Through Their Eyes Exploring what inclusion means for gifted learners

Inclusive education...we've all heard the mantra; the imperative to create inclusive learning environments for all students. Don't get me wrong...I absolutely agree with this sentiment; inclusion is undeniably central to setting learners up for educational success...but how is it that the primary measures of inclusion focus on the evaluation of what we do in our schools without first beginning with a learner-centered approach? If we don't take the time to see through the eyes of our children and young people, how are we to understand what students actually need in order to feel included? The perspectives of learners ought to be as central in our reflections on practice as those of whanau, other professionals, research-based literature and policy. So where is student voice and agency when it comes to considering inclusion in schools?

It is time for us to move beyond focusing on 'making' learning environments inclusive. All too often it would seem, children are expected to fit within what is viewed by educators as sufficently inclusive offerings, and accordingly, expected to respond in a way that expresses that they feel a sense of safety, belonging and even gratitude - regardless of how they might actually be feeling. Rather, we need to be earnestly seeking student voice and empowering learner agency to ensure that inclusion is a co-constructed reality for each and every child...not just another thing that we do for learners. Ensuring inclusive education is a process - not an end point - and a process in which we must choose to engage in actively with students. As the New Zealand Education Review Office (2015, para. 7) states, it is critical that students with special education needs, (which include those who exhibit gifted and talented characteristics, see New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2015), are valued, and that as a part of ensuring inclusion for this group of learners:

The school seeks and uses the student’s point of view about what supports their inclusion and learning (decision-making)

So I put forward the question; are we putting our energies into crafting environments which are inclusive of all students, or inclusive for all students? Given that centres and schools are for children, should it not be the latter? Perhaps a simple shift in our language might be enough to bring about the beginnings of change in how we view what inclusion really means for learners.

We need to see through the eyes of our children and young people.

Research conducted by Jansen, Otten, van der Zee and Jans (2014) suggests that an inclusive learning environment is one where a learner has a sense of belonging and feels safe to be their authentic self. Yet we hear over and over again, from learners, their whanau, educators and through research, that finding a good fit for gifted learners can be a major challenge. When an environment fails to be inclusive for gifted learners and results in a mismatch between child and environment, it often comes at a serious cost, for the child and their family.

TRUE INCLUSION IS WHERE A LEARNER HAS A SENSE OF BELONGING AND FEELS SAFE TO BE THEIR AUTHENTIC SELF.

"So what?", I hear you say. "You say all this but what does this mean in practice, for us, and for our students?" Well, to start with it means getting to know your students; who they are, where they come from, relationships and connections, what their interests are, their strengths, their struggles. So you already do all these things? Awesome!! That is fantastic, and provides a great solid foundation on which to build further. Let's step from this, to consciously creating opportunities which invite students to talk about: what is important to them; what works for them, and makes them feel safe and secure in themselves. Find out how they would like to take more ownership of their learning (content, processes, products and expressions of their growth through reflections) and ownership of their learning spaces, empowering students to work with us in bringing about inclusion.

The New Zealand Ministry of Education (n.d) promotes the need for all centres and schools to value diversity, with an explicit expectation that a sense of belonging and safety is created for all. This implies that we need to know what a child is sensing - not just infer, assume, judge or guess - and what is impacting on this.

For me, this means asking questions of our gifted and talented tamariki (children) and rangatahi (youth) to find out what this means to them, and reflecting on these findings with other professionals to make responsive changes that are sensitive to the needs of these learners.

  • What does 'inclusion' mean to these learners?
  • What does this look like in practice?
  • How does this fit within varying cultural and educational (and legal) framework?
  • What kinds of learning environments lean more naturally towards these Inclusive practices?
  • Is 'inclusion' synonymous with 'mainstream'?
  • Based on these understandings, how might we modify existing learning opportunities and environments to better support belonging and expression of authenticity through; a/incorporating these practices in the regular classroom, b/ developing new grouping practices and, c/ maximising access to relevant and beneficial opportunities external to mainstream school classroom environments.
  • How might we include students in the steps of planning, design, implementation and evaluation of our inclusive practices?

These are just some of the questions we need to explore to identify how we might best cater for our students, ensuring full inclusion for gifted learners in our education system.

MA TE WHAKAATU, KA MOHIO. MA TE MOHIO, KA MARAMA. MA TE MARAMA, KA MATAU. MA TE MATAU, KA ORA.

With discussion comes understanding. With understanding comes light. With light comes wisdom. With wisdom comes well-being (Maori whakatauki/proverb).

