Inclusion is a Family Affair

As we walked down the hall towards my son’s classroom I had butterflies in my stomach and my palms were starting to sweat. Today I was a chaperone on his first field trip and mine as a parent. I was nervous about my responsibilities, how Jackson would respond to a change in routine and all the walking and also how I would fit in with the other parents.

As I stood in the classroom with the other parents, I flashed back to last spring before we knew whether or not Jackson would be welcomed into this kindergarten classroom. My nerves now are much more in check than they were when I stepped into this kindergarten classroom for the first time, but the feelings of being an outsider are still present.

Each time I revert back to my initial feelings of being an outsider, it prevents me from moving forward on this inclusion journey. Something I would realize after today’s field trip.

Having heard some horror stories, I can’t help but worry that some of the parents of kids in his class may think Jackson doesn’t belong in their child’s classroom and that he is taking away from their child’s learning. Both are HUGE myths that Jackson and every study that was ever done on inclusion have proven wrong.  But I am a “realist” (that’s what I prefer to call myself when I’m being pessimistic) and I know that these thoughts do exist in some parent’s minds. I don’t have any reason to believe any of the parents in his class feel this way but my irrational fears are usually the loudest so I am on-guard and ready to protect Jackson from the judgment that may not even exist.

When we first got to the classroom, we walked into a conversation that fed my feeling of being an outsider. There were a limited number of slots for parents to attend the field trip so all of the interested parents were put into a lottery. The other parent chaperones were joking about how they knew that they would be the “lucky” ones that would get chosen and have to go on the field trip.

With this being my first field trip, I immediately thought, I just can’t relate. As I have written before, I seldom feel comfortable among parents of “typical” kids (even though Jackson’s brother makes me one) because often, I just can’t relate. But I knew that I owed it to Jackson to try my best to relate and be a part of his classroom, in the same way, that I am asking him to participate. I found common and was able to join the conversation.

For me, this field trip was an opportunity to peek into Jackson’s daily interactions with the other kids in his class and to evaluate how happy he was. The “realist” in me couldn’t  be entirely sure how the other kids are treating him until I saw it first-hand. Turns out in addition to witnessing Jackson’s inclusion journey, I learned something about mine.

That morning, I heard “Good morning, Jackson!” several times from little voices. My heart filled with pride as I watched Jackson complete the morning routine of his classroom which included unzipping and getting his things out of his backpack and sitting on the carpet.

On the bus ride to the farm, Jackson had a huge smile on his face and when the choir of kindergarten voices broke out into song, he joined in happily. Its little moments like this that put my mind and heart at peace, Jackson is happy and feels apart from his class.

From the start, one friend was eager to be Jackson’s partner for the day. The first activity was a train ride. He and his partner got in their barrel together and each took a turn “steering.” The smile on his face told the whole story. 

There was a lot of walking and the pace of the field trip was quick for Jackson and me but we kept up fairly well. As the day progressed, I found it easier to relate to the other parents as we all shared the stress of making sure the kids in our groups were accounted for and well-hydrated. When the field trip was coming to an end, I, like the other parents, shared a feeling of relief and the intense desire for a nap.

I understood now what the parents were talking about that morning. I had failed to realize before that they were veteran parents and had been on several field trips. I, the rookie, had no idea how exhausting being a chaperone is. I now understood entirely the love/hate relationship these veteran parents, had with going and I felt the exact same way.

When I went into Jackson’s class at the beginning of the school year to teach his classmates about him, my lesson centered around the idea that he was more like each of them than different. For them, it made sense and today, I got to see how they do think of Jackson as more alike than different. These kindergarteners get it!

I, however, realized that I am lagging behind in my thinking. I need to shift my own mindset and start practicing what I communicated to his class. I fully believe Jackson is more like his peers than different, but I have never considered myself like parents of “typically developing” kids. (even though Jackson’s brother makes me one) Rather, I focus on how my parenting journey is different.

I am holding myself and Jackson back by continuing to focus on my differences as a parent. I  admit that sometimes I feel resentful that we had to work harder to ensure our son got into a class at his home school when the other parents just filled out the registration paperwork. However, I need to stop thinking about how we got here and focus on the fact that we are all on the same team, parenting our kids to be kind classmates.

No doubt, my comfort zone is with my fellow moms of kids with Down syndrome and I am so grateful for those friendships. BUT, reflecting on this field trip, I realized I need to change my perspective. I need to participate in inclusion too, not just cheer Jackson on. I can’t just work with the school team and not try to be apart of the parents too. I can’t continue to hide behind the ways in which my parenting journey is different than the other parents in his class.  I can’t let my fears of not fitting into the world of inclusion hold me back from participating. The journey of inclusion is one we travel as a family. It is hard work and pushes us outside of our comfort zone. It’s not easy, but it is SO worth it!

Jackson continues to lead the way, working hard and participating. Now, it’s time for me to step up, find my confidence and participate alongside him. After all, our family is more alike than different.

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