My first year teaching in an Academic and Social Immersion classroom, I was teaching kindergarten, and I taught a student who I’ll call John. John was on the autism spectrum, and he had pretty limited verbal skills. He watched the other children, but was hesitant to join the group. He sometimes had maladaptive behaviors and needed adult prompting to participate in class activities. One girl in the class, I’ll call her Taylor, particularly liked John. She would give him reminders at transition times, help him find his materials, play with him at center time, sit with him at lunch, and work to include him at recess. Taylor didn’t mind that John didn’t have much to say. To be perfectly honest, she had plenty to say for the both of them.
What really struck me was when I found out that Taylor called John every weekend to talk on the phone. She didn’t want to go two days without talking to her friend. John couldn’t say much back, but his mom reported that he held the phone and listened to his friend, smiling all the while. Back at school, John looked to Taylor to imitate behaviors. He deferred to her when she gave him directions. He never gave her the kind of pushback he often gave us teachers when we asked him to do something he didn’t like. John was working hard to keep up with his friend.
Through his friendship with Taylor, John accessed not only the classroom curriculum, but more classmates. Through their friendship, Taylor viewed John as a true friend, who she thought about outside of school. She also developed patience, kindness, and leadership skills, building confidence that she had something valuable to share. Theirs was a mutually beneficial relationship.
The difference between inclusion and immersion goes back to the language many use to describe the students who join their class: Inclusion students. Students who float between spaces are by definition not full members of a classroom community. Students who just show up here and there struggle to make friends. In immersion, there is not a distinction between students because everyone is a member of the group. The group is the group. Everyone is a part of the group and learns to function together. Each member of the group is enriched by being a part of the group.
Academic and Social Immersion hinges on the fact that students with social deficits need to be in age-typical environments to have those deficits remediated. They need exposure in the natural setting to the types of behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable. They need membership and acceptance in a community of learners and teachers. They need modelling and reinforcement about hand raising or discussion skills or staying on topic in conversation. They benefit from age typical expectations related to dealing with difficulty or handling school supplies. The list of social behaviors to imitate is endless, but not insurmountable, because students see others successfully navigating the school environment.
Peers don’t just model social behaviors, though. Peers model academic behaviors. Typically developing peers show students what is expected and that those expectations are possible. While all students may work at different levels, how they act while working should be the same. Walking through classroom that practice Academic and Social Immersion, an observer might hear the refrain “Look at your friends!” This prompt helps train students who struggle with social and behavioral expectations that the world is full of prompts–full of help when you aren’t sure what to do or how to act.
Being around typically developing peers means that grade level skills are constantly being modeled as well. Dr. Rebecca Morrison, the developer of the Academic and Social Immersion model, found in her research that skill sets can be expanded, just by being beside a peer modelling how to do a skill. The power of positive peer pressure can be seen from preschool toilet training through high school science fair, from elementary wax museum to middle school writing prompts.
Some students may still have behavioral, fine motor, or other specific needs that require remediation. However, in the Academic and Social Immersion Model, the accommodations and remediation of those areas are added to the age typical environment through thoughtful scaffolding and differentiation. Teachers and paraprofessionals collaborate to create the best possible learning environment that supports everyone.
Most importantly, the culture of immersion, of belonging, of acceptance, is contagious. The feeling throughout the building when we all follow the Academic and Social Immersion Model is that this school belongs to everyone in it. Friendships are expected. Respect is the norm. Students who come to our school later in their educational careers find a niche for the first time. They are welcomed, embraced, and encouraged to join the group. They have friends, some for the first time in their lives at age 10 or 13 or 16. This is the power of Academic and Social Immersion.