We’ve been no strangers to the fight to legitimise the idea of ‘inclusivity’ in the Singaporean educational landscape and beyond, doing so right from within our doors at Imagine If.
We have always emphasised that when we say inclusive, we mean it. The conversations we’ve had to push forward an unfamiliar concept behind an enriching way to learn were incredibly fruitful.
And yet… others stemmed from a parent’s fear of the implication of putting their ‘normal’ children with neurodivergent ones in a learning space. Or more concerningly, the implicit belief behind it: that children can only learn or ‘absorb’ (the right kind of) social skills with children like themselves, especially when you consider the alienation of children by and from the classrooms happen because they choose to alienate them, not because their different abilities are inherently alienating.
We have always refused to segregate our learners by age, even. We have seen firsthand the rewarding benefits of our kids broadening their perspectives from mentorship, how they gain sensitivity and expand their social understanding from this freedom to explore–unsullied by the connotations behind the labels imposed on them, whatever they may be, by institutions that are lightyears behind understanding the way children ‘work.’
What then, about the kids who don’t, or can’t, learn ‘by the rules?’
The trauma and alienation felt by many families we’ve encountered, as their kids were turned away from classrooms and schools, is the inevitable conclusion of this segregation. This exclusion by schools, and some parents, serve to also box themselves in with social rules of normalcy and cut their children off from the opportunity to expand their worldview, enrich their social circles, and learn sensitivity, intrigue, and empathy. These are values that are more meaningfully cultivated when it comes to people they may not relate to. This is especially thought-provoking when we consider how children aren’t born to harbour hateful thoughts but are taught. Ignorance is inevitable, but can be remedied. But it cannot be remedied by perpetuating the otherisation of their peers.
In the realm of fostering healthy social skills, one that challenges traditional notions of age-based grouping and homogeneous environments emerges instead as inclusive education begins to come, however slowly, to the fore. It recognises that the development of these skills is not solely dependent on chronological age, and abilities, even, but on a complex interplay of various factors.
This requires the pivotal role of facilitators and the power of smart grouping based on chemistry and cognitive age–for example, how we look beyond the child and their labels at Imagine If.
Smart grouping, the strategic alignment of individuals based on shared cognitive age and compatible personalities, recognises that intellectual and emotional development can transcend chronological markers, allowing children and teens with similar cognitive capabilities to engage with and learn from one another. Breaking free from the confines of traditional age-based structures, this approach empowers learners to forge connections based on commonalities, shared experiences, and mutual understanding to lay the foundation for experiences they may not share but can learn from.
The facilitator, acting as a guide, should possess a profound understanding of individual needs, strengths, and areas for growth; orchestrating an environment that goes beyond the superficialities of age and instead focuses on the unique cognitive abilities and emotional landscape of each individual. This creates a space where meaningful, vibrant connections can flourish, unearthing the true potential of social interaction that’s expansive and exploratory.
Within this thoughtfully curated environment, social opportunities abound. From group projects that foster collaboration and teamwork to open discussions that encourage dialogue and critical thinking, every facet of the environment is intentionally designed to nurture the growth of social skills. These interactions, often intergenerational and multidimensional, expose learners to a breadth of perspectives, challenging preconceived notions and fostering a genuine appreciation for the beauty of human connection where everyone can feel like they belong.
This approach embraces diversity in all its forms, too—celebrating the inherent differences in people and ideas to be celebrated, understood, and considered. It understands that true growth and the development of robust social skills are created from a rich tapestry of perspectives and experiences. The stage is set for a vibrant spectrum of interactions, fostering empathy, cultural awareness, and a deep understanding of the world around us–because once children enter the adult world, will they not be surrounded by all types of people anyway?
“Students educated in segregated settings graduate to inhabit the same society as students without disability,” writes Kate de Bruin, a senior lecturer at Monash University’s School of Curriculum, Teaching and Inclusive Education, for The Atlantic. “There is no ‘special’ universe into which they graduate.”
Our Founder, Pika Sen, also offers an insightful perspective: “Kids don’t learn social skills via some kind of magical osmosis from ‘normal’ children. They learn them through engaging with individuals of different backgrounds to glean understanding, tolerance, kindness, and curiosity. As if neurotypical folks have a monopoly on social skills that are little more than just social rules that impose a flimsy definition of normality. In doing so, this ironically cuts children off even more from a wealth of experiences and opportunities to practice inquisitiveness, limiting their worldview.
Developing healthy social skills is actually a combination of the skills of the facilitator, smart grouping based on chemistry, and cognitive age, rather than chronological age and a carefully curated environment designed to elicit social opportunities. Diversity in both people (almost by virtue of that) and ideas is what allows for the full spectrum of rich interactions to build social skills.”
Imagine If doesn’t just allow all kids to ‘fit in’ to whatever nebulous idea of palatability–it does away completely with the need to do that. Special education, age, etc. shouldn’t be separate.
We create a path that redefines how we approach the cultivation of social skills. It is a departure from the rigid boundaries imposed by–yet again–arbitrary standards of interaction and learning in favour of a diverse and dynamic environment. By prioritising the role of facilitators and smart grouping within an inclusive approach, this is how we unlock the full potential of social skills development—dismantling traditional limitations and paving the way for transformative interactions and memorable, lifelong connections.
Inclusive education also actually includes the success of all its learners, as it were; it does not hinder academic progress; rather, it enhances it. Imagine If recognises that children with different abilities learn at their own pace and in different ways, so by employing personalised teaching strategies, tailored curricula, and support mechanisms, educators can cater to each learner’s unique needs to ensure that they receive the necessary resources to excel.
Though we know that inclusive education is rooted in the belief that every child deserves access to quality education, regardless of their abilities, it reminds us that they also deserve to inhabit spaces where they are treated as an asset that makes our tapestry of learning so intricate–and not as an exception. By integrating learners with diverse needs into our spaces, we create an environment that values and explores differences to foster a culture of acceptance and understanding, where learners learn from each other’s unique perspectives, experiences, and abilities.
This sets them up to cultivate empathy and compassion– traits emphasised for their importance, yet so rarely nurtured in the most opportune settings to make them a learning opportunity. Through meaningful interactions with peers of diverse abilities, they naturally gain a profound appreciation for the unique strengths and challenges each individual brings to the table. Then through collaboration and support, learners possess the tools to forge an authentic comprehension of one another’s needs, fostering a compassionate community that transcends the confines of the classroom–and our preconceived notions, if we’d only let ourselves explore what waits to be discovered from people who aren’t like us!
Education, if we allow it, possesses the awe-inspiring potential to instil profound insight drawn from the most ‘unconventional’ sources, arming learners who possess the curiosity–lacking in so many institutions–with the indispensable skills to take on the real world and its different types of people. We understand this and act accordingly to make use of these opportunities.
Bottom line: when children grow up learning alongside peers of diverse abilities, they become emissaries for inclusion, breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes. The environment at Imagine If empowers learners to become changemakers for a future where every individual is valued and included and seen for who they are, regardless of their differences–just like the real world will call upon them to be. This should be the standard. These are valuable lessons for the grown-ups to remember: differences can be acknowledged and celebrated, yet we are all alike in the ways that matter, especially in the pursuit of trying to make sense of the world.
Kim, J. (2023, March 8). Special ed shouldn’t be separate. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2023/03/kids-disabilities-special-education-school-inclusive-education/673276/