Choices and Voices: The Nuts and Bolts of Inclusive Teaching

So, I went viral again, you guys.

This time, it was a Facebook post I made about the classroom in which I teach. I didn’t think I was saying anything revolutionary. What it came down to, ultimately, was this: the way I’ve learned to relate to my own neurodiverse kids (which, at its crux, comes down to basic respect, adaptation and communication) is actually a pretty awesome way to relate to everyone.

Like, really. That was the whole revelation. Which I really didn’t think was all that profound.

Two thousand shares and a feature in Good Morning America later…I guess it is?

In response to my now-viral post, a LOT of individuals and organizations have contacted me to ask about my teaching methods, and exactly how I’m incorporating inclusive instruction into my gen-ed classroom. So I figured I’d take some time to answer those questions.

But before I do, I really need to add some much-needed context to my viral post.

I need everyone to know that I am not an expert in my field. I’m barely even in my field. I’ve only just come back to teaching, quite unexpectedly, after ten years out of the game, and I wasn’t established before I left. I am not now nor never have been a veteran teacher. My certification and training are in English grades 7-12, but that’s not what I’m doing now. I currently teach 3rd and 4th grade, part-time, in a private school so tiny we’re technically a pod. I have five students in my class. (Yup. Five.)

I can’t emphasize enough that there are so many amazing people already out there doing so much more with this idea than I am. I’m just the one whose voice, inexplicably, got amplified. Rather like my last viral post, I really think this was just a perfect storm of saying the right thing to the right audience at the right time.

But since so many people have asked…

Here’s what, specifically, I’ve incorporated into my classroom this year, and why.

It all comes down to the handy dandy shorthand, “choices and voices.” “Choices” means that when faced with a task or situation you find stressful, there is always a different path you can take. There’s never just one thing you must get through in order to move on. Each student has the opportunity to figure out how best to navigate their day, on their own, because there are always multiple paths to success and multiple tools at their disposal.

And “voices” means that when you don’t know what you need, or you know what you need but it isn’t something you can get, you have the means to ask for it, and be heard. Often my students’s voices inform the choices I make available to them. I encourage my students to let me know when something isn’t working – and believe me, they aren’t shy about it. I pay attention when they seem frustrated, bored, or unhappy – which, yeah, might mean, “when they misbehave,” but that word is really a misnomer. Behavior isn’t inherently good or bad. It can be expected or unexpected, productive or unproductive, helpful or unhelpful. But’s all just behavior. And behavior is communication.

I adapt the classroom environment based upon what my students tell me, both with their words, and with their behavior.

“Voices and choices” means that each student becomes an active participant in their own learning experience, rather than having their needs and goals dictated to them.

Here’s how I’m applying that philosophy so far.

Emotional Literacy and Mindfulness

I actually started on this last year, by introducing a vocabulary to talk about our feelings. I did a lesson about how we can feel so many feelings other than just “good” and “bad,” and we worked on building up a list of feelings words. Words like proud, excited, anxious, sick, tired, hungry, bored, disappointed, heard, unheard, thankful, loved, ignored, lonely, relaxed, content. Each of my students had a copy of the list on their desks, and we practiced using those words in a lot of different contexts – when we talked about ourselves and our loved ones, in our writing, and when we discussed characters in books. We also talked about what those feelings make us want to do (when I’m angry, I want to throw things), and what we might do, or look for, when we want to change what we’re feeling (When I’m feeling lonely, a hug helps me feel better).

We read Listening To My Body and Listening With My Heart by Gabi Garcia, and followed them up with art projects, discussions and activities designed to reinforce the lessons in those books. Listening to my Body teaches how physical sensations can clue us in to what we are feeling, and how we can use physical sensations to help ourselves feel better. Listening With My Heart is about understanding your own emotions, and being a good friend to yourself. It teaches the difference between positive and negative self-talk, and the impact of each.

We learned basic mindfulness techniques, like breathing exercises and simple meditations. I have a meditation chime on my desk, which has a lingering sound. The students know that when they hear the chime, they should stop what they’re doing, close their eyes, and concentrate on the sound until they can’t hear it anymore. It’s a great, simple grounding exercise that I can use to help re-focus the entire class at once if things are becoming chaotic.

