Whether religious or not, believe He existed or not, Jesus of Nazareth was known for His acceptance of those on the margins of society. He reached out and socialised with prostitutes, thieves, beggars, diseased and the mentally ill. Rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, time and again, Jesus sets the example that everyone belongs. The King of Inclusion. He’d have made the best SENDco.
Us humans tend to separate things out. Put things into boxes – including people. Labelling others as different from fat, thin, black, white, rich, poor, able and disabled. Those who are in and those who are out. Our propensity towards dualism can cause levels of violence in our inner lives as well as our exterior world. Disintegration occurs.
Where there are divisions, there are boundaries to defend. Where there is defence, violence happens. It is thought that separateness, disconnection and rejection are the most painful feelings one can experience as a human being. Whenever we feel ‘split’ from either God, ourselves or others, we feel heartbreaking pain.
In education, we are quick to label children into various categories, with good intention. If we can isolate needs, we feel we can address them. However, it is not disability that necessarily causes distress, but feelings of helplessness and perhaps, uselessness, that we have nothing to offer to society and to others. Outsiders. Different.
Inclusive principles are more than just kind – they are crucial for our flourishing. Recent research into adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and the effect trauma can have has shone a mainstream light on what those in special education have always known. In essence, people need to feel like they are accepted and belong. Attachment theory recommends that we use playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy (PACE) when seeking to build a connection with distressed and troubled individuals. Belonging and love are the keys to healing.
“We have to belong to become.”
When you think about it, millions have been spent on ‘professional development’ that points to the simple truth: Love is the answer. Troubled and distressed people can indeed present themselves in the scariest, least loving ways – this does nothing for our sense of safety when the survival instinct is doing its best to protect and save. The Christian faith, paradoxically, teaches us to love our enemies – for this very reason.
When we accept others, whatever they bring to the table, beautiful things happen. When we see beyond the distress and pain, we can bring each other back into unity, relationship, belonging: love.
A recent incident in our school dining hall illustrated this perfectly. Anthony is an able autistic child who, for the most part, can access mainstream education. Academically, he is thriving. What is hard for him, however, is his disconnect from others mainly caused by different ways of seeing the world. When the world does not live up to his expectations, he communicates his distress with loud screaming, tears and threats – often throwing whatever is in his way. This can sometimes be people. Perhaps understandably, he is a little feared.
Amongst other things, Anthony likes to be first in any line-up. One lunchtime, a lunch lady, in an attempt to be fair to the other children, allowed someone else to go first. Anthony responded as expected, and the dining hall fell fearfully silent. From across the hall, I scanned the scene and went through numerous responses in my head in a split second. As headteacher, I need to do my best to ensure the wellbeing of everyone in our care. Before I could respond, however, I watched as Louis, one of our youngest and most anxious four-year-olds got out of his seat and approached Anthony with a smile. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘someone is going to get hurt.’
Louis gently reached out, touched Anthony’s arm and simply asked, ‘Are you alright?’
Anthony ceased screaming immediately and looked down the line of tables and was met with gentle smiles of our youngest class.
He breathed out audibly. Sat down, smiled back and ate his lunch.
What Louis recognised was distress where others saw someone wanting their own way. I could have hugged and kissed him as I was reminded, again, how children understand that we are not all the same, yet difference is not exclusive. We are all connected by the same reality.
Louis responded as if he had been ‘trauma-informed’ trained or was experienced in attachment theory approaches to behaviour. What he did was act like a human being at its best.
“He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him In! “
Through acceptance and a sense of belonging, we grow and allow others to grow, in belovedness. Those of us who follow a faith would recognise a union with God during those times. Everyone would recognise love.
‘Tis a beautiful thing.
*SENDco – Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Co-ordinator