Morning Meeting Is for Everyone

Welcome to Morning Meeting in my full inclusion classroom. Twenty-one first graders sit in a large circle on a brightly colored rug. I’m in a small rocking chair, my hand lightly touching one child’s back. Another adult sits behind a child, supporting him as he sits with his legs, encased in blue braces, stretched out. Wiggling beside him, another child sits on a sissel seat that encourages balance and provides tactile input. A small girl, still outside the circle, cries inaudibly at her desk.

Today’s meeting begins with a silent greeting. In our classroom community, everyone actively participates in Morning Meeting to the best of his or her abilities. So, for example, the “handshake” that students pass around the circle takes many different forms. Some children hold hands and shake firmly, others “air shake” without touching, and an adult holds up one child’s arm.

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Just as the greeting ends, the child who had been crying, now calm, joins us. A classmate greets her warmly. Then it’s Samuel’s turn to share. Pleased to have his turn as the star, he sits in the special comfy chair, his para supporting him physically from behind.

Because Samuel is nonverbal within large groups, we’ve prepared for him to share by answering classmates’ questions with “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” gestures and facial expressions. To make this a positive experience for all, I’d met with a few students to think of “yes or no” questions for Samuel, and his para is ready to call on those classmates for him. But now, as I stand with my back to the class, poised to write the first question, Samuel makes his own choice by pointing to Annie. Excited to be chosen, she forgets our “yes or no” protocol and asks, “Where do you like to go when you go on a vacation?”

I don’t want to step in and answer for Samuel, so I wait to see what he’ll do. He laughs, points to Jacob, his best friend, and gives him a thumbs up. Jacob stands and describes the vacation their families took together to see a moose. The class completely accepts Jacob’s being Samuel’s voice.

As I breathe a sigh of relief, I realize that inclusion in Morning Meeting doesn’t just happen. It takes careful planning and teaching. Here are four practices I’ve found particularly helpful:

  1. Provide communication supports for students with speech and language challenges. Children with speech and language problems can communicate effectively with their classmates, but many need accommodations to help them do so. Give students extra time to formulate their thoughts, teach classmates how to wait patiently, and rehearse with students ahead of time. Have a translator available for second-language learners.
  2. Provide physical supports. Challenges with keeping their bodies still may interfere with many students’ ability to participate fully in Morning Meeting. Offer a fidget toy if busy hands help calm a child; provide a special cushion or seat to define the child’s space and give tactile input; seat near you a child who benefits from closer adult presence; or provide a motor break before, during, or right after the meeting.
  3. Quiet things down. For children with sensory and behavioral challenges, the loud liveliness of Morning Meetings can be an obstacle to full participation. To help them, do chants and songs in a whisper voice, clap and stomp quietly, use silent clapping, or teach American Sign Language signs for silent cheers.
  4. Teach inclusiveness. Children need to see adults model inclusion and have time to practice specific skills for responding to differences and communicating in diverse ways. Depending upon class needs, you might teach children how to ask “yes or no” questions, respond to a child who gets upset easily, or leave ample space around a child uncomfortable with physical contact.

Too often, children with special needs or challenges just sit in the Morning Meeting circle instead of actively participating. I’ve learned over the years that it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little flexibility and inventiveness, Morning Meeting, with its emphasis on respect and empathy, can be a time of friendly engagement for all students.

Barbara K. O’Brien has taught for more than thirty years, currently in a multi-age 1st and 2nd grade setting at Beaver Meadow School in Concord, NH. Including Samuel, an award-winning documentary film, was partially filmed in her classroom and features the “Samuel” named in this article.

Tags: Autism, Special Needs

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