PRIDE in Preschool

PRIDE month might be over, but I wanted to write about how we absolutely can and should create LGBTQIA+ affirming, inclusive early childhood classrooms — including in early childhood special education classrooms.

When people ask, “Why?”, I want to respond, “Why not?” Because, to me, it’s obviously the right thing to do. I love my students and their families. Loving them means accepting them. It means cherishing their autistic selves. It means supporting their gender identity. It means welcoming their families, in all the forms they take. I want to live in a world where everyone knows that they belong, as themselves. Unfortunately, our world doesn’t do a very good job of this yet. I can, however, make sure that my classroom does.

All too often, people answer “because it’s inappropriate”. If this is you, if this is what you’ve thought, then I ask you to please sit with this post, breathe, and think through what I am saying. Those automatic responses have all too often been ingrained into you by a homophobic, transphobic world. And I am asking — for the sake of our students — to try to understand a different way. Remember that autistic individuals are up to 6x more likely to identify as trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer. My guess is that you probably know someone who identifies as such — and just hasn’t told you, because it’s not a safe world to do so. It might even be one of your students. And, yes, even in preschool, there are students who want to explore, to question, or even flat-out know.

Those kids deserve the words and language to do so. I didn’t have these types of words for how I felt when I was little. They didn’t exist, and they weren’t mainstream. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Because when we don’t have the words, when we don’t know that it’s okay, all we feel is alone. Deeply, deeply alone. Alone and wrong. I remember being brought to the store to buy “more girly clothes” multiple times per year. I remember trying, so hard, to do what everyone else wanted, to wear what I was “supposed” to wear, to fit in. I remember it being painful. I remember it being short-term, and impossible. I remember the exasperated sighs when I chose cotton t-shirts, lounge pants, and VANS. Repeatedly. I remember being afraid to cut my hair short. I remember being so confused. Twenty years later, I remember all of these things. And I’m forever, forever, forever grateful for the Internet and friends who gave me words like agender (not identifying with a particular gender) and autigender (a person whose experience of gender is influenced by their autism).

Personal experiences aside… when I hear, “it’s inappropriate”, what I hear is discrimination. We talk about boys and girls, moms and dads, in every single preschool classroom I’ve ever seen. We have whole units of study about family, dress-up corners for trying on different roles, and practice he/she pronouns when we teach language and read stories. Cis-hetero culture is mainstreamed and embedded in our classrooms as “the norm”, as “accepted”. So when we say that talking about LGBTQIA+ stories is “inappropriate”, then we are discriminating by making something taboo, turning different into “deviant”, and perhaps even sexualizing something — all of which are common foundations on which hate speech, conversion therapy, and other oppressive actions have been built on for eons and eons. My guess is that you’re not thinking about the connection, but it’s there. Think about it with something else — if you never, ever talked about red-hair color, if you only ever acknowledged blonde, brown, and black, or if you even told them that, “no, we don’t talk about that here”, then what would our students internalize about red hair? We can’t do that to our kids. We can’t do this to our fellow LGBTQIA+ humans. We can’t do this and still say we love them. We can’t do that and still say we are building inclusive spaces.

So, yes, we can make different choices with toddlers and preschoolers. We can choose to affirm a world where everyone belongs. We can choose to name things, to normalize them, to make them part of our circle. And it’s really not that difficult. Read some of the suggestions below and ask yourself, “Would this really be that hard? Would this really be too much? Wouldn’t it be worth it, if one kid felt seen? If one kid felt heard?” I know it is.

Ways To Be More Inclusive

Stop using “boys and girls” to call students to lunch, line-up, or any other activity. There are lots of other ways that you can refer to students (including… students). Using “boys and girls” to call kids to line up, create patterns, separate into groups, etc.., just reinforces that there is a gender binary, either/or. It’s an easy change.

Create an LGBTQIA+ inclusive library. Books are everything! Make sure you have books that include all kinds of families, gender expressions, etc, in your library, and do it all year long. Some of our favorites are Mom, Mommy, & Me, Jacob Wears A Dress, Daddy, Papa & Me, Julian Is A Mermaid, Love Makes A Family, and so, so many more. Fill your library with the diversity of our world.

Encourage pretend play and dress-up explorations by all students. That means boys can try on dress-up princess outfits, heels, and sparklers. Girls can decide to be the daddy in the family. Address bullying, “that’s for girls”, and “only boys do” immediately. This is the time for kids to explore the world; exploring roles is part of that. I frequently mix dress-up clothes into the blocks area, or trucks/cars/etc into the pretend kitchen area. It helps prevent gendered use of these centers and encourages imaginative thinking.

Model using different pronouns, including the singular they. This is one I find myself still working on. If I am reading a story with a character whose gender is unknown — even when it’s a lion or a sheep, I catch myself automatically referring to them as he. What? Why is he the default? That’s our conditioning, but I’m determined not to pass that pattern on. I practice using they for unknown gender, as well as using she much more often, too. I’ve started practicing before we read-aloud a book, even if it’s a book I’ve read a million times, because practice breaks that habit. I also have started modeling different pronouns when we’re playing with puppets and people.

