What should early educators know about ableism?

It’s the last Real World Wednesday of 2015 and we are so excited to learn from and with Ana Maria Menda!10400782_1663068440649550_4756358930619636765_n

Ana is a trilingual qualitative researcher interested in the intersectionality of bilingualism and special education. Ana has 15 plus years of teaching experience with students from the elementary to the doctorate level, and is a mother to the coolest 11 year old boy who happens to be in spectrum for Autism.

We asked Ana, what should early childhood educators know about ableism?

Here’s her heartfelt and thoughtful response:

I was sitting with a psychologist, the pre-k teacher, the school counselor and the assistant principal when I was given the news that my son was in the spectrum for autism. Professionally, I had been a public school teacher for years and was working towards my doctorate in special education, so I was not new to the schooling or diagnosing context, however, no amount of experience in education could have prepared me to be on the receiving end of my child’s diagnosis.

The multidisciplinary team was kind. Noah’s pre-school teacher knew what she was doing, and Noah had already been flagged with a developmental delay through the Birth-3 team, which made the actual diagnosis not so shocking. But it was then, in the stoic schoolroom behind the main office that I felt the floor under my chair drop.

Unfortunately, there is no intervention in the literature that can help mend a mother’s broken heart from witnessing the labeling and exclusion of their child. Because attached with that label, often times, as I am still learning, come things like discrimination and isolation. Sometimes the manifestation of isolation is as simple as never receiving an invitation to classmates’ birthday parties, or play dates. Sometimes discrimination is being told by the teacher that seeing tears in your child’s face made her happy because she realized that kids with autism have “emotions” too. Luckily, the heart is a strong muscle, and we learn though the missteps that there are also patches of solid ground to stand on and that there’s people that can support us.

So, as a mother, here’s what I wish early childhood educators knew about ableism:

  1. Discrimination is not always blatant. It can exist in tiny spaces even within the most caring and inclusive environments. When party invitations are shared, or conversations about those events are taking place. When teams are formed during playtime outside. In how kids choose to sit in the rug for whole group instruction or on how they select partners to work with. As a mom I wish I could sprinkle a dash of magic dust on my son that would instantly make him feel accepted. But as teachers, you can work some of that magic in your classes. So I wish you could explicitly talk to your class about reaching out, including and learning from friends who might be different, even outside the boundaries of your room. And that you talked to your students about this every day, in an honest way.
  2. A child’s label says little about that child. When you connect in a sincere way with your students, learn from them, and work collaboratively with their families, you might be able to see growth and potential that looks nothing like the language in their individualized educational plans. Really. You have the power to make an incredible difference. I’ve seen my son’s behavior change so drastically according to how his teachers treated him, that the goals in his IEP became obsolete. You have superpowers when kids walk into your room. You are their superhero. Use that power.
  3. Love what you do. Kids can smell the difference. If working with children with disabilities is a means to an end, your students will know. Be real, own up your desire to do something else, but don’t become the bitter teacher that dreads the kids who are difficult. Your superpowers also work in the opposite way and you could emotionally break a child who needs the right support from a genuine teacher.
  4. True and tried interventions are important, but so is your intuition and critical sense. If you have exhausted the strategies in your toolkit, reach out. Parents don’t always have the answer either, but a team can help you before things escalate. Don’t be scared to ask for help.
  5. Most importantly, believe in your students. In all of their ability to grow, to connect and to be happy. At the end of the day, that’s what we want for our children, more than the academic achievements, more than green behavior chart, we want our child to be happy, to feel accepted and to accept who they are.

Thank you so much, Ana!  Your perspective is so important!


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