Vancouver teacher is schooling educators on the value of inclusive classrooms

Shelley Moore, an educator and speaker about special needs students, photographed at the Yellowknife Catholic Schools District offices.

Shelley Moore learned her biggest lesson from beneath a classroom desk – one that would shape the direction of her career.

A new teacher in the Richmond, B.C., school district, Ms. Moore was assigned to work with high-school students who had significant disabilities. Early in her career, she faced a particular challenge: coaching a 17-year-old deaf, blind and autistic boy who felt safest when under his desk.

She learned that the teen loved math, and so she would use flashcards to ask him related questions.

But he would sit there, under his desk, seemingly inattentive and flipping through the pages of a dictionary.

It wasn’t until a few days later that Ms. Moore noticed he was working out the math problems and then flipping to that numerical page in the dictionary. It was a transformational moment that would, almost a decade later, take her work beyond the four walls of that classroom and make her an unofficial but highly sought-after guide on inclusive education.

“It was a really big lesson. The learning I had that day was not about me learning about his disability, but it was my inability to see that he was competent,” Ms. Moore recalled in a recent interview. She has repeated that story to audiences of educators.

Several provinces have struggled with including children with developmental disabilities in regular classrooms, even as they’ve moved toward a model of inclusive education over the past few decades.

In Alberta, the use of isolation rooms for students with behavioural issues has come under the spotlight and Minister of Education David Eggen has appointed a panel to draft strict guidelines on their use. Meanwhile, People for Education, an advocacy group in Ontario, released a recent survey that found students deemed to have special needs are increasingly asked to stay home for at least part of the day. And another advocacy group, Inclusion BC, published a report earlier this year of what it described as “disturbing practices,” including a student left in seclusion for more than three hours, another tied to a chair and others restrained with straps or cuffs.

Ms. Moore, 39, has worked with educators in all three provinces, guiding them in how