Readiness is a tricky notion. We humans have a very long history of responding to our callings with some sense of our own shortcomings – Moses, David, Paul, and on and on. And yet, we are still called to change our world and ourselves in response to God’s grace.
When we think of being well-equipped for serving students with disabilities, we might think of any number of things needed: more staff, more certified and specialized staff, testing protocols, discipline measures, sensory equipment, therapists, rooms, buildings, buses, etc. All of these things are helpful and may have a role to play for any particular student.
But the most impactful way to become equipped for students with disabilities is by paying attention to your beliefs and by aligning your structures and supports accordingly. If your mission is to equip students with faith and education, bring that mission into every conversation about students who struggle. How will you fulfill your mission and act out your faith in your interactions with these students?
If we can link our actions back to our core faith and beliefs, and talk about them freely, it can change the way we approach many aspects of our work.
When we operate from a belief that every student belongs in our school, regardless of ability, we collaborate with our colleagues to help that student succeed.
When we believe that our Christian schools can raise students to be God’s witnesses in the world, we find ways to creatively teach a language of faith, and we learn new lessons from our students in turn.
When we believe that every student is a child of God, we honor every students’ differences as image-bearers by differentiating our instruction.
When we believe that every student can contribute to a learning community, we start them in the general education classroom instead of moving straight to pull-outs.
When we see diversity as a gift, we can create and hold each other accountable to personalized student goals, and we support those goals with environmental changes.
A successful inclusive Christian school has a structure in place to identify and support students who might need additional challenges or assistance. This may look different at every school, but this structure is just one of the reasons that your educational support services should be there for every student. Educational supports are there to make sure everyone learns, not just those who struggle.
To do this, an educational support services person, department, or volunteer has five functions: support services teacher (when pullouts are necessary), consultant to general education staff (to answer questions of behavior and differentiation), student diagnostician (does this student need pullouts?), para-teacher supervisor (to ensure all students are learning), and student advocate (what accommodations or modifications are needed). These functions cannot be accomplished by keeping support services limited to a corner of your building or in a segregated program. An integrated mindset will allow educational support services to improve academic progress and teaching for all of your students; don’t settle for anything less.
When you begin an inclusive education program, particularly with students with more significant disabilities, you probably won’t be equipped for everything that comes your way. There will be many wonderful surprises and a great many more learning moments. There will be legendary failures and moments of incredible grace. In all of those moments, you will need the community to remember why you’re doing this and to follow where your faith leads you.
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the executive director of All Belong, where she serves as a champion for ability inclusion in schools and churches. Her training is in fundraising and nonprofit administration, serving at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago for nine years, and at All Belong since 2012. Her calling to All Belong and advocacy for places of belonging are the backbone to her thoughtful and creative leadership of an organization that is transforming communities nationwide. Elizabeth has a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University and is currently studying for her Master’s degree at Grand Valley State University.