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Truly Including Children with Special Needs

Published in ChicagoNow, December 27, 2013

One of the most painful parts of having a grandchild with special needs is watching the child I love struggle to “fit in.” I have written previous posts about many of the things that go wrong. So many activities others take for granted are off limits. They are willing for be her be there physically without actually being part of the group. She can skate but doing the choreography for a show is too hard. She loves art but she is lost being in a group class without one-to-one support. She has a beautiful voice but singing in a chorus doesn’t work due to the language challenges. You get the idea.

So kudos to Special Gifts Theatre (SGT), an after school activity that gets it right. At SGT, she is more than tolerated. She is accepted and part of a group of peers that includes children with special needs and their typically developing mentors. Her Creative Drama class is educational and literacy-based, but most of all, it’s fun. And it gives her the opportunity to interact with her mentor and peers with the common goal of putting together a production. SGT moves beyond inclusion and acceptance to welcoming children with special needs, and affirming their value.

About the mentors —wow! What a mutually satisfying relationship that turns out to be. My granddaughter has a friend who supports her and takes the time to see who she really is. The mentor is learning so much about empathy, compassion, and being an overall “mench” (Yiddish word that roughly translates a good person but implies an outstanding human being).

Eleanor Roosevelt said,

The giving of love is an education in itself … Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give.”

I used to see this happen all of the time when I was director of Cherry Preschool. An amazing number of kids who worked in our summer program as junior and senior counselors to support the inclusion of children with special needs went on to become educators and therapists.

Bailey Estabrooke, a special education teacher at Lincoln School in Evanston, works with my granddaughter’s SGT class. She shared how amazing it was for her to be a teacher in Special Gifts Theatre. Children who spent a good portion of time at school sitting alone in the back of the classroom can shine in this program. SGT enables them to show what they can do in a safe and accepting setting. Bailey shared that she has cried more than once when a child uttered his first words on stage in a production or made a true friend for the first time. “While we are changing kids’ lives,” she added, “they are also changing mine.”

In its mission statement, SGT talks about the importance of making a difference in the lives every student, mentor, volunteer and audience member involved in their program. Respect, compassion, and celebration are what they are all about. Research documents that the skills learned at SGT transferred to other settings, including school, home, and social environments. As one teacher stated, “My students who have participated in SGT have shown an increase in self-esteem. They are more open and outgoing towards others and are slowly starting to take chances.”


by Laurie Levy
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