Lessons About Inclusion From Nest (Part 1)

by Lauren Hough Williams

 

The ASD Nest Support Project and its Nest Model have developed over the past 15 years after a “lightening strikes” realization on a Colorado road at the foot of the Rockies.  Dorothy Siegel, one of the founders of the ASD Nest Program, realized while reading Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, that there needed to be a fundamental shift in how we think about educating students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Pulling together a think tank of leaders in the NYC education space, this group began to outline an innovative model for inclusion where students with ASD were supported in their own, local, neighborhood schools.  This would happen in inclusive classrooms with trained professionals who work in inter-professional teams creating therapeutic classrooms where students with ASD could succeed alongside their neurotypical general education peers. This was the beginning of the ASD Nest Model.

Fifteen years later, the ASD Nest model is now in 43 school across all 5 boroughs in New York City and in 270 co-taught inclusive classes, supporting 1200 students with autism in kindergarten through 12th grade alongside over 4000 general education peers.  Co-teachers teach the general education curriculum, using specialized supports drawn from evidence-based and promising practices, helping students develop competence in their social and behavioral functioning, in order to ultimately realize their full, unique potential as independent and happy adults.

We have learned a lot in the past 15 years, and we continue to learn more about what it takes to build an inclusion program and create inclusive learning environments, where students with ASD can thrive.  Here are 6 lessons from Nest that we want to share with other schools and districts looking to build and improve their inclusive practices:

  1. Inclusion works

Research shows that both students with special needs, and their general education peers, benefit from learning in inclusive environments. Studies have shown that students with special needs in inclusive classrooms benefit academically, develop more positive peer relationships, and show decreases in problem behaviors.  General education peers in inclusion classes have also been shown to benefit both academically and socially, and also show an improved self-concept.  Want to learn more: check out this report presenting evidence for inclusive education. Also, check out Julie Causton’s WONDERFUL resources.

 

2. The classroom is the therapeutic environment.

Students spend the majority of their learning time at elementary school in their home classroom. Therefore, it is that environment that must provide the needed supports. We cannot rely on supports existing only at the other end of the hallway in the speech, occupational therapy, and AIS rooms. Too, we need to focus on providing class-wide supports. These universal supports are easier for teachers to implement consistently, they are accessible to all learners, and they do not single out individual students. Teachers should consider how to following supports can be implemented in their classrooms at a class-wide level:

  • Using a variety of co-teaching models for differentiation
  • Providing visual supports for routines, academic concepts, and directions
  • Incorporating sensory and self-regulation strategies (such as whole-class movement breaks using GoNoodle)
  • Using whole-class positive behavior supports
  • Incorporating student interests
  • and providing strategic social supports (like role cards for the different roles students could take on in a group activity: “timekeeper,” “materials manager,” “recorder,” and “talk/time tracker”).

Looking for more ideas, check out our Pinterest site which has examples of all kinds of whole-class supports.

3. School.  is.  social.

Student no longer learn in silent rows, plowing through workbook pages while teachers sit off to the side looking over their reading classes. Today’s student is asked to learn in a group on the rug, surrounded by classmates. Students constantly have to share space and air-time, not to mention their thoughts and opinions!  Group work is oftentimes the rule, rather than the exception, and students with social learning differences like ASD, who may not struggle with the academic content, can be tripped up by the social navigation demands of the activity. What we cannot do is assume that every student has what Michelle Garcia Winner terms a fully “social software package.”  Teachers need to consider the social demands of an activity, and not just the academic skill required. We cannot assume that every student can problem solve, ask for help, negotiate with peers, easily come to a consensus, change their plan on-the-go, and handle differences of opinion with peers. These “social skills” need to be acknowledged and explored explicitly for some students, so they they can successfully engage with their peers and succeed academically.

For more information on Social Thinking, read this.

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!