child with Williams syndrome giving a presentation in kidergarten

Lessons for life prepare kids for a better world

Kindergarten registration time is here in Ontario. I recently stopped by my daughter’s former special needs pre-school to talk to nervous parents about choosing the right school for their kids. Trying to decide where to have their kids spend the next 8-10 years of their lives is tough.

When you child had a disability, it feels impossible to make the call.

I feel exceptionally lucky that my daughter has the placement she does.

Now in SK, she loves school, has friends, is with her peers and is thriving. It’s been like this since day one.

I’ve been searching for the right words to comfort parents who are in the thick of wading through the school decision. I got through the presentation, but I felt there was something missing when I was up at the front of the room sharing my experience.

What is the magic formula that had made her school experience so extraordinary?

The principal is great. But there are lots of great principals. Her teachers are also stellar – but again, there are a lot of amazing teachers. No, it had to be something more.

At a recent classroom visit, all became clear.

Allie attends a Catholic school here in Toronto. When I visited her class for her parent teacher interviews, I saw something in the class that really struck me. It was four simple posters on the wall. They weren’t fancy. They were just handwritten on cardboard. But a lightbulb went off.

What makes her school special is not how they teach. It’s who they are, and who they ask the students to be, too.

The posters said:
Expect the highest
Respect effort
Support the struggling
Love unconditionally

These aren’t simply reminders of how to teach. They are lessons on how to be – with your classmates and with yourself.

getting dressed for the snow

These are lessons for life.

Knowing my daughter will spend her school days surrounded by kids who are learning to be inclusive, empathetic and supportive thrills me. Even more than that, I know she is learning the same. And she is being held to the same standards.

Expect the highest

Here, my daughter doesn’t get a pass. No one expects her not to try things she likely won’t be able to do. She does the same class work, makes the same presentations and follows the same rules. If something is beyond her grasp, it is broken into smaller steps, with the expectation that she will get there. Someday she will get there.

Respect effort

We all acknowledge that her full potential may not be the same as the classmate beside her. But that will be determined a long time from now. Until then, she is encouraged to try everything, to the very best of her ability. The result of this attitude is clear in how she speaks, how she moves and how she carries herself. More importantly, it’s clear in how she’s treated.

Support the struggling

One of the fears I have is that my little girl will be a pet, or a dear, or a project that kids will take on to show off just how “caring” they are. That the kids will forge a bond based on them looking good on social media, not on real friendship. But in her class, inclusion doesn’t make room for her, it makes her a full participant. Sure, the gap will widen. None of us believes the day her peers are noticeably ahead will never come. But right now, her teachers talked about her class in this way – a group of nice kids who see her as a part of their group.

I’m not sure if Alma will always be the lowest functioning child in her class. There are already times when her challenges are apparent. But she is still presented with opportunities to be there for others. She has exceptional empathy, she never takes offence to being last in line, and she is always willing to share. This gives her a lot of opportunities to support kids who are feeling down, left out or homesick.

Love unconditionally

This is one area where Alma already shines. Her genetics predispose her to this trait. So her teachers are working hard at fostering the constructive side of this behaviour. At the same time, they’re working to curb the potentially dangerous side of trusting and loving without boundaries.

 We should all be so lucky

Sometimes I imagine a world where none of my fears for Allie are valid. A world where she is always challenged to be better, but not discounted when her limitations are evident. A world where people are willing to give you a hand, and like you just as you are. I think that is the kind of world her Catholic School is preparing kids to be a part of. Not necessarily in the curriculum, but through the lessons for life that happen all day long, every day.

What to know more? Here’s a short clip about how the spirit of inclusion comes to life for #CatholicTeachers in other ways.

This post is part of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers #catholicteachers sponsored program. I received compensation as thank you for my participation. This post reflects my personal opinion about the information provided by the sponsors.

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