Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children Inclusion

Expanding the Circle 2 001

If it is his privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter-dependent.

Mahatma Gandhi

All children have to deal with and understand the paradox of separateness and connection, of individuality and belonging. In utero, babies have no sense of separation. They are physically connected to Mom through the very liquid they breathe and the cord through which they receive their food. For most children, the birth process will be the biggest stress of their young lives. They discover that they are separate beings but need their attachment to their parents in order to survive. Do you remember in the first few months of your child’s life when he was fascinated with his hands? He was grappling with his individuality and separation. Then, when children enter their first playgroups or preschool, we encourage them to share, to cooperate and to take turns with other children. They have spent most of their time as infants and toddlers figuring out their individuality only to find that they are supposed to connect to others and that there are rules (sometimes confusing since they change in various environments) that govern that involvement.

Earlier this week, I watched as my own preschooler whisked one friend off by the arm and turned to scowl at his other friends, a group he has developed friendships with throughout the school year. I pulled him aside and encouraged him to be kinder to his friends and he did so as I left the classroom. But by the end of the school day, two excluded boys were angry and hurt and the teachers had been informed. E, my son, felt bad too. And so the seeds of inclusion and exclusion are planted early. Our instincts as children may not guide us well. E, my son, was acting on the great excitement he felt from a playdate at his friend’s house playing with new toys and having new play experiences. This enchantment guided him to single out his friend neglecting the others who were regular playmates. So what’s a caring adult to do?

The book Habits of Goodness; Case Studies in the Social Curriculum[i] by Ruth Charney tells the story of a preschool teacher with a roomful of children who were also struggling with being kind to one another. She decided to reflect on what she does to encourage genuine respect while recognizing that everyone is not going to be liked equally by everyone else. She planned to model the desired behaviors and keep communication about this topic open through regular class meetings. She also decided to create the “You can’t say you can’t play.” rule to ensure that all students are welcome and included in all play. A rule like this might not work in fifth grade, for example, but in preschool, as children are learning about rules, it worked. This teacher decided that the needs of the classroom community were more powerful than the needs of the individual in this case. She set a core standard and value for her classroom that kindness is a requirement.

One essential question in these examples that is raised is how do we help our children internalize the values that underlie decisions about their actions? It was easy for me to say “Be kind to your friends.” but if my child continues to exclude others when I leave the room, then he has clearly not internalized the value of kindness and inclusion. The stakes only become higher as children grow older. Studies have consistently found that a student’s sense of belonging at school contributes to greater motivation, stronger engagement in classroom activities and higher academic achievement overall.[ii] And as you might suspect, research has demonstrated the converse to be true. Students who do not feel a social connection or sense of belonging are chronically absent, disengaged and low performing. Add to the mix children’s increasing awareness as they mature of racial, ethnic, gender, learning and appearance differences and whole groups of students can become marginalized.

In examining how teachers have best been able to address this issue and ensure that students are truly learning the value of connectedness and inclusion, there are some common themes that can be practiced at home.

Create a Culture of Acceptance and Caring – Take a moment to examine your own approach to others. Are you accepting of family members? Neighbors? Colleagues? Friends? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion and empathy for those who are different or even who may challenge you? Whether you believe your child is listening or not, the perceptions of you and your partner are internalized by your child and become your family’s culture. Taking some time to reflect on your own values and how you communicate interpersonal problems among family members can set the tone for how your child deals with the outside world.

Use the Language of Acceptance and Caring – Young children particularly have a difficult time making distinctions between a person and their actions and choices. A child is tempted to say “I don’t like Billy.” when Billy takes her toy. Instead help her rephrase and reframe her thoughts to say “I don’t like that Billy took my toy.” Every child makes poor choices but each child can feel like they still belong in a family, classroom or friendship circle.

Encourage Cross-Age Kindness and Connection – Whether you have siblings or neighbors of various ages, there is an opportunity to create relationships with children who are different – going through different developmental milestones and experiencing different friendships and curricula during the school day. This becomes great practice for acceptance and inclusion. Do not allow children in a neighborhood group to be marginalized. Encourage your child to be the one to reach out and include a child who is being left out. With siblings, encourage older siblings to care for younger ones and involve them in play at the level they are able.

Discuss What it Means to be a Good Friend – What it means to be a friend and what it means to be a part of a classroom community can be a regular topic for March 2013 009conversation to revisit as your child grows and changes. What does it mean to you to be a good friend? How do you feel when you are excluded? How can you make new children in your school or neighborhood feel welcome? E has a new interest in Spiderman and luckily Spidey’s motto is a relevant one, “With great power comes great responsibility.” [iii] We talked about how he has an opportunity to act like Spiderman in his classroom and be kind to all kids who want to play with him. It’s easy to tell children what not to do (and important in establishing boundaries) but it’s equally important to think through with them what they can and should do instead.

Notice Kindness – The teacher in the earlier example assigned partners to each student and asked them to notice when their partner was sharing or taking turns. At the end of the day, they would write out certificates for each student whose kindness was noticed. The simple certificate read, “I notice Karen shared today. Signed, Billy Goodman.” They worked on it until all students were receiving a certificate. Point out kindnesses when you see them and ask your children to do the same. Use “I notice” language to model observation of other people.

Consider that most children at one point or another will feel left out, excluded from the group or even bullied. Those children who are consistently left out are the ones most likely to act as bullies. So even if your child tends to have many friends and not have problems with exclusion, those excluded can still impact your child’s life directly. It’s a sobering thought to realize that the students who committed the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Columbine, Colorado and other places were consistently marginalized. Promoting connectedness in the school and home community is critical now in keeping children safe. Don’t wait until your child has a problem. Begin now to encourage the values of inclusion and kindness in your family life so that your child internalizes and acts on that value.

