11 Things I Learned from Seven Years of Working with Special Olympics
I had the privilege of working with Special Olympics Project UNIFY for seven years and as you can imagine it was life changing. This national education and sports initiative integrates and sustains strategies powered by an engaged youth community that increases athletic and leadership opportunities for special and general education students to create communities of acceptance for all.
Using the concept of social inclusion Special Olympics Project UNIFY supports its State Programs and their schools to engage students in meaningful interactions, activities and partnerships that focus on student development and school climate. As a result (1) students develop and enhance respectful and responsible attitudes leading to corresponding individual and social behaviors in school and in their communities; and (2) schools create and sustain safe, engaging and equitable processes and structures.
Over the past seven years Special Olympics Project UNIFY moved from an idea to a reality, advanced from implementation to sustainability in schools throughout the United States, transitioned from a project to a movement and offers a framework for other nations to consider, adopt and/or adapt. During these transitions change agents were mobilized, cultivated and sustained leading to game changing positive outcomes for students, schools and communities.
Upon reflection I discovered 11 things I learned from the multitude of opportunities, activities, interactions, assessments, experiences and observations in schools, with youth and adult leaders and at national and international forums.
These experiences were challenging, complex and joyful, often all at the same time. The impact they have on me validates my commitment to social justice and enhances my knowledge and skills to make the world a more equitable and engaging place.
Here are the 11 things I learned:
- Socially inclusive schools focus on “our” students versus “those” students: The most successful schools fully integrate and sustain social inclusion by focusing on “our” students rather than “those” students. This is not a nuanced differentiation but a significant distinction between how all teachers, staff and administrators acknowledge their responsibilities.
- Assets-Based strategies lead to engagement: Schools can establish a value and create the conditions so that each student is important and has gifts and talents that can be built upon to enhance their attributes and contributions. This focus on students’ assets rather than deficiencies impacts relationships, teaching and learning strategies and expectations of student development.
- Students face challenges: It is critical to accurately and adequately describe and inform others of the challenges special education students face in schools and how Special Olympics Project UNIFY effectively addresses them. It is not sufficient to assume everyone recognizes students’ challenges or that the challenges are relevant to their progress and success.
- Sustainability requires moving from a champion to leadership teams: Making change in schools initially requires champions to advance high-quality strategies but then requires shared leadership focused on the “why,” “what” and “how” to fully integrate and sustain the most effective socially inclusive practices. The most effective leadership teams are composed of students, teachers, staff and administrators ensuring all constituents are equitably represented.
- School staff, parents and community partners are critical stakeholders: We never know which adults will have the greatest impact on students and therefore need to ensure school staff, parents and community partners are engaged in social inclusion activities and aware they are important in the life of students.
- School climate is critical: The quality and character of a school provides the context for students and either supports or inhibits social inclusion and its positive outcomes and impacts. Schools need to accurately measure their climate by asking students and adults about their experiences and interactions and the impacts on them. As we measure school climate it should lead to continuous improvement and thus always a work in progress (which is a good thing).
- Trust is paramount: For social inclusion to become the norm in schools there needs to be sets of trusting relationships between students, between students and adults and between adults. Trust means individuals can depend on others to acknowledge and understand their experiences, engage them in meaningful conversations to make sense of those experiences, motivate them to continually develop their attributes and assist them examine how they are connected to and belong with others in the school and community.
- Friendships matter: Each student yearns to be friends with others and developing friendships between special and general education students requires more than opportunities to engage; rather opportunities should be intentionally focused on encouraging friendships and nurtured and sustained by supportive individuals and school systems.
- Pathways require fidelity: There is not one way for schools to integrate and sustain social inclusion in their school however the diverse pathways do need a core set of foundation values, beliefs and engaging strategies. In fact, given that each school has unique traditions, opportunities and challenges expecting a single strategy to be effective across all schools is foolish; however the strategies schools do establish need to be tied to the core set of social inclusion values and reflected in its practices.
- The design is adoptable: Frameworks and strategies from other education and social initiatives can be applied to Special Olympics school-based programs as well Special Olympics can contribute to other school change and deeper learning efforts. I found that the theories of change I used earlier in my career to advance civic development and service-learning applied to our social inclusion efforts and over the years found it easy to translate our social inclusion strategies and tools to other education reform efforts (e.g., student engagement, bully prevention, dropout prevention and parent/family engagement).
- A movement changes everything: As we moved from a project focused on schools to a movement focused on student empowerment, education change and social justice the message, networking and leadership strategies significantly shifted. The message expanded to a focus on human development, social conditions and individual/community impacts; networks extended to include national and international alliances for social justice; and leadership development strategies focused on maximizing current leaders and cultivating emerging leaders. These enhancements benefit Special Olympics and Project UNIFY to more effectively advocate for social inclusion, equity and social justice and increase their impacts on individuals, institutions, communities and nations.
It was my privilege to work with Special Olympics Project UNIFY for seven years and the lessons identified above position me to be a more effective advocate for social justice. I also believe they apply to other education and social justice initiatives committed to engagement, deeper learning and making positive impacts in schools and communities.