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Linda Gay manages to get a number of lessons into one session using foods. Her young learners can identify the fruit and other edible objects and how to count at the same time. One might also include patience and the understanding not to eat the food right away. From left are Piper Jankowski, Tanner Stegall and Bryson Jennings. Evalyn Kemp is seated on her mother Bobbi Barker-Kemp’s lap for this lesson. Photo submitted

It’s preschool with a twist

Special inclusion preschool class makes a difference

Tiny chairs at low tables, a giant rug with the days of the week, neatly arranged trucks and cars, dollies and a pair of barns for farm animal-make believe set the stage for Plumas Unified School District’s first venture into reverse inclusion preschool opportunities.

Now in its third year at Quincy Elementary School Pioneer Campus, the approach is the brainchild of special education instructor Linda Gay.

Already involved with a special education program in Greenville, Gay said she waited for longtime special ed preschool instructor Carol Burney to retire.

When that day arrived, Gay knew she wanted more than a special ed preschool. She wanted to try something just a little different in Plumas County.

Convincing administrators that the reverse inclusion was worth offering, Gay established her new plan. Although the classroom and instructor are in Quincy, it is offered to special needs children throughout Plumas.

Small buses designed to accommodate children with special needs pick up the district’s children for preschool. At the end of the sessions they’re taken right back to their own front doors.

A reverse inclusion program is just the opposite of what is traditionally offered to special education students across the U.S. Here, a few students not considered as having special education needs are included into the classroom. Instead of becoming the exceptional child in a classroom filled with other learners, in Gay’s classroom, children with special needs are the norm.

It begins with the teacher

Like her predecessor, Burney, Gay is enthusiastically welcomed into the folds of her classroom environment. Her students look forward to seeing her every day. Parents can relax that their children are in good hands, will learn and are cared for throughout the day.

Whether it’s in the classroom offering a special lesson or before a large group of parents at preschool graduation, it seems that Gay has found her true calling.

But there was a time when Gay wasn’t focused on special education as a career. Following high school graduation, the young woman thought she’d be a marine biologist. Then she thought she would be a pediatric nurse. Eventually, her goal was to become a teacher.

Except for a last minute substitute-teaching placement, Gay wouldn’t have been exposed to a teaching alternative that changed not only her life, but also the lives of so many students and parents to come.

Born in Reno and raised in Fallon, Gay’s first experience with Plumas County came when she went to Feather River College. It was there she met Jason Gay, her future husband.

Following her time at FRC, Gay knew she wanted to go to the University of Nevada, Reno. She knew they offered a good elementary school teaching program, plus she wanted to be closer to her family.

“I had no desire, none, to do special education,” Gay said about the early days of her education classes. “I was set on being a kindergarten teacher.”

Along with her traditional classes in education, Gay remembered that a friend recommended that she start substitute teaching to gain experience.

And then Gay was called to substitute in a special education classroom. “I need you to know I’ve never done this before,” she told the people who asked her to substitute.

“I walked into the classroom and I knew within five minutes that’s what I was meant to be doing,” she said years later.

“I fell in love with those kids.”

With a new vision and self-determination, Gay changed her major from education to include a dual credential program. She was going to be the kindergarten teacher she originally envisioned, but she was adding the additional training for special education.

Now, Gay knew that she could still make an impact with young students experiencing school for the first time, but also with those who experienced school on a different level.

“A special education credential is more specialized than an elementary education due to the population of students you work with as a special educator,” Gay explained about what her shift in focus meant.

Inside the classroom

It is more expensive to offer special education programs and that includes Gay’s reverse inclusion classes. “These kids deserve every bit if not more,” she said.

Gay’s preschool is designed for students 3 to 6 years old. There are two sessions, morning and afternoon. Currently, she has 17 students including the inclusion children.

And like any good teacher, the work doesn’t end when she closes the classroom door for the evening.

Despite having two children of her own, McKynlee and Kendrick, her work has to go home with her. But a fortunate thing is that many of the techniques she learned for any special education student, work for all children. “I’ve discovered over the years that many of the strategies I use to teach my students can be beneficial to all learners,” she said.

“It’s been a pleasure not only utilizing these strategieswith my own children, but watching them continue to use them, and teach them to their peers as well,” Gay explained about being a teacher and mother.

“We just need to find the strategies and tools that work best for each individual student and teach them how to use them on their own,” she added about all children.

Speaking of watching her techniques carry over to her own children, Gay said that her daughter absolutely loves helping in the classroom.

Although McKynlee is only in the eighth grade, she’s enjoyed working with her mother’s students from a slightly earlier age. Gay said that she clearly identifies with her daughter’s enthusiasm when she works with the inclusion class. And quite possibly she can see her choosing special education as a career option in the years to come.

Characteristics of special education teachers

The following information came from a website dedicated to special education instructors.

It takes a special person to be a good teacher. It takes a lot more to be an effective special education teacher.

Children in general need love and attention not only from their parents but from their teachers as well.

To thrive and become a successful adult — at whatever level that success is determined — children need to feel accepted, appreciated and that they’re someone special who can succeed. In special education this is never truer. Teaching is highly individualized and there is no such thing as one size fits all.

The following includes just a few personality traits for a special education teacher.

1. Patience. Working with students who have diverse physical, emotional and mental challenges requires a teacher to have patience for each child’s behavioral and learning abilities.

2. Loving and accepting: The individual must be able to relate to any child. And they must be accepted just the way they are. “Regardless of their capabilities or behavior each child is unique and worth of the instructor’s attention,” according to a guide to a career in special education.This is especially true for children who can be very demanding, or the reverse, totally withdrawn or unaware of etiquette. It is important to respect and treat all students’ unique behaviors and needs.

3. Resourceful. Organized. Sound intuition: All students need a planned, structured environment for them to learn successfully, but this is especially true for special education students.

“The special education teacher must provide the class with a physical and academic structure favorable to learning. Whether the child is dyslexic, physically or mentally handicapped or has some auditory learning disabilities or other injuries, students may be incapable of expressing their feelings or communicating their needs,” according to the guide.

A good special education teacher is thoroughly organized. Surprises can be anticipated at almost any moment. The successful instructors not only anticipates the unexpected but is prepared for everything. Aides and volunteers are very important in any classroom but especially in the special needs classroom. When a situation demands the instructor’s full attention then other adults can take over continuing lessons, while the needs of one student are met.

The special education teacher must provide the class with a physical and academic structure favorable to learning, according to the guide. Whether the child is dyslexic, physically or mentally handicapped or has some auditory learning disabilities or other injuries, students may be incapable of expressing their feelings or communicating their needs.

4. Creative and enthusiastic: Thinking outside the box and the ability to combine both creativity and enthusiasm is essential for any teach, but especially special education teachers.

Preschool is about learning rules, skills and gaining knowledge — much of it for the first time. And being able to do that in a fun, inclusive learning environment makes for a better less restrictive learning environment. Preschool, like the next level of kindergarten, begins laying the foundation for acquiring tools and developing skills that will last, if not throughout schooling, but a lifetime.

A teacher’s enthusiasm and creativeness help inspire all students to be creative and enjoy what they’re learning. Instead of tasks, a good teacher encourages students to learn.

5. Displays confidence and calm: A calm, kind, confident and helpful teacher is a must in the special education classroom, according to the special education guide.

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