I’d like to emphasize that I didn’t do these things because mindfulness is the be-all and end-all of self regulation. It is absolutely not, and it doesn’t work for everybody. I did it because mindfulness techniques are tools, and more tools means more choices.

Sensory Experiences

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my own kids, it’s that attention and learning don’t look the same way for everyone. I already know that some folks can attend better to what you’re saying if they’re not looking at you, and can focus better on tasks if they’re moving, slouching or stimming. So focusing on the outward appearance of attention – demanding eye contact, still bodies and quiet hands – deprives these people of the tools they need to self-regulate, focus and learn.

But it occurred to me that the kids who are meeting behavioral expectations without specialized supports, and who don’t have any obvious trouble sitting still, making eye contact, or listening quietly, also never have the opportunity to experiment and figure out how they learn best.

Looking fine isn’t always the same as being fine. And being fine doesn’t mean you can’t be even better.

So, I provide a variety of sensory experiences in my classroom. My students are allowed to keep play doh, slimes, marble fidgets and other small sensory items in their desks, and to take these out during lessons. They all get to try out having chair bands on their chairs. They can take off their shoes. They don’t have to sit up straight.

Of course, that’s the sort of thing that can easily be abused. Fidgets are fun, and someone who doesn’t need them to concentrate can easily be distracted by them. Which is why I have a safety valve.

My students and I have an agreement that they are allowed to take out their fidgets or sensory items, or move around at their desks, or fidget with their chair bands, but also that I am allowed to ask them to put those things away, or to stop what they’re doing, if it’s becoming a distraction. And they know that I will only ask that if the item or behavior seems to be doing more harm than good, or if it is causing distress to me or to their classmates.

That comes back to voices. We’re all allowed to say “I’m getting distracted by that noise. Can you please stop?” We’re learning to respect each other’s boundaries.

But what about the student who is being asked to repress or suppress something that might genuinely be helping them focus or regulate? Or being asked to put something away that they enjoyed (but wasn’t helpful), which is now making them frustrated?

Suppressing something you want to do is uncomfortable, and can be stressful. And the entire goal of “voices and choices” is to make sure there is always a workaround when you find yourself in a stressful situation. So there’s one more choice.

The Calm Corner

inside the calm corner

The calm corner has a curtain for privacy, pillows, a friendly stuffed sloth, a couple of stress balls, a hand mirror, a feelings wheel for checking in with yourself, and “calm cards” with some of the mindfulness techniques we’ve learned written on them. It also has an egg timer. At any time, for any reason, a student can go to the calm corner (as long as it isn’t occupied), turn the egg timer, and take a break. During that break they can use the materials in the corner, or just sit and relax.

They can ask to go, or I can send them there, if I sense they’re getting overwhelmed.

When I first introduced the calm corner, I gave each student an opportunity to go in just to explore it and see what it was like inside. It is a friendly, safe and inviting space, not a time out or a punishment. My students love it, and they treat it like what it is: an option.

Self-Directed Progress

One of the greatest issues I had in my first year was that even in my tiny class, I found I couldn’t be everywhere I was needed at once. If we were practicing a new skill, and two or three students wanted my help at the same time, those waiting for me would be left anxious, bored and frustrated because they couldn’t complete the task; meanwhile, they were still expected to remain quietly at their desks and focused on the task they couldn’t do. Meanwhile, students for whom the task came easily would finish ahead of everyone else, and then they’d be bored and frustrated because they had to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.

This is a recipe for “bad” behavior – how do you express frustration, anxiety and boredom?

The solution I came up with this year was to give my students access to multiple tasks at once. (Choices!)

I now have an “independent work” file in the back of my classroom. After a whole-group lesson is over, I’ll add the accompanying practice or assessment to that file – which will also include all the other practices/assessments I’ve introduced that week, as well as practice/review of key skills. Even tests and quizzes go in the file, and can be done when the students feel they are ready. Some of the assignments can only be done once; others, like sustained silent reading, or memorization practice for math facts, are repeatable. Sometimes an assignment will have a due date, like, “everyone must take this quiz before next Friday.” Any time we aren’t learning as a whole group, the kids get to choose what work they want to do that day, and also how much of it they want to do.

