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Reindeer on the Roof: Participation Instead of a Problem

Reindeer on the Roof: Participation Instead of a Problem

School programs that are not the usual “day in and day out” activity are just as much a part of “education” as a child’s math class. This is because such programs are as much about the social integration of a child with peers as they are about the program itself. However, schools often view participation in “social” programs, such as “holiday programs” or “field trips,” as mere privileges to be earned, so it is often easy for staff to withhold those opportunities from students with disabilities who pose behavioral and/or logistical issues for schools. For parents of a child with a disability who runs the risk of exclusion from such programs, the child’s participation is a matter of working with the school to facilitate his or her opportunity to “prance on the rooftop” along with peers. It involves being proactive, articulating the action as “supporting the school in this educational process,” and maximizing the ability of the child with the disability to participate with peers.

The first thing to do, as parents, is to start early. That “holiday” program may be over a month away, which in school planning terms can constitute “eons of time,” but starting now is important. You need to be realistic about your child’s actual capacity. If your child has significant issues dealing with transitions, you need to recognize those limitations. Given your child’s actual limitations, you should communicate in a positive way what you can do to help facilitate your child’s participation in this educational program. Don’t forget to emphasize how important your child’s participation in a social-emotional program is for his or her educational development, while recognizing your child’s actual limitations.

This alerts the school to three things. First, and most important, it lets the school know that you are available to assist them in facilitating your child’s participation in the program. This is particularly important if your child has a disability that results in difficulties dealing with changes in schedules and/or transitions. This means that you and the school have to be honest about the child’s capacity, and avoid an “all or nothing” situation that is difficult for the child. Second, it informs the school that you understand that such programs, while designed to be non-academic, are actually a significant component of education. Indeed, there is clear evidence that the development of such social “soft skills” are essential for the success of individuals with disabilities after they leave school. Finally, it allows the parties involved to recognize that logistical issues alone should not be a reason to exclude the child from participation.

Additionally, you need to be realistic about what your child can actually do. If necessary, you need to be able to articulate to the school ways that your child can “sit out” of some of the program, to avoid being excluded from the entire event. This means that you have to let the child know that if the program is more difficult than can be handled, there is nothing wrong with scaling back the participation. Indeed, depending on the needs of your child, it may be appropriate to discuss with the school the ability to “opt out” at the last minute without creating a disruption for the program. The objective is that the parent and the school work together to get on the same page about the child’s comfort level in this particular educational environment.

An important thing to remember about “social development” school activities, like holiday programs, is that they are intended to promote social growth while being fun for the child. Losing sight of either of those concepts means that the objective of the program is undermined. The child needs to be given the joyful opportunity to listen for the “hooves on the rooftop” with peers, and not the frustrated stomping of adults.

Michael J. Elsken is a Staff Attorney for Disability Rights Nebraska (formerly Nebraska Advocacy Services, Inc.), since 2002. He has engaged in a broad range of “protection and advocacy” activities for the agency on behalf of individuals with disabilities in the State of Nebraska. Much of his work involves both disability employment and education issues.

Photo Credit: David Beale via