Gabi and Carson
Three-year-old Gabi was on the playground among twenty other preschoolers. She was playing on the swing set while the others were engaged in a game. Earlier, Gabi was teased because she didn’t know the word for “push” when she needed help on the swing. Gabi has Down syndrome and delayed speech development. Typically, a funny, personable, caring little girl, Gabi felt withdrawn and unaccepted by her peers. Her ability to make friends and learn were being compromised by an environment in which her differences cause isolation, rather than inclusion.
But how would Gabi’s ability to thrive differ in an inclusive environment? At St. David’s Center, three-year-old Gabi is on the playground among twenty other preschoolers. She is on the adaptive swing with her friend Carson. Carson is sitting on Gabi’s lap, Gabi’s arms around her best friend’s waist. A few of the other children are pushing them, laughing wildly. Gabi has Down syndrome and delayed speech development. A funny, personable, and a caring little girl, Gabi has many friends who love her. She learns a lot from them, and they learn from her. They’ve even learned some sign language to better communicate with her. She feels included, involved and is thriving.
At St. David’s Center, we value inclusive learning environments and embrace individual differences. An environment in which children of all abilities learn side-by-side increases natural learning opportunities for kindness, empathy, compassion, leadership, and an early appreciation for diversity. Inclusion allows all children to be curious and embrace differences in their peers, whether they are typically developing or have special needs. Additionally, it’s a setting where children with special needs and developmental delays can gain significant ground faster by learning from their typically developing peers. Moreover, relationships are formed, and friendships are made—like the one between Gabi and Carson.
“I watched the friendship bloom between Gabi and Carson,” shares Gabi’s mom, Tanya. “They would meet each other at the door every day, full of hugs.” In fact, these fast friends were inseparable. It was common to see them holding hands through the hall, helping each other put on coats, and playing elaborate imaginary scenarios. They always sat together for lunch. They had a routine of helping each other open their lunches. Carson would open Gabi’s Tupperware, while Gabi unloaded everything from Carson’s lunch and opened her Ziplock bags.
“Gabi and Carson were so in tune with each other’s needs,” describes Gabi’s paraprofessional, Nicole. “When Carson was sick one day, Gabi lightly stroked her hair and comforted her until her mom was able to pick her up. Once we were on the bus on the way to a field trip. Gabi was sitting between Carson and another friend. I asked if Gabi wanted to sit with me where there was more room. I saw Carson check-in with Gabi, and then she said to me, ‘Um, I think Gabi wants to stay back here with us.’ They were such advocates for each other at such a young age,” says Nicole.
Because of the inclusive environment at St. David’s Center, Gabi no longer withdraws from her peers or adults. She has learned that she can do anything and everything she wants to do. She finally had friends who welcomed her with open arms—just as she welcomed them. People embrace her developmental differences and see a little girl with an abundance of energy.
“Once Gabi was able to attend St. David’s Center’s early childhood education program and join Kate and Marty’s class, our lives changed forever,” says Tanya. At St. David’s Center the teachers understand typical and atypical child development and can individualize their instruction based on the needs, abilities, and learning styles of each child. “The teachers, paraprofessionals, and children promoted speech patterns with Gabi and helped her communicate her needs. Gabi was able to model behaviors, and for the first time ever, she was accepted for who she was,” shares Tanya.
Carson, a typically developing child, was given the opportunity to be a role model and an advocate. She learned to embrace differences in her peers and understands that people communicate and learn in different ways, at different paces. Carson even learned how to sign “more” and “want” from Gabi, to make sharing toys with each other easier.
“These experiences early in life are invaluable,” says teacher Kate. “You can’t teach empathy, acceptance, and leadership in a lesson plan—they have to be lived.”