Enriching every student’s experience in inclusive schools is a worthwhile challenge on so many levels, for so many reasons. By creating ‘peer group’ discussions around topics to which all students can relate, belonging grows and community is spontaneously built. Talk about enriching!
When discussions are facilitated around well-designed lists of open-ended and wide-ranging questions, much can be learned by all participants, including the facilitators. Just 10-15 minutes of this type of exercise, a couple of times each week, can reveal surprising layers of insight from all participants. All.
Building belonging …
Ultimately, these experiences build ‘belonging,’ in the most natural and un-forced sense. Fundamentally, we’re all interested in each other, and we’re all ‘wired’ for empathy. (And we are working with the following definition of empathy:
EMPATHY, if it is to grow, has some very definite requirements: √ It can't be taught. √ It can't be forced. √ It's born right in us, so it just needs to be exercised.
The natural instinct to empathize is most available when there is zero pressure to do so. Peer group discussions can create those enriching opportunities. (No lectures required. In fact, lectures during these discussions, turn out to be counter-productive.)
Benefits for students without disabilities include:
- Prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society
- Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
- Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
- Respect for all people
- Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
Benefits for students with disabilities include:
- Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
- Increased inclusion in future environments
Higher expectations for themselves
Benefits for facilitators:
Take the long view when measuring WIN-WIN-WIN Gains
When peer group discussions are designed around real-life topics common to all students’ experiences, triple-wins really can be achieved. Just remember to take the long view, in terms of measuring progress. The first time you go to the gym you don’t expect to look in the mirror and see a difference. Right? In fact, there’s no exact time when you can predict when you’ll see improvements, but you know that if you continue to workout on a regular basis, positive results are inevitable.
Same with the process of building belonging by facilitating regularly scheduled peer group discussions. If you continue to provide opportunities for kids to share their thoughts around topics that are personally relevant, commonalities, shared values, and empathy will grow. It’s a beautiful inevitability.