Thinking about your mission, why you are in the work that you are; how do you think we might achieve this admirable goal of inclusion for all? What might you ask of your students when you next see them? What wonderous possibilities await!

I leave you with the sentiments of Brené Brown (Brown as cited in Brown, 2010, para. 4) who reminds us that "a deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When these needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We grow numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbness, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering".

love and belonging is an irreducible need of all.

Let us not neglect any of our gifted tamariki, leaving them to suffer. Let us instead, invite their voices (individually, in groups, openly, anonymously - mix it up, get creative!), truly hear what they express, and co-construct with our children, inclusive education for all. Why? To promote a true sense of belonging and authenticity in our akonga (learners), which empowers confidence, connectedness, good health, resilience and life-long learning. Afterall, that is what we all want for our students in the end isn't it? And why we are here pouring so much of ourselves into what we do.

Our future is in your hands. What change will you make? What changes can we make together? With you, we will belong.

References

Brown, B. (2010). Love: practicing and professing. Retrieved from http://brenebrown.com/2010/02/11/2010211love-practicing-and-professing-html/

Jansen, W. S., Otten, S., van der Zee, K. I., & Jans, L. (2014). Inclusion: Conceptualization and measurement. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(4), 370–385. http://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2011

New Zealand Education Review Office. (2015). Inclusive practices for students with special education needs in schools. Retrieved from http://www.ero.govt.nz/National-Reports/Inclusive-practices-for-students-with-special-education-needs-in-schools-March-2015/Appendix-3-Evaluation-indicators-including-students-with-special-education-needs

New Zealand Minsitry of Education. (n.d.). Wellbeing@School: Themes and sub-concepts explored in the Inclusive Practices Tools. Retrieved from http://www.wellbeingatschool.org.nz/themes-and-sub-concepts-explored-inclusive-practices-tools

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2015). Education.govt.nz: The National Administration Guidelines (NAGs). Retreived from http://www.education.govt.nz/ministry-of-education/legislation/nags/

New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour 2016

This blog was written for the New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour. To access other blogs in the tour please visit the link below.

About the Author

Vanessa White is a gifted education specialist who resides in Waikato, New Zealand with her beautiful whanau, which in includes her husband, two delightful children, two lovely cats and a very special turtle. She is dedicated to supporting gifted learners, their families and teachers. Vanessa enjoys helping others to better understand giftedness and talent, and ways in which to provide for youngsters who exhibit these characteristics. In 2015 she completed her Masters in Specialist Teaching (giftedness and talent), with a focus on advancing early childhood educators access to professional development in gifted and talented education. She is looking to undertake doctoral study focusing on the perspectives of gifted learners in relation to inclusion in a variety of educational contexts.

Vanessa is an elected member on the Board of giftEDnz, the New Zealand Professional Association for Gifted Education. This is a role she values highly, working with an enthusiastic and dedicated Board, and members of the wider New Zealand gifted education community, to promote positive national level advancement in support of gifted learners in education.

Further to this, Vanessa is a whanau group facilitator, providing support for specialist teachers studying towards their Post Graduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching through the combined Massey and Canterbury University programme. This mentoring role is her personal favourite as it builds a sense of community among professionals with a shared mission underpinned by commonalities in values and professional identity's. Woven within this is the process of reciprocal learning, where everyone involved is learning and stretching one another, for the sake of our providing better support for our tamariki with special educational needs, making it a special collaborative process.

Life without a creative outlet would be a very sad one for Vanessa, and as such she makes sure to prioritise time to enjoy developing resources such as those found on her website at the link below. Her latest creative endeavours have been through her involvement in the design and build process of the newly re-launched Gifted Online programme offered by the New Zealand Association for Gifted Education. To keep up with the resources and publications that she has been involved with and shares about, like her Facebook page (Lifting the Lid on Gifted Education). An array of resources are shared freely on her website.

Credits:

Created with images by David, Bergin, Emmett and Elliott - "Cardboard box tunnel!" • dbrekke - "Peek-A-Boo!" • Chris_Parfitt - "Child Using Laptop" • betticohen - "scooter kid stunt" • cheetah100 - "Maori Dance Performance" • 00abstrahiert99 - "barcelona 28." • Philippe Put - "autumn child" • skeeze - "hawaii dance girl" • alvarols - "Kid Painting" • valentinapowers - "waaaahh!" • surlygirl - "reading" • lcr3cr - "ipad digital technology" • dicimijo - "Maori Kids" • 422737 - "girl friendship joy"

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