Most parents need to wrestle, at least a little, with the question of where they should send their kids to school. This question often feels very important for parents of children with different needs, when trying to choose a mainstream school. Whether they are on the autism spectrum like me, or have other differences such as ADHD, it is important to understand if a school is going to allow your child to be who they are. For all parents, though, the considerations need to be the same.
If you ask any school what mechanisms they have in place to help children with diverse needs, they will all be able to rattle off generic statements about individualised learning plans, specialised programs and differentiation. So you need to dig a little deeper into the school’s collective psyche.
This can be done by meeting with a representative of the school. It doesn’t have to be the Principal or someone on top, just someone from the school. If the school is too busy to meet with you, even for five minutes, they are too busy for your child.
A busy school does not mean a student would not receive a fine education at the school, just that their social and emotional needs are unlikely to be met, which can potentially be devastating, particularly for students with specific differences.
So, if you have found a school that can spare five minutes for you, this means you are already half way to knowing that this school cares enough about all its people to possibly be right for your child. To delve into the mindset the school has towards diversity, I would ask these three simple questions:
- May I please get a copy of your diversity policy?
- How are introverts valued in your school?
- How is individuality and autonomy fostered in the teaching staff at this school?
The depth of the answers will be more telling than what is said. You see, if the school fosters diversity, the answers you receive will be quick, clear and have a natural depth. If the answers are short, shallow are you hear a number of ums, erms, or let me sees, then they probably aren’t thinking much about diversity.
For students who are different from the norm, whether they be on the autism spectrum, gifted, introverted, gender or sexually diverse etc. they need an environment which is not going to treat all students as the same. If diversity hasn’t been considered enough to put it into a policy, that may be an issue. If the school follows popular learning trends around social learning that only suit the wonderful 70 percent of the population who are more extroverted, that could be a problem. If teaching staff are all required to ‘sing from the same hymn book’, that could mean the school treats them generically, just as it would your student.
I want you to know I don’t necessarily blame schools for not being pro-diversity — there are many external pressures that make it difficult to acknowledge and work with difference. However, what you are looking for is people who are willing to break the mold and step outside these pressures as much as possible. These are the people that will try to help and understand your child, rather than trying to fit them into a box. You are looking for people that recognise individuality as the key to unlocking learning and progress.
In saying all that, you are not looking for perfection. There are few regular schools anywhere in the world that are experts in dealing with diversity, and particularly neuro-diversity. What you are trying to find out is whether the school considers diversity as a core component of education or not. Ask the questions, feel the answers. Once you get a sense of that, it will make your choices far easier.