To foster compassion and empathy among its students, Charles Helmers Elementary School hosted a schoolwide “Inclusion Week” to teach students about the different struggles students with disabilities face on a daily basis.
“We wanted the students to get a sense of what it would be like to have a struggle and to struggle with something that normally came easy to them,” PTA President Natalie Freed said. “They had hands-on experiences and activities that gave them the physical experience that someone else may have.”
Led by Charyl Torres, a Helmers mother of a child with special needs, the Inclusion Week activities and events took about a month for parents of the school to plan.
“(Torres) wanted to inspire more compassion among all the kids and to have them stop and think about others and how others, who might not have it as easy as you, may experience things,” Freed said.
The week kicked off with a visit from Santa Clarita resident Riley Weinstein, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 2 years old and suffered two strokes that left the left side of her body paralyzed. Today, Weinstein conquered her disability and teachers dance lessons to students of all abilities in the Santa Clarita area.
During her visit, Weinstein spoke to Helmers students about her experiences growing up and the importance of being more inclusive.
“Faculty members stopped me to tell me what an impact the speaker had on them, and their appreciation that we arranged to have our students hear her story,” Freed said.
The parents also decorated the hallways with posters about famous people who overcame challenges and about the district’s Special Day Class. Students added their art, as well, with a mural of a tree with hand-shaped leaves that included ideas for being more inclusive.
The students also learned about empathy when they participated in an experimental workshop called “Walking in My Shoes.” During this workshop, students visited different stations where they attempted to complete tasks while they were hindered by their “simulated disabilities.”
For example, students learned about sensory processing challenges when they tried to jump rope with a string or play hopscotch while wearing leg weights.
Another station gave students a dexterity task when they were asked to string beads while wearing gloves, while a different station challenged their visual-motor skills by having them draw a start while keeping their writing hand covered and looking through a mirror.
Students also learned about vision when they attempted to read a paragraph and find objects in a picture while wearing hazy glasses. And another station taught students about dyslexia as they attempted to read a passage written in letters that were reversed.
“They didn’t understand how much more effort it took to do the small tasks,” Freed said. “One child said ‘I didn’t understand how frustrating this would be’ about the dyslexia task and another said ‘I didn’t realize how much more effort it took.'”
All of the parents and the teachers said the event fostered a sense of understanding and inclusion at the school and encouraged students to be more compassionate each day.
“I had teachers ask follow-up questions and they would say they really got it,” Freed said. “It was really, really awesome.”
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