Be thoughtful if considering pronouns as a speech-language objective. Pronouns are a common language target in early childhood special education, but I think we need to be really careful about how we address this. Too often, it consists of looking at pictures and practicing he/she. This heavily reinforces the idea that we can determine someone’s gender by looking at a picture, as well as using stereotyped images to do so (e.g., long hair is girl). When possible, I recommend using pictures of familiar people whose pronouns you do know for sure, as well as embedding practice throughout the day. I also recommend teaching “they”. You can use books to support this, such as the awesome What Are Your Words? which also has a teaching guide.

Make it normal. Don’t make it exceptional. It’s life. It’s families. It’s who you are. Read books all year long, not just in June. Talk about pronouns in the beginning of the year. Incorporate pictures of different families when you talk about the farm, or holidays, or Spring, not just during a specific family unit. Wear a pin with your pronouns. Add it to your signature line in your school email. Make all of this a normal, every day part of life. Your students will feel seen, heard, and respected all year long. They will also grow into compassionate, accepting human beings, which we always need more of.

Are there other activities that you’ve found to be successful or important in early childhood classrooms? I would love to hear them! Undoing the things we’ve been taught, “the way things have always been”, can take time and practice. I still catch new ways that I’ve been reinforcing the gender binary, even after much reflection. But it’s always, always worth it.

Image Credits: SharonMcCutcheon. (2018, November 13). Human-rights-equality-rainbow-lgbt-3805188 [Photograph]. Pixabay.

Creating a classroom culture of respect

There are some really meaningful conversations around abuse prevention happening over in one of my favorite AAC groups today (AAC Though Motivate, Model & Move Out of the Way, managed by Kate Ahern). The statistic on abuse in the disability population are appalling: 1 in 3. I’ve written about the ways that physical prompting can — even if unintentionally — teach our kids that other people are allowed to manipulate their bodies.

This is only one piece of the puzzle, however. It’s one piece of teaching consent, one piece of creating a classroom culture that is centered around respect. We are not only working to prevent abuse now, but we are teaching children and their families advocacy skills and environmental expectations that can help prevent abuse in the future. Below are some of the many other pieces that our essential to our classroom.

Our classroom has an open door policy. Parents are always welcome in our classroom, and for as long as they would like to be there. We literally keep the shade on our big window on our door open at all times. We keep the window shades open on at least half of our windows. When toileting, the bathroom door is cracked open at all times (balance between privacy and safety). I would be 100% okay with the push for videos in special educatio nclassrooms.

We fill our classroom with general education students. I do teach in a self-contained setting. It is something I wrestle with often, as I advocate inside and outside of schools for inclusion for many reasons. And it’s a whole other post conversation to be had in the future. In the meantime, we have general education students in our classroom for 40-50% of our school day. We’ve had years where we’ve been able to have general education students in our classroom for even more. I trust myself and both my staff, but having general education students who are more easily able to report on what happens in our classroom only increases student safety.

We document, document, document. If something happens to a student, if they fall, if they bump their head, if they skin their knee… We write down exactly what happened and what it is. This establishes the expectation that we should know what is happening to students — and that it should be shared. I would add that we share tons of information about what students are doing each day. Abuse prevention is one piece, but there’s also educational neglect. My daughter has sat in rooms where she did nothing all day. It’s not okay. We share all the cool things that we do during our super busy day so that we can celebrate kids, share their wisdom, and establish the expectation that school is for learning.

We are all about cooperation & shared control, not compliance or power over. First: I do not “sanitize the environment”. I do not make students “use their words” or tell them that the only way to good things is through me. That is not the classroom that I run. Students have access to things that they cherish all throughout the day, freely. Students also have unlimited number of breaks. Yes, unlimited. Does that mean there are times when a student takes so many breaks that we don’t get all of their work done in one day? Yep! Is that okay? Yep. We are also flexible. Sometimes we work at the table. Sometimes we bring the work to you. Our focus is on meeting student needs as much as any need for instruction. Sometimes, our entire focus is on social-emotional regulation, sensory regulation, and communication. Those are really important skills. (And if a student is having to take that many breaks regularly, then we need to go back to the drawing board re: the tasks, accommodations, and assistive technology.)

We center our classroom around communication. Respecting students’ communication to us — in all forms — comes first. Modeling language on AAC, whether that’s high-tech, gestures, ro some other form, comes second. Between the two, we are teaching students that their voice matters, that their voice should be respected, and that there are multiple ways to express what’s important to them. We also need to make sure that words important to students and important for abuse prevention are available. They need to be able to say: no, stop, don’t, don’t want to, don’t like this, etc… They need words that can express something is wrong, whether that’s illness, injury, or being hurt. They need to have body parts (all of them) so that they can accurately report if something happens to them. It doesn’t matter if it takes their entire school career for a student to accurately report an injury, it is always, always worth it. Do not give up. Do not fall back onto “requesting only”. Do not fall back on to nouns.

