We talk a lot about inclusive education on this page, but what does that really mean? One of the most common examples I give when speaking with educators is if the public would be outraged by how you are separating a food allergic child if you swapped disabilities with a visible one, such as a child who was using a wheelchair you are doing something wrong.
Recently a family contacted me for help. At their child’s middle school, all food-allergic students are only permitted to sit at one set of tables. This is billed to kids and families for their safety. All of the other students sit wherever they want at assigned round tables with any of their friends from their grade. The food allergy children all sit together regardless of grade at a set of straight tables against the wall.
Let that sit for a moment.
These children are missing out on a critical component of their education. Research has shown that the non-academic segments of school, such as lunch, recess, and extracurricular activities, even walking in the hall from class to class, make a difference. It is during these times that children develop social skills, develop feelings of connectedness and engagement. When children miss out on these significant development opportunities, classroom engagement, academic performance, and school performance rates plumate, and behavioral issues, including bullying, increases. However, at schools, when children have an opportunity to relax, enjoy their lunchtime, socialize with friends, and perceive school staff as supportive and caring, they feel more connected to school. These feelings of connectedness, in turn, enhance classroom engagement, academic performance, and school completion rates. Research has also found that a pleasant supportive environment students eat more, which helps focus, behavior, and performance throughout the later portion of the day.
One of the most rewarding parts of our work is to help schools change their school’s environment and culture to be inclusive. This work is not beneficial for only the food allergic community. When a school invests in an inclusive, supportive culture they produce students who go out into the world ready to be productive, supportive, and inclusive adults.
Bazyk, S., Demirjian, L., Horvath, F., & Doxsey, L. (2018). The comfortable cafeteria program for promoting student participation and enjoyment: An Outcome Study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy,72(3). doi:10.5014/ajot.2018.025379Blum R. (2005). School connectedness: Improving the lives of students (pp. 1–18). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.