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From awareness to inclusion: How one school in Morton is fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity

Students at Jefferson Elementary School in Morton participate in Inclusion Week every school year.
Kelly Hobson
Students at Jefferson Elementary School in Morton participate in Inclusion Week every school year.

As noted in part one of this story, autism spectrum disorder can present itself differently in every individual who has it. And with more and more children being diagnosed, making sure those with autism, as well as anyone who is neurodiverse, is set up for success in the classroom becomes a top priority for educators.

Alyson Baker is the school psychologist at Jefferson Elementary School
Alyson Baker
Alyson Baker is the school psychologist at Jefferson Elementary School

In the state of Illinois, there are 13 different categories that can qualify a student for special education. Alyson Baker is the school psychologist at Jefferson Elementary School in Morton.

“Anything from just a speech language impairment to a global developmental delay for kids ages 3 through 9, you have autism, other health impairments so any kind of medical conditions, even something like ADHD or anxiety,” she said. "You have learning disabilities, you have physical vision, hearing impairments, emotional disabilities, so many different things."

Children with autism can become easily overwhelmed, or over-stimulated in a general classroom setting, said Kelly Hobson, the school social worker at Jefferson.

“So, we often provide a lot of accommodations for those things in the classroom so they can still be in that classroom, but in a less stimulating way,” she said.

Noise canceling headphones, preferred seating charts away from the door or other possible distractions, and scheduled breaks are all examples of accommodations that may be utilized. However, Hobson said it’s important to note that what may work for one student might not be appropriate for another one.

Kelly Hobson is the school social worker at Jefferson Elementary School
Kelly Hobson
Kelly Hobson is the school social worker at Jefferson Elementary School

“If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism, so everyone presents a little differently,” Hobson said. “And so really getting to know the child and knowing what the struggles are in the classroom can be helpful to find specific accommodations for them.”

This approach to keeping neurodiverse children in the classroom as opposed to separating them is becoming more and more common in classrooms. Hobson said each year, they’re taking more steps toward inclusion.

“Not only is it good for kids that may be neurodivergent, but it's also good for kids that are neurotypical to be able to learn from others and learn from their strengths as well,” she said.

While some pullout education may be appropriate at times, Hobson said it doesn’t have to be their entire day, and Jefferson school often utilizes co-teaching models to promote as much time in the general education classroom as possible. Baker said students are now recognizing special education teachers as their own, too.

“They don't necessarily notice the distinction between this is my general education teacher, and this is the special education teacher, because both teachers are in the room, teaching and helping all students,” Baker said. “And so I think that helps foster the environment of we're all here, we all belong, not this set of students belongs to this teacher because they're neuro diverse.”

Not only has practicing inclusion at Jefferson helped the overall classroom environment and student experience, but Baker said they’ve even noticed an increase in standardized testing scores in a subset of neurodiverse individuals since inclusion has been a focus.

Inclusion Week at Jefferson School

“Just having access to hear the grade level content has been phenomenal…they're reaching their potential in a much better way,” she said.

Another way the staff at Jefferson promotes inclusivity is through a week-long initiative called Inclusion Week. The idea was first brought up by a mother, and eventually resulted in Hobson, Baker and other staff members running various stations about different disabilities for students to engage with. Now, the entire community is involved with the help of outside organizations coming in to run the stations themselves.

“The whole idea of Inclusion Week is to help provide that knowledge base for students,” Hobson said. “And so we really try to make it fun and hands-on. So every station looks at a different disability, and we show them what it's like to experience that.”

During inclusion week, students at Jefferson learn about topics such as hearing impairments, diabetes, autism, social emotional needs and more.
Kelly Hobson
During inclusion week, students at Jefferson learn about topics such as hearing impairments, diabetes, autism, social emotional needs and more.

Everything from vision and hearing impairment, autism, physical disabilities, various medical needs and emotional needs are at stations students visit.

“So for example, in the vision impairment station, we might have braille typewriters…vision impairment goggles and walking sticks,” Hobson said. “In the autism station, we have had students put on headphones and watch a video of a simulation of what it looks like to be overstimulated, or have them put sandpaper in the back of their collar to feel what it's like to have some of those sensory needs.”

Two students pose for a picture during inclusion week at Jefferson
Kelly Hobson
Two students pose for a picture during inclusion week at Jefferson

Ultimately, Hobson said these experiences make students feel seen and heard while increasing their level of self confidence. But the inclusion efforts don’t stop there. Throughout the entire month when Inclusion Week is held, different books are read and discussed with the idea of authenticity and inclusion at the forefront.

Baker said one of her favorites is "Just Ask!" By Sonya Sotomayor.

“I like the message of ‘Just Ask’ because it's okay to wonder and be curious,” she said. “And neurodiverse people want to be included, and they know that they're different. Just ask them in a kind, respectful way…what their needs are, what they want, what they're feeling. It's okay. Because curiosity is really good, and it encourages kids to ask questions rather than be afraid or give weird looks.”

When you just ask a child what they need to be successful in the classroom, it's possible the answer might involve some sort of regulating activity. For these situations, Hobson and Baker spearheaded the creation of a sensory room at Jefferson after being inspired by an educational series on autism for professionals led by the Autism Collective. While there are grants available to help schools build rooms like this, Jefferson’s was funded completely by the administration and the PTO.

Sensory Room at Jefferson School

Hobson said sensory rooms are a space where children can take a scheduled or spontaneous break to meet all of the sensory needs they might have.

“It's filled with items that can either help increase energy for kids that are maybe low on energy that day and need a little boost, or kids that are dysregulated and need to calm their bodies. It can also be helpful for students that need a break from the over stimulation that is outside of that room,” Hobson said.

To curate the perfect selection of items, Baker and Hobson collaborated with the school’s speech therapist, occupational therapist and principal. Some highlights include a swing, tent, texture wall, core vocabulary board, white board, weighted blankets and stuffed animals, a crash pad and sensory boxes filled with things like beans, sand and rocks.

“We made one specifically for a student who had a hard time coming in from recess, because he wanted to be in nature,” Hobson said. "So, now we have a nature box."

While these sensory rooms can be a step in the right direction toward being considerate of all students' individual needs, the funding and space needed to create rooms like these can often present a barrier.

“Anywhere you can find space would be great,” Baker said. “It wouldn't even have to be in a big separate room. You could make it part of a room, part of a special education room that's not necessarily utilized all day long."

And while it will take a bit of a financial investment to pull something like this off, Baker notes there’s value in investing in students in this way.

“If you focus on that sensory regulation and emotional regulation, you're going to see better academic outcomes when our students are in a space where they're ready to learn,” she said.

A student takes his shot during inclusion week
Kelly Hobson
A student takes his shot during inclusion week

However, if implementing a sensory room is still out of reach, Baker and Hobson agreed that in order to practice inclusion, you can’t underestimate the power of the school environment itself.

“I think that's kind of where it starts…are you an atmosphere of promoting differences and accepting those?” Baker said.

Awareness is the first step. But Hobson said inclusion is the actionable piece of the puzzle where real change begins.

“I know that some students with autism may have interest in interacting with others, but they struggle with those social nuances,” Hobson said. “So, I'm going to take that information that I have from the awareness, and I'm going to make it actionable and say, I'm going to create a peer buddy group, where I'm teaching students with autism those social nuances, but I'm also teaching neurotypical students how to interact with students with autism, and I'm bringing them together.”

To show children that they belong is something that can start in the classroom. But it doesn’t end there.

“The students are going to do amazing things when they get older, but they need to know that they belong,” Hobson said. “And that they have the confidence to keep moving forward.”

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.