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Together we can move forward — with inclusive minds
For more than 50 years, Special Olympics promoted a model of inclusivity focused on getting people together on playing fields, ball courts and running tracks.
But over the last two decades Special Olympics, through its Unified Champion Schools program, has worked in schools to foster an "inclusive mindset" in students.
Students who participate say that the program has helped them be more inclusive of others, be more respectful, and become more understanding.
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You don't have to be a particularly close observer of America's social and political discourse — or even of any particular politician — to know how crude, vicious, and divisive we have all become. Leaders in politics and media model bullying, boasting and ridicule with a perpetual undercurrent of disgust. Leaders lead that way, and followers follow, and down into the depths of division we all sink. In the long run, shaming and exclusion have only one certain outcome: more anxiety, more anger, and more exclusion.
This pattern of scapegoating and divisiveness has a particularly destructive effect on children. Anxiety is at epidemic levels among young people, damaging relationships and achievement. Behavior problems, disengagement, and emotional distress are all serious challenges among all groups of children and interfere with both learning and flourishing.
Neuroscience makes the case even more starkly: social connection drives learning and the brain has a social filter: if relationships are weak or damaged, learning is too. On top of these challenges, schools are increasingly diverse and rightly responsible for optimizing the chances for all children to feel welcome and supported. If a pattern of bullying and divisiveness exists, children of all backgrounds will suffer.
For over a generation, educators have been working to make schools into places that offer children a path to resisting being a part of this cycle of anxiety, bullying, and despair. That's what schools need to do now more than ever—teach and model the skills and values that will reduce stress and promote positive relationships and success in school and life. To do so, educators are welcoming efforts to promote the skills, values, and beliefs that reduce divisiveness and isolation and promote learning, belonging, and purpose for all.
While some doubt that schools can handle yet another responsibility, research shows that it is not only possible but also necessary for schools to integrate social, emotional and cognitive approaches to learning. Research shows, for instance, that in the face of bullying and discrimination, students can learn to be inclusive, welcoming, and empathetic — and learn more effectively too.
Teenagers can learn — and teach one another — not to be reactive, violent, and destructive when they encounter pain but instead develop the inner strength and social agency to respond effectively. And they can do better than tolerance or passive acquiescence. They can learn to be actively, even courageously, inclusive—to develop skills that enable them to be aware of, understanding of, and able to overcome, the exclusion and humiliation of others while at the same time, increasing their own sense of purpose and responsibility.
Special Olympics, an organization built for and by some of the most excluded people in the world—those with intellectual and developmental disabilities—has spent more than 50 years tackling the problem of exclusion and intolerance by inviting people to play sports together and come to recognize their common humanity through the challenges and triumphs of competition.
In the last two decades, Special Olympics turned its attention to schools and to the challenge of teaching inclusive attitudes in children before discriminatory and exclusionary attitudes develop and harden. Over that time, thousands of educators have collaborated with Special Olympics volunteers, parents, coaches, and athletes themselves in developing the design, implementation, and evaluation of a school-based program to promote inclusivity and end bullying and discrimination.
The program, "Unified Champion Schools," brings students with and without intellectual disabilities (ID) together and challenges them to be agents of change. Students learn inclusive leadership skills and apply them in and out of the classroom, in assemblies, extracurricular clubs and activities, and especially in inclusive Special Olympics unified sports teams all with one central goal: to create a culture that respects the dignity and gifts of all students.
Dramatic changes in attitudes toward others
The results have been promising and in some cases startling: thousands of young people — both those who had formerly been excluded and those who had been the excluders — report dramatic changes in their attitudes toward others and in their perceptions that their schools can be safe and successful communities for all. Annual evaluations demonstrate that the increased visibility of, and social interactions with students with ID lead to more positive attitudes and perceptions of school as a socially inclusive community. Students who participate say that the program has helped them be more inclusive of others, be more respectful, and become more understanding.
More recently, assessments have examined the value of the program in providing opportunities for students to gain or enhance social and emotional competencies and have found improvements in social awareness skills such as how to work better with others, and in relationship skills such as making friends with people who are different. These program evaluation findings give further evidence to the important role young people can play in creating inclusive environments if they are given both the opportunity and the skills to lead.
But perhaps more importantly, these evaluations led us to believe that there are specific and measurable ways to promote inclusivity by teaching and modelling key skills and beliefs that promote the development of a stable and potentially lasting "inclusive mindset."