstrate some behaviours that can be looked at as being socially not acceptable.  One student in one of our clases, Justin (not his/her real name), has some challenges and loves to wreck towers, buildings and other things that students have built with blocks, lego, and other items.

Our teacher, who cares deeply about Justin, decided that while Justin was learning that this was not acceptable to wreck other students buildings, she would take a picture of the students’ completed tower/building before it was dismantled. As students in kindergarten are often so accepting and patient, this temporary solution seemed to be working while Justin learned the necessary skills.

A few weeks ago, two girls had created a rather large structure with blocks. They were beaming with pride and asked their teacher to take a photo of their work. While the teacher was going to grab her camera, she heard, “Justin….NO!” and then turned to see Justin run over and smash the structure to pieces. The teacher comforted the two students and then took Justin to a calmer area of the classroom to once again talk to him and remind him about respecting other people’s work and personal space.

After a few minutes of working with Justin, the teacher was interrupted by the two girls asking if they could talk to Justin. They then brought over Justin to their newly created structure and said, “we built this tower but we need someone to take it down… will you be our wrecking ball?”  Justin then turned into his own version of a wrecking ball and dismantled the structure as the girls cheered him on. The smiles in the faces of all three students, and the tears in the eyes of the teacher said it all. These students had come up with this inclusive solution on their own. Justin continues to cherish his role as a wrecking ball and is learning to wait until the timing is right to do “his job”. This role has enhanced his sense of belonging and created a more positive experience for him and his friends.

Inclusion does not just benefit those who struggle. By creating the conditions for moments like this to happen more often in schools, we can teach and practice the skills of empathy, understanding, and care and support our students in teaching so many of us that inclusion brings out the best in ALL of us.

CC image from Michele M.F.

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Do We REALLY Believe in Inclusion?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by D. Sharon Pruitt

As an education system and society, we have made huge strides in the inclusion of students with visible disabilities in our classrooms, groups, sports, and friendships.  I wonder, though, if we have made as much progress in including ALL students… especially those who appear on the outside to be similar yet are different (or perceived to be) on the inside.  I am not talking about the act of everyone having a seat in a classroom; I am talking about having a mindset of real inclusion.

“We all have one basic desire and goal: to belong and to feel significant” — Alfred Adler

This is an area in which I have far more questions than answers but here are some observations that make me wonder if we REALLY believe in inclusion.

  • I have seen parents/caregivers of children with behaviour challenges (due to a wide variety of reasons) judged, scolded, and ostracized for being a bad parent when the behaviours are often far beyond their control.
  • I have seen and heard of children going through their entire elementary school years and never receiving an invite to a birthday party.
  • I continue to hear the terms “gay” and “retard” used in derogatory ways from adults and students.
  • I continue to hear and see students and adults from the LGBTQ community not being accepted and included… and unable to be themselves in certain environments.
  • I see students not being able to attend schools of choice because their families do not have the capital (ex. money or transportation) to access.
  • I have heard adults say, “why can’t they just work harder?” when discussing how people from poverty could/should gain more resources.
  • I know of people that will not hire certain applicants based on their culture and/or race.
  • I have heard the statement “I don’t want my child in a class with THAT boy/girl”.
  • I have seen many students not get the needed funding for support in schools because they do not have the correct diagnosis… or worse yet… correct paperwork.
  • I have heard people state that Aboriginal people need to move past the impact of residential schools and colonialism… and just “get over it”.

These observations sadden me as they demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy. They make me question what we actually believe when it comes to the goal of inclusion; however, there are also many examples that give me hope.

  • I have seen a parent reach out their hand to help another parent struggling with a child meltdown at the supermarket.
  • I have seen students tell others that “it’s not cool to use that word” when hearing the “g-word”.
  • I have seen huge numbers of students embracing students that are different and actually working together to create change.
  • I have heard and seen parents and teachers modeling empathy and inclusion to other adults and children.
  • I have seen parents ask the family of a child, who struggles with behaviour challenges and lacks real friendships, if they would like to meet up for a play date for their kids.
  • I have seen and heard of many teachers providing the opportunities for students to bring their strengths into the classroom and demonstrate their learning in ways that create more confidence and success.
  • I have seen many districts create policies to end homophobia, heterosexism,  and other acts of prejudice in schools.
  • I have seen educators and community members actually listening and supporting First Nation communities to develop ideas and plans to help all students.
  • I have seen parents of students with disabilities reaching out to others to help them get over the many challenging times.
  • I have seen schools become the safest and most caring places in some of our students’ lives.

The latter examples inspire me. They show courage and leadership. In order to include and accept all people, we must first seek to understand and listen to the stories of our students and neighbours.  We need to educate about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of ALL students (and adults) not only in our schools but also beyond our walls into the communities and business world.

First we need to ask the question, do we REALLY believe in inclusion?  Then we need to reach out a hand rather than point a finger. We need to continually act and create environments that model empathy, care, and equity… and work toward a society of real inclusion.

 I was given the book “Don’t we already DO inclusion?”, by Paula Kluth, by some parents at my former school so I looking forward to diving into that to learn more practices to help me in this area.

Still learning, reflecting… and coming up with more questions that answers.  

Please share any ideas of how you or your school/community are encouraging inclusion so others can benefit.

@chriswejr

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Modeling and Teaching Our Kids to Reach Out and INCLUDE

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Erickson Ocampo: http://flickr.com/photos/coolbite1/3596619861/

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Erickson Ocampo: http://flickr.com/photos/coolbite1/3596619861/

Every year, as a principal, I hear the heart-breaking stories from parents and kids about not having friends, not being invited to play after school and never being invited to a birthday party.  Although we are only a few students and children in communities, these stories are far too common and are not only devastating to the children but also the families.

As I grow with my kids, one of my goals is to always reach out and invite a child who, for whatever reason, needs a friend.  I have seen parents do this in our school as they taught and modeled to our children the importance of including others in their circles.

When I was in elementary school, I remember new students moving to our town and struggling to make friends.  On a couple of occasions (probably more), my parents asked me to choose a child that was new or struggled to have friends and invite them to come to a Canucks game with my dad and I (back when the Canucks games were mostly losses but very affordable). These events grew into friendships and modeled to me the empathy and care that is needed to truly understand and appreciate the value of friendships and inclusion of others.

As we move into another school year, my challenge to parents (including me) is for us to reach out and include students beyond our children’s typical friendship circles.  If it is a new student in the class, set up an after school activity for a day.  For birthdays, start by reaching out to one child that needs a friend… and if our children disagree, this gives us the perfect opportunity to embrace a teachable moment about empathy and care.  If it is a student that struggles with some behaviours or disabilities that require support, invite the child to come over with the parent so you can truly understand the challenges that both the child and the family face.  Raising a child with a disability and/or a child that requires significant behaviour support can also be very difficult for the parents. They, too, can be left feeling alone and negatively judged as “bad parents” when it is often a condition that is not about parenting and more about extra support, empathy, and understanding.

A series of these small efforts can have a life-changing impact on children, families and society as a whole.  I invite you to join me, and many families whom I learn from, in reaching out and teaching our children to include others.

@chriswejr