We center respect in every student interaction. We need to think about what we are doing with and to students. We need to think about where we are placing our hands and why. The vast majority of the time, we don’t need to physically prompt students. The limited amount of times that we do, we can ask for student consent and be mindful of how we do it. For example, when walking down the hallway together, we hold hands. We don’t hold wrists. We don’t hold forearms or upper arms. We listen to students’ bodies: pulling away, tightening, facial grimacing… These are all ways that our students say no to us.

If a student drops to the floor while holding our hand, then we sink with them and get low, releasing the hand as soon as we can. We don’t hold a student’s hand up in the air as they lay on the ground. If a student is upset, we wait. If a student won’t do something, we re-evaluate how we are doing it. We don’t pull or push or maneuver our students’ bodies. When I want to have a face-to-face conversation, I get low and kneel next to a student to talk (without ever forcing eye contact). I might offer my hands for them to hold or squeeze. I don’t hold them in place. If they are about to engage in dangerous behavior, such as throwing a large object, I move the object, not the student. If a student is grabbing something, then I move the object, not the student. I don’t block students in an area with furniture. I don’t use seat belts or tray chairs. And — once again — when the culture is built upon respect, when communication is foundational, when the focus is on regulation and accommodation, we don’t have to worry about these things that much.

We talk to students about what is happening. There are times we have to be in a student’s space. This might be when we are supporting them to stretch their muscles, to change positions in a chair, or simply wiping their face after a sneeze. We can still tell students what is happening, why we are doing it, and respond to their needs. We can talk to them directly: “Your nose is very messy. I know you don’t like for me to clean it, but I really need to.” You can offer choices: “Would you like to wipe your nose, or would you like me to do it?” or “Would you like for me to use a wipe or a tissue?”

We listen to our students, even when they are refusing something that feels really important to us and for them. If my daughter’s hip stretch is too much, she will push back. Her physical therapist doesn’t push into it. She waits. She waits to see if the discomfort will pass. She might try the other leg and come back. She might ask my daughter to move a certain way. But she respects what my daughter’s body is saying. She talks to her about what is happening: “This muscle is really tight, and we really need to stretch it. It might be a little uncomfortable but it shouldn’t hurt. Let me know if it starts to hurt.” Shockingly (sarcasm intended), this is what doctors and therapists and people due with neurotypical and nondisabled patients all the time. It’s the same.

We consider abuse prevention in instructional planning. Even when a class or school culture understands this with behavior, there is a continued use of hand-over-hand prompting in instruction and communication. There were so many times that my daughter came home over the years with work that was so clearly not hers. But the use of hand-over-hand prompting within instructional settings is still teaching students to be passive. It is still teaching students that adults are in charge of their bodies. So when we plan our instruction, we need to plan how we can support student learning without that reliance. What accommodations and assistive technology support can we include in this lesson? What ways can a student participate without needing their body to be moved? What other prompts might be effective?

It also means teaching the skills that, over time, build up to being able to self-report. We teach names. We teach pronouns. We teach body parts. We teach words for hurt, burn, sick, hit, bad, dislike… We teach sharing of messages, such as sharing with an instructional assistant an activity that a student completed with me. These aren’t words that always can be made concrete. They can take a lot of modeling, a lot of immersion. All the more reason to start in preschool, not after some arbitrary prerequisite has been met re: “traveling” with a picture symbol.

When we do use physical prompting, we ask. Yes, I’ve probably said this a dozen times before but I’m saying it again. We ask. I have “ASK CONSENT” in big, bright red letters on our prompt hierarchy (as well as a note about how this is the least preferred prompt). Sometimes, I have students for whom pointing to an image, modeling an image, using a pointer, etc, are not effective for that very first time of finding a word on a talker. I ask: “Can I help you?” and hold out my hand. They are free to say yes or no. We occasionally teach skills that benefit from a few times of doing something together (pedaling, the scissor action). I ask. And I remember that consent can be revoked at any time. I remind students that they can revoke their consent at any time. And I 100% listen when they do.

We reflect on our practices, always willing to change. Earlier this month, one student was trying to take another student’s talker. They all have talkers, so this student did have an identical one they could use. I blocked the taking of the other talker, and the student became quite distressed. I then made the mistake of touching the student’s wrist — not grabbing, not holding, but a light touch that was meant to be calming. Except it wasn’t, and I get that. Light touch + me = I cringe (understatement). I was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t. I was in their space and I was providing light touch that likely pained their sensory system. I was the exact opposite of helpful. The student escalated.

But — I didn’t blame the student. I acknowledged my mistake. I apologized to the student when we were able to talk. I apologized and reminded him that I will not make his body do things that he does not want to do. I talked through the moment with my staff, discussing again the importance of giving this student space to work through his feelings without us being all in it.

This is part of the process of growing as a teacher and of unlearning the ableist and oppressive culture norms that we’ve been raised in. It means sitting with our mistakes, being open to feedback. It means reading blogs, and thinking: oh, maybe I need to think about doing something differently here. It means being open to change. We can keep doing better.