Brittany Gunning is an Inclusion Specialist for The Arc of Philadelphia’s Include Me program. Inclusion Specialists are prepared to provide onsite support and training for school personnel/student teams, including administrators, general and special education teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, para-professionals and support staff, as well as family members of children with disabilities in Pennsylvania school districts. We talked with Brittany to learn more about her role and why it is important.
Tell us a little about what you do, as an Inclusion Specialist for the Arc of Philadelphia?
As an Inclusion Specialist, my job can look a little bit different every day. My week is divided into virtual days, field days, and notation days. On a virtual day, I devote a huge chunk of time to research, reading, and team meetings. During the research part of my day, I typically watch any module that I think would be informative and helpful for the students I work with. I also spend an extensive amount of time looking up suggestions and modifications to suggest to the teacher. These modifications/accommodations can make a huge difference for a child struggling in the classroom. On a field day, I visit the school that I am working with and rotate between three special education/autistic support classrooms. During my visits I closely observe the children that I have consents for and record behaviors. Following my field days, I have a notation day where I transfer all data and observations into a system called Apricot, which is used to track a students behaviors and progress. In addition to research and implementing inclusive practices in the classroom, I am also a member of the PA Coalition for Special Education. The members of the coalition gather every Wednesday morning to discuss how we can improve the School District of Philadelphia and advocate for the individuals with special needs in the district.
How did you get into this field? What inspires you to work in this field?
For much of my life I have been dedicated to fairness, equality, and inclusion. This field, along with children, have always been two things that I have been interested in working with. I have always worked with children as a nanny and in a daycare setting and one thing that I was always adamant about was making sure every child was included. As a child, I was “left out” of many activities, picked last to be on teams, and to put it simply, “the odd man out”. Being the black sheep seemed to always be my role, and I want to attribute that to helping shape who I am as an Inclusion Specialist. In addition to this, I was always drawn to doing fun and creative activities with the kids in the daycare. There were many times that certain children would have varying sensory issues during an art activity and I would need to modify different parts of the craft for them. For example, a few of the children in my classes did not do well when their hands and fingers were in paint for an activity. To make sure that they were included in the craft, I came up with the idea to put the paint in a zip lock bag and poke a small hole in the side of the bag that would not touch the child’s hand and have them rub that onto the paper. This allowed the paint to come out of the bag and onto the paper without touching the child’s hand.
In addition to personally feeling the effects of being left out, I have seen firsthand how often my daughter is/was left out due to her disability. This, over every other reason, is what motivates me every single day. I will never forget the day that my five year old came home from school visibly very upset and not herself. When I asked what had happened, she stated that none of her classmates wanted her on their team in gym class because she is “too slow, annoying, can’t remember directions, and talks too much”. While my daughter’s disability is not nearly as severe as other disabilities, she is still excluded daily due to uncontrollable aspects of it and it absolutely crushes me - and motivates me to learn more and more about inclusion. Because the team picking issue is so close to my heart, naturally it was the first thing I looked for while observing an inclusive gym class. I was pleasantly surprised that during my observations not only did the gym teacher pick the teams, she made sure that there was an equal amount of special and general education students per team. In addition to this, the teacher repeated the directions multiple times to help increase comprehension, and she was encouraging to every student in the classroom. While not every classroom is like this, she inspired me to do everything I can to make the classes that I work in mirror the inclusion in her gym class.
Tell us about some successful methods in inclusive education.
One successful method that I have observed, and was thrilled with, was a teacher assigning teams in a “team A, team B” manner. Any time a teacher assigns teams or groups it eliminates the chance for someone to be left out or picked last. A second method that I found to be very helpful is having the student repeat back the directions to the teacher to increase comprehension. The students are more likely to do better on the assignment if the teacher does this in addition to giving the students extra time to complete the work. Another successful method that I have implemented is having one student’s general education reading teacher send me the assignments she wants him to do, modifying it in a way that the student can better understand and complete it, and then submit it back to the teacher to give to the student in class. This helps this particular student complete the assignment from his general education teacher.
What do you want people to know about inclusive education?
I think the most important thing I want others to know about inclusive education would be how much it could truly change a child's life in so many different aspects. One huge benefit of inclusive education that many people wouldn’t even think of is the confidence that a child can gain from being included with their peers outside of their usual classroom. The individuals in special education/autistic support are all so wonderful in their own ways and have so much to offer. Many of them work so hard personally and academically every single day in hopes of being in a general education classroom. In addition to being in a general education setting, inclusive education also offers peer to peer support that the special education students are just not exposed to due to their being in an excluded classroom. Inclusion in a school leads to more opportunities, more long lasting friendships, and a wide range of perspective for all students involved.