During the past two years, Lafayette Parish School System has expanded inclusive learning opportunities for its youngest special needs children.

The goal was to reduce the number of preschool-aged students in self-contained classes — meaning classes with only special needs students — and offer more options for those students to engage with nonspecial needs students, said Christine Duay, Lafayette Parish School System early childhood program supervisor.

“Our teachers have seen the benefit,” Duay said.

This school year, the district doubled the number of its reverse mainstream classes from four to eight. Reverse mainstream classes are made up of an equal number of special needs and nonspecial needs preschoolers with a general education curriculum taught by a special education teacher.

In addition, educational interventions, including speech therapy and other services provided by the school system to preschool-aged children 3 years old and older, are now being offered at 16 child care centers.

Previously, parents had to drive their children to a local school to receive the services.

“We’re now servicing those students in that natural environment that they may have been in since they were 6-weeks-old,” Duay said. “We go anywhere from Head Start classes to private child cares to some of the church mother-day out type settings.”

The school district was selected by the state Department of Education to receive assistance from SpecialQuest Consulting Group, which specializes in early childhood inclusion training, to expand inclusion opportunities for students in the district, Duay said.

The consulting services will end in October, but the district will continue expanding inclusion options and has offered to mentor other districts, Duay said.

Duay said the eight reverse mainstream preschool classes will continue next school year.

Special education teacher Dawn Paschal spent the first 15 of her 16 years teaching special needs students in a self-contained classroom.

“This is the first year I’ve taught reverse mainstream,” said the Burke Elementary School teacher. “I love this because it’s identified as reverse mainstream, but it’s truly inclusion. I don’t have a separate time. I don’t have a separate curriculum. I have the general education curriculum that I teach to all my children.”

She said she’s seen a difference in her special education students, some of whom she’s taught for the past year, some the past two years in a self-contained setting.

Previously, Paschal said, she and her teaching assistants modeled correct responses to answers or sang along to learning songs and activities, but now, the nonspecial needs children in her class serve as “motivators” and model for the special needs students, she said.

“Now, I find that my special kids are getting so much more out of it because I have children who actually speak back to me,” she said. “They answer the questions I have and they sit and listen to the stories. The other children — that’s the motivator.”

On a recent visit to Paschal’s classroom, her students illustrated her point for her.

She teaches a class of 12 students — six with special needs. While the majority sat in front of Paschal for “morning circle” to start their day with a review of the day’s date and colors and shapes, two boys with special needs played at learning centers in other parts of the classroom under the supervision of a teacher assistant.

“Why do we do these things?” Pascal asked the young students before they began their daily review. “To get ready for what?”

“Kindergarten!” the group shouted.

Paschal then led the group through a counting exercise that led up to the day of the week.

“Today is a new day, so we have to add. How do we add?” she asked.

“We count up!” the students shouted.

During the exercises, the two boys continued playing on their own. As Paschal started the next exercise: a review of shapes and colors, one of the boys slowly moved toward the group and stood to wait his turn at the interactive white board.

The boy then took a seat with the group and the other boy joined him, taking a seat, too. Then, as the other students went to the board one-by-one to identify a color and shape on the board, the two boys participated.

Paschal said she’s worked with one of the two boys since he was three years old and has seen him progress as he interacts along side the other students.

“There’s been so much growth,” she said.

Another young girl with special needs has been more talkative in the reverse mainstream class, Paschal said.

“She’s been with me for a few years and has had trouble with vocabulary,” she said. “This year, she has blossomed because of the other girls in the room.”

“I’ve started teaching some of these children since they were three,” she said. “They’re asking questions. It’s like a competition taking place. The other kids are relaying information back and forth, and that’s making my special kids want to do that.”