Posted on Leave a comment

The Power of Immersion


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.

Posted on Leave a comment

Immersion > Inclusion


Have you seen stories on social media about a child with autism spectrum disorder who doesn’t have anyone show up to his birthday party, so a bunch of celebrities do? What about the one where a student with ASD who had been the basketball team manager is put in in the last 10 seconds of the last game of the season and makes a basket? Heart-warming stories like these help to raise awareness of ASD and are meant to highlight the inclusion of students with ASD. But is this kind of inclusion enough? Should we want more for our children on the spectrum?

Most educators and parents are familiar with the term of inclusion. Inclusion has been heavily researched, and the research is clear: inclusion done well can be  a powerful tool for students with disabilities. Many districts and schools claim to offer an inclusive experience, but those experiences can look very different. We often think we know what inclusion means, but in reality inclusion looks different across the country, school districts, and even individual classrooms.

In many places, “inclusion” means one student with a disability, along with an aide, placed in a classroom of peers who may interact only briefly, or not at all, with that student. This student essentially is in a “classroom of one” that is physically located in a general education setting, but the aide ends up being teacher, gatekeeper, and even friend for that student. This student is not being included.

In other settings, inclusion means a student is placed in a general education setting, often without any kind of support, for a set number of periods or activities per day. The classroom teacher may be unable to help the child participate meaningfully. In these types of scenarios, students with disabilities are included, but often in superficial ways. Sometimes they end up being a sort of mascot for a class, as opposed to a member of the class. This student is not being included either.

While inclusion indicates an add-on, immersion represents complete membership. Full membership in schools and communities is best accomplished by immersing children with ASD, as early as possible, in age-typical environments with their peers. For students who struggle socially, the best place for them to learn these skills is in a diverse environment with experiences to socialize with typically developing peer students to model what age-appropriate social behavior looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Intervention delivered in natural settings provides countless opportunities for children with ASD to participate in normalized experiences as they grow and develop language and social skills.

What if that child from the first paragraph who doesn’t have friends show up to his party, not only has classmates at of a range of abilities show up, but has experience being invited to other parties? What if he has regularly attended parties, both at school and in the community, for a group of friends and classmates, therefore learning how to act and behave in a party setting? This is immersion.

What if that team manager from the first paragraph instead had the opportunity to try out for, practice with, and regularly participate with the team? If his excitement came not from 10 seconds of playing time, but from improving his skills or setting a new personal record of points scored? This is immersion.

What if every extracurricular club, every class, every party had students with ASD fully engaged and participating alongside of their typically developing peers? What if all students in a school respected each other, regardless of diagnosis, and all teachers in a school were able to effectively support those students? This is immersion.

Oakstone Academy is the birthplace of the Academic and Social Immersion Model, thanks to the research and practice of our founder, Dr. Rebecca Morrison. Our talented team of teachers, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, and classroom support staff have been practicing and perfecting this model for almost 20 years with students from preschool through high school.

We watch our students with and without ASD thrive in a setting built to respect and support all learners. We watch our students learn together, attend social events together, play sports together, and develop true friendships together. We watch preschoolers with ASD get invited to playdates at their friends’ homes. We watch elementary students play recess games with everyone in class participating, often without adult intervention. We watch high school students help each other study, persevere in sports, and travel the country together. We watch our graduates move to the world of college or work with skills to respect and care for all kinds of people. This is why we say immersion is greater than inclusion.