[i] Charney, R. (1997). Habits of goodness; Case studies in the social curriculum. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

[ii] Osterman, K.F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70, 323-267.

[iii] Lee, S., Kirby, J., & Ditko, S. (1963). Amazing Spider-man. NY, NY: Marvel Comics, Marvel Tales # 138.

15 Comments on “Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children Inclusion”

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  5. Although I have always modeled inclusion for my daughter, and although I am a huge advocate of teaching children to be inclusive, and despite my daughter being incredibly kind to her classmates whether I am present or not…..we are experiencing an issue.

    I have also always instructed my daughter to stand up for what is right and fair, and to simply not allow others to bully her, hit her, or otherwise manipulate her unfairly. I have empowered her with the right to walk away from any playmate who consistently hits, consistently lies about the behavior of others to save themselves from the consequences of their own actions (make my daughter their scapegoat), or (after myriad other manipulations were not successful) uses any of these (or other underhanded techniques) to “blackmail” other classmates into always getting her own way or always being first.

    Kids are very smart. They will twist what we think we are teaching them into a foothold from which they can manipulate. After stating flat-out to her playmates (including my daughter) that she intends to stand at the top of the playground set and kick them in their faces if they try to play on the playset—and that they have no choice but to play with her because it is the teacher’s rule– and threatens them that she will tell the teacher they are being mean to her if they don’t comply. This particular child fake-cries and tells the teacher “The others are excluding me” when, in fact, they are simply expressing to her that her inappropriateness will not be tolerated. Then the teacher will comfort the fake-crying child and ask the other children to include her, despite their protests that she is hitting, kicking, and biting them !—because the teacher is employing a “you can’t say you can’t play” rule.

    The fake-crier happens to be a physically beautiful chilt to manipulate others.d and the teacher is oblivious. The problem with this particular student getting away with this type of behavior is that she is learning that manipulation WORKS…..she gets things her way…..and for her there is no down-side at all to behaving this way. It reinforces manipulative, unkind, uncompassionate behavior–which is in direct opposition to the values the teacher is trying to teach.

    My child has the right to walk away from such behavior, and I let her and the teacher know she has that right. If she wishes to be “inclusive” she can invite the girl to play tomorrow…..but at the first manipulative lies or hitting…..walk away again for that day too.

    So to all the educators out there who wish to teach inclusion, be wise and beware of the child who will use this classroom concept to manipulate others. Give children the right to walk away from abusive behaviors…..in my opinion, second, third, fourth, and infinity more chances to treat your playmates with respect should be on a next-day basis to prevent manipulations and give manipulators some impetus to change.

    • Wow. Thank you so very much for relaying your important story which shows the complexities of any teacher rule or policy in practice. Certainly the spirit of inclusion is what is most imperative and that was clearly being abused by a particular student. I am inferring, from what you wrote, that the teacher was not aware or perhaps, overlooking the mistreatment that was occurring. Your situation raises a number of important questions including: 1. How do you, as a parent, communicate with your child about such unfairness at school? And how do you coach them to handle that situation? It sounds like you encouraged her to get away from the abuser, which I do with my son as well. And 2. Should you communicate with the teacher directly about the student who is abusing others and how might that conversation go so that it ultimately is constructive for all involved?

      I do think it’s critical that we teach our children that they can always walk away from abusive behavior and say they don’t want to engage in it. That’s not the kind of “inclusion” we want to encourage. I think we also need to help our kids practice words and responses that are short and memorable so that they are prepared to deal with mean words and behaviors. They might be coached to say, “Stop. You know what you are doing is wrong.” before walking away. I never coach my son on responding to another’s child’s mean words or actions without invoking some compassion for the abuser. “She’s hurting,” I’ll say, “so she’s lashing out because she doesn’t know what to do with her hurt. It’s doesn’t make it right but I do think it helps to understand.” Our children will continue to go to school everyday – in some cases – for years with students who say and do mean things. It’s so important to build some empathy in addition to providing the necessary skills to respond and walk away. In addition, if a child sees others being abused, they can encourage those others to play elsewhere away from the abuse.

      It’s difficult to bring this conversation up with a teacher especially if the parent is unsure of how much the teacher knows about the situation. (It also matters how old the kids involved are. In preschool, you would likely want to have the conversation with the teacher. But with older children, you want to first empower them to deal with their own relationships before getting involved yourself.) Having worked with many teachers, I would only suggest that you go in assuming that the teacher has all of the students’ best interests in mind. Bring the topic up as a partner such as, “I hear there have been some mean words and actions on the playground and a student invoking the “you can’t say you won’t play rule” in order to manipulate others. I am hearing this second-hand and am concerned. Can you tell me a bit about the situation? Is there a way that it’s being handled? And do you have any advice for my daughter who seems to be caught in the crossfire?

      It’s a difficult situation and I am really appreciative that you’ve shared it. I will say your daughter is gaining valuable practice in dealing this kind of behavior at a young age and is working on some really important strategies that will serve her well throughout her life. It’s so painful to be a parent and not be able to remove the offender but you are doing such good in preparing her to handle her difficulties when she must face them on her own the playground. I do think one of the best ways you can respond is by taking every opportunity to help her practice responses that are kind and firm and constructive. I welcome more dialogue on the topic and wish you the absolute best in dealing with this.

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    • Inclusion Matters, Thank you for the important work you do. Thank you for linking and will be spending time on your site to learn more about what you do. There’s much work to be done. With respect and gratitude, Jennifer Miller

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