Emily believes “disability shouldn’t define a person.” She passes on the message at Children of America in Southampton, PA, where she’s an assistant toddler teacher. “I teach my students about diversity, acceptance and inclusion every day because it matters every day,” she says. And she knows how to get the lesson across. “I read them books about children with special needs. We do crafts that apply to the topic. I teach them baby sign language, which is used by many children with special needs. And I encourage the mainstream children in my class to engage with those who are disabled or developmentally behind.”
And she’s succeeded in getting the message across. “The little kids have been very open,” she says, especially a toddler named Rebecca who befriended two disabled boys. “Rebecca would often hug Matthew and John, she always wanted to play with them, and she would move her chair so she could sit beside them in class.” It was intriguing to see Rebecca in action, Emily marveled. “It was as if she was watching the lead teacher and me and copying what we did.”
You couldn’t pick a better role model to follow than Emily herself, who’s shown a strong commitment to helping folks of all abilities and all ages. She taught tap and ballet to two- and three-year old children at a dance school. She was a student volunteer in a dementia unit, where she assisted the recreational therapists, did some cleaning and performed clerical duties. She helped with events held by the Autism Cares Foundation, and she volunteered for Horizons, a special needs group run by a local church. In addition, she belonged to the Buddy Club at Lower Moreland High School for four years and served as its president during her junior and senior years. “We helped students who were developmentally disabled to learn life skills, assisted in their classroom, ate lunch with them, went with them on field trips and made them know they weren’t alone,” Emily says.
The friendships she formed through the Buddy Club gave her a sense of passion for inclusion and inspired her long-term goal to work with young, special needs children. But first, she felt she needed a strong foundation in early childhood education, so she decided to get her Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential.
“My school didn’t have the program, so I became the first Lower Moreland student to go out of the district to take a course,” she says. “I worked out a plan with my school to be bused to Upper Moreland High School every day to take their two-year child development course. It allowed me to gain all the class credits and hours of experience needed to earn my CDA, and I was ready to work with young children right after graduation.”
Since then, she’s gained more experience and expertise in working with children of different ability levels. “At Children of America,” she says, “we work as a group in a way that lets us accommodate each child’s individual needs. We take turns when we do crafts and play games, or I’ll work one on one with a child. Some of the kids are on the autism spectrum, so I try to bring their interests into what I do to help them stay engaged. And whatever level a child’s at, I remain upbeat and praise them for doing a good job. I also encourage the other children to cheer them on.”
And there has been good cause to congratulate the special needs kids. “I’ve seen them gain self-confidence and self-esteem as they improve their developmental skills,” Emily says. “It’s especially rewarding to watch them pick up language skills and learn new words,” she explains, and seeing them progress has inspired her to do even more to support them.
She’s now getting her associate degree in early childhood education at Bucks County Community College and plans to get her bachelor’s degree in special education. Then she wants to pursue her dream career of being a life skills teacher. It’s a demanding job that requires you to help children learn to carry out the everyday, essential tasks of life: getting dressed, performing bathroom routines, communicating with people and much more. Succeeding at the job involves endless repetition, so the teacher needs to be very patient and committed. But Emily has the special sense of passion it takes to help all children reach their promise.
She shares her convictions in a special needs blog where she pleads for more diversity and inclusion in the ECE classroom. “Special needs children are different in some ways,” she says, “but they also have a lot in common with mainstream children. They like the same clothes, the same toys, the same food as other children. And they can do a lot of the same things. They just have a harder time succeeding.”
But isn’t that true of us all? “Everyone has to struggle with certain activities and parts of life,” as Emily points out. So, she urges us to focus on what all children share, not the differences that divide them. “Special needs children can do more than you think.”