Friday, October 25, 2013

Advocacy 101: The Importance of Belonging -- Part 1

With all the talk about having an inclusive environment available to those with a disability, we often forget why it's so important.  As parents, educators, and therapists, we can fight tooth and nail for inclusion, but if we don't realize the underlying factor of belonging, the true nature of the process will be lost.  This week on Advocacy 101, we will discus the very important, yet often overlooked, importance of belonging

Nearly all living creatures on Earth rely on a sense of union and commonality within their species.  In order to survive, they need to be able to identify with others in their group. This can clearly be seen in several different types of creatures.  The lion who doesn't understand how to belong to a pack, will most likely be attacked when they sit too close to the Alpha, starve, or be ostracized to live on their own.  A school of fish constantly communicates with each other to be precisely spaced and make movements in unison.  The fish that can not read the cues from the others will easily stand out when it is separated from the group.  What about the bee that can not properly communicate with others in their hive.  They move left when the others move right or the bee sets down too close to another bee on the same flower.  How do you think this bee will fare?

As humans, we are no different.  In general, we are very social creatures and our brains have developed very specifically to allow the highest opportunity for survival in nature.  All too often, we think that when we include a person in an environment that they should feel like they belong.  Inclusion is only a small step when getting a person to feel a sense of belonging. 
David Pitonyak, Ph. D. is a powerful speaker whose practice is based on a simple idea: difficult behaviors result from unmet needs, which highlights the importance of belonging for those with disabilities who have been labeled as having 'difficult behaviors'.  Here, he explains the reasons behind why belonging is so very important:
"Ours is a social brain.  We are hardwired for belonging.  Increasingly scientists are understanding this in ways that weren't possible before.  The neurosciences are making it really clear that our brain doesn't think about relationships from time to time;  Our brain is preoccupied with relationships.  In fact, it's ... commonly understood that about eighty percent of what our brain is thinking of at any given time is thinking about our social relationships.  If we're not focused on a specific task that requires a specific kind of attention, our brain is pretty much thinking about our social network, who the people around us, where are the people we know, what are they doing, what am I supposed to be doing for them, what are they going to be doing for me. We're preoccupied with it.  
Often people who are lonely are acting out as a route because of this loneliness.  I think that it's the most common cause of problem behaviors in people is their isolation.  It's not the disability, but it's the isolation that often results from disability." (David Pitonyak)

Inclusion is the act of including or the state of being included, or the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular school classesBelonging is defined as acceptance as a natural member or part.  (  A student with a disability can be included with a regular class in school, but if they are not accepted in that class and don't feel a natural sense of belonging, it is very likely that their behavior will be negatively affected.  Inclusion is not simply about being near people. It's the relationships you have with those people; who shows up and stays makes all the difference.  All it takes is one person to change the student's life. 

It may seem insignificant to the rest of us, but each relationship can be vitally important to a person with a disability.  Having such a strong emotional attachment to another person can be devastating to that person, if the relationship changes.  Having a good friend move away or change classes can be difficult for anyone, but if this is the case for a person who already feels left out, it can be a game-changer.  Behavior can fluctuate significantly if just one component of a person's social dynamic changes.  If you notice that your child or student has marked changes in their behavior, try to evaluate what changed in their environment.  Did someone leave (teacher/aide, friend, classmate)?  Even if you don't think their relationship was significant, they may have actually developed a strong bond with that person. 

Often times, you will be able to match your child or student with a person at the school who can develop a comfortable and calming relationship.  This is a person who they can visit at the school, who is not their teacher or parent, but can simply be their friend.  This person will not judge them. They will just be a shoulder to lean on.  Do they need a place to just sit and read or color?  Or a person to talk with and offer a quiet place to rest?  This can come in very handy when you can see warning signs before a meltdown or if there will be changes in social routine.  The Matching Tool can be an invaluable resource when it comes to your child or student. It is "designed to help you to recruit support staff for an individual along several dimensions, including interests, values, and temperament.  The tool is based on the idea that who shows up matters." (  A school counselor or someone with a more flexible schedule would be the more convenient option, but most importantly, the person needs to be the absolute best personality fit for the child.  The student and staff need to be entirely comfortable with each other.  It could be the school nurse, the lunch lady, the librarian, or even an administrator.  Think outside the box with this one. 

Next week, we will address several ways to get other students and the school involved in making your child/student feel like they belong.

Leslie needs to find an office chair with more padding, because the one she currently is using is making her butt numb from sitting for so long.  She also authors a blog at The Pioneer Mom, which has helped contribute to the numbness.   

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