I don’t change out assignments often, so there will be roughly the same options in the independent work folder all week. Which means that sooner or later, everyone has to try everything. But they get to choose the order, and the pace.

Learning To Budget Time and Energy

For every independent work session, I require my students to turn in a minimum number of assignments. (Often, it’s just one). For every assignment they choose to do over the minimum, they earn a “Blacher buck.” These can be spent on small prizes at the end of the week, or saved up towards larger prizes. In order to earn the buck, an assignment has to be complete and demonstrate mastery. If it isn’t or doesn’t, I’ll return it and go over it, and the student has the option to either correct and re-submit it for credit, or save it for later and move on to something else.

If they choose not to do additional assignments, they can take free time, which they can spend doing anything that is quiet and won’t distract other students – like drawing, reading, using the extra craft supplies, playing with play doh or slime, or visiting the calm corner.

Thus the “Blacher bucks,” instead of being a reward for “good” behavior, become a concrete way for students to experience their own productivity and weigh out their own decisions: I can stop and do something I enjoy now, or I can take on more tasks and save up for that prize I want.

So, How’s “Voice and Choice” Working out for us?

As you might expect, when I first introduced the independent work concept, everyone went straight for the things they were best at or enjoyed most, and avoided the tasks they found most challenging or boring. But within a week of introducing this system, I saw a shift in the way the kids made their choices. They realized they were going to have to plan ahead, lest they be left with a pile of stressful assignments after the first few days.

And they started making really smart decisions. They’ve learned to save the things they’re best at, or enjoy most, for when they’re tired or bored. They tackle the most challenging tasks when they are at their best, or when they see that I am available to help. They do multiple assignments to earn Blacher bucks when they’re feeling confident, and opt to take free time instead when they feel like they need a break. And when they get discouraged, they know they can stop the thing they’re working on, put it away, and switch over to a different task, or take a break in the calm corner.

As with any classroom system, this is not by any means a one-size-fits-all solution. A lack of structure and predictability can be deeply anxiety-provoking for some learners, as can the responsibility of self-direction. I tried to design the system so that it would provide the maximum number of choices, but within a regular, predictable structure with clear limits and expectations. It also helps that because my class is so small, it is easy for me to give one-on-one attention and guidance to any student who seems stuck or overwhelmed.

So far, it seems to be working.

My Takeaways So Far:

When a greater variety of behaviors are allowed, there are fewer “misbehaviors” to address.

When even “misbehaviors” are understood to be authentic expressions of emotion, we can start thinking about what’s causing those emotions in the first place, rather than how to train out the behavior.

When students become skilled at identifying, expressing and regulating their own emotions, they are able to become active contributors to the evolution of classroom routines, materials and procedures.

I have no idea whether these things are original ideas, or based in popular pedagogy. I have never been an elementary school teacher before. My degree, like me, is older (not OLD, thank you very much) and a bit rusty; and I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the world of education the way I did fifteen years ago. I am making this up as I go.

My classroom this year looks vastly different from my classroom last year, and my classroom next year will probably look different from this one. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from raising my kids, from teaching my students, and from living my life, it’s that humanity is vast and varied, and each person is the expert in themselves. You have to let them teach you. Everyone, myself included, is a work in progress. And the only truly irrevocable mistake you can make in life is to assume you’ve got nothing left to learn.

2 thoughts on “Choices and Voices: The Nuts and Bolts of Inclusive Teaching

  1. Oh my gosh, I love this! You have explained how to do “inclusion.” And you got right to the heart of the issues around “behavior” with this: “I pay attention when they seem frustrated, bored, or unhappy – which, yeah, might mean, “when they misbehave,” but that word is really a misnomer. Behavior isn’t inherently good or bad. It can be expected or unexpected, productive or unproductive, helpful or unhelpful. But’s all just behavior. And behavior is communication.” BRILLIANT! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Elimination of restraint and seclusion in schools is not only possible, but it is also morally and ethically imperative – Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

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