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By Andrea Cahn, Senior Director of Special Olympics Project UNIFY
Editor’s Note: This post is form our partners at the Special Olympics Project UNIFY. Each week in January, we will feature a new article on a topic related to the social inclusion of youth with intellectual disabilities. Through this effort, we hope to inform the public of the importance of such inclusion as well as offer educators and parents resources to implement it.
In recent months, a dizzying number of headlines about the tragedies of school bullying have sent policymakers, educators, parents, and students in search of solutions. While it would be easy to latch on to a targeted anti-bullying campaign, as we’ve done with issues like drug abuse, teen pregnancy, youth violence, and suicide, it’s time to address the root causes. During the past three decades, educators have funneled scarce resources into a fragmented web of school-based prevention programs. However well-intentioned, this approach has focused on symptoms, not causes, and has missed an opportunity to expand the skills and capacities of young people as they grow and develop.
“Student learning is negatively impacted when (a young person) feels unsafe at school…Sport is the world’s greatest classroom for tolerance and acceptance.” ~ Timothy P. Shriver, Ph D., Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics
According to Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, “Student learning is negatively impacted when he or she feels unsafe at school and as high profile tragedies illustrate, we are not making the grade.” The latest statistics are staggering. Nearly 17 percent of American students are bullied at least two to three times a month and 28 percent of students were bullied sometime during the last six months. Similarly, little more than half of high school students feel they are important in their school community, and tragically, nearly 15 percent of high school students say they have seriously considered suicide within the last year. A large majority of parents and adults—nearly 75 percent-- feel bullying and violence are serious problems in local schools.
These numbers don’t even begin to capture the reality for students with intellectual disabilities. Shriver states, “Among students with intellectual/developmental disabilities, some estimates suggest that up to 9 percent are bullied or victimized once a week or more. In one recent study, less than one-third of public school students acknowledged having a schoolmate or classmate with intellectual disabilities and only 10 percent of all students reported having a friend with intellectual disabilities, demonstrating the isolation and alienation students with disabilities experience every day in their schools.”
And yet a quiet movement is building around the country, led by an unlikely set of leaders. For 44 years, Special Olympics has promoted a culture of empowerment and inclusion for all young people, resulting in attitude change and confidence-building among millions of people with and without intellectual disabilities. At Special Olympics, the formula for success is providing young people with opportunities to succeed, engage their communities, and form authentic relationships. This formula has formed the foundation of Project UNIFY, a youth-led movement devoted to developing school communities where all young people are agents of change—fostering respect, dignity, and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.
Project UNIFY utilizes a variety of approaches. Beginning with Unified Sports® (where students with and without intellectual disabilities play on teams of equal ability) as a platform, schools can provide key opportunities to break down attitudinal barriers. Through inclusive youth leadership development and unified activities including, students with and without intellectual disabilities develop their strengths and abilities while forming meaningful relationships. Project UNIFY also utilizes communications strategies including social networking, teaching students that they have a unique voice that deserves to be heard. Finally, Project UNIFY continues to transform and empower young adults by moving directly into the classroom with a standards-aligned service learning curriculum.
An Opportunity: Get Into It®
This curriculum –Get Into It – is an exciting tool for administrators and teachers who are looking for ways to teach the importance of acceptance and respect in their schools. Get Into It is a service-learning curriculum designed to motivate students to engage with important social justice issues by offering age-appropriate lessons that can be integrated with regular classroom curriculum in grades K-12. The curriculum is designed to advance students’ civic knowledge and skill development while promoting acceptance and understanding of people’s differences. Get Into It motivates students to become advocates for and together with all people. The curriculum is aligned with national standards and includes a matrix of how each lesson addresses important areas in Language Arts, Civics and Government, Health, Technology while also building 21st century skills. Most importantly, this curriculum is aligned with character education and anti-bullying initiatives; while its project-based nature allows students to take ownership of a project they create to fulfill a need in their school or community.
The Get Into It curriculum takes the social justice movement of Special Olympics and puts it in the hands of those who need to own it – the youth. Through the lessons and interactive activities of Get Into It, students are introduced to the Special Olympics movement and the stories of acceptance and determination of the athletes. Students are asked to think about themselves and how they’d want others to see them, and to then consider how they judge and view their peers. From there, students begin to look at their school and a community as a whole, considering how they can make a difference. At this point, students are placed in the driver’s seat, given the ability to develop an action plan about making a real difference. The Get Into It curriculum contains a service-learning guide for teachers with the tools to successfully prepare and place their students in leadership roles.
Get Into It is designed to bring together the resources of Special Olympics and Project UNIFY in schools to achieve a tipping point in our progress toward healthier and more accepting schools. With the support of the U.S. Department of Education and other private educational sponsors, we are able to offer Get Into It free of charge at https://getintoit.specialolympics.org/
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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