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Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

If I’d Only Known…

communication: speaking & listening inclusion

Have you ever had an “if only I’d known…” episode?

This happened to me when I learned some simple ways I could have helped a hearing-impaired student join my YMCA afterschool program with much less stress and fuss—had I only known. Basically, this is what happened:

In the fall of 1999, a father came to my office to register his son and his stepson for our afterschool program. He was newly married, had just moved to the area and had some difficulty completing all the necessary information, especially for his stepson-Kaden. Kaden was in kindergarten and would be going to a school for children with profound hearing impairments. At the end of the day, Kaden would be bussed back to the local school for afterschool. Of course, the ADA (American’s with Disabilities Act) required that I accept Kaden and the YMCA philosophy is based on accepting all kids, so I took as much information as the father could give me and told him that both boys could start the next week.

At 6:05 P.M. on the day Kaden started in the program, I received a call from an agitated site supervisor:

“Kaden is adorable, but he is also a typical curious five-year-old who wanted to explore the school because he had never been there before. The staff spent their day chasing after him because yelling ‘Stop!’—doesn’t work for a child who can’t hear. We don’t know how to communicate with him. Everyone is exhausted and we need help.” We managed over time and with some effort to make the afterschool program work for Kaden, but I later discovered simple techniques which would have made the process much easier.

In the summer of 2000, I took a position in the New Jersey Department of Human Services and became chair of the Map to Inclusive Child Care Team. The Map Team is a group of diverse stakeholders who meet every other month to discuss the barriers to inclusion and the strategies for success. Through my work with the Map Team, I discovered the many mistakes that I made with Kaden.

First, I should have had Kaden and his family visit the afterschool program BEFORE he started. The parents and staff could have met, and the staff could have asked questions about Kaden’s needs. With his parents present, Kaden would have been free to explore the school without disrupting the program. Most importantly, the staff would have learned how the parents communicated with Kaden and been able to get advice from those who knew him best.

Second, I would have asked the parents’ permission to contact the other school to find out about Kaden’s school routine and how we could support his communication and learning in a new environment. I would have gone to visit the school with my site supervisor and invited staff from the school to visit our program. I would have set up some type of daily communication from school to afterschool to parent so we would all be on the same page (figuratively and literally!).

Third, I would have asked the parents for a copy of Kaden’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) so that we would know Kaden’s educational goals and figure out the ways we could support them in the afterschool program. Since Kaden spent the day with only children with hearing impairments, the afterschool program would be a great place for him to practice communicating with typical kids.

It may sound like all of this would take a lot of time.

But compared to the effort, and aggravation, that staff members spent figuring out Kaden’s needs on their own, it would have been more efficient and more effective. Fortunately, despite my misguided beginning, the staff worked out how to communicate with Kaden and he stayed in the program for five more years.

My story has a good ending, but all too often the results are disastrous when programs don’t plan for inclusion. Inclusion isn’t just saying “yes” and hoping for the best. To be successful: INCLUSION REQUIRES INTENTION. Planning, communication and knowing the IEP goals are the three lessons that I learned from our experiences with Kaden. I hope that you will learn from my story so you won’t have to experience the same “If only I’d known…” that I did.

Oh, and for breakfast I made Huevos Rancheros-in honor of a great breakfast that I enjoyed on a trip to Cali a few years back. But since I’m on the East Coast I probably finished them before you got up!

Author Profile: @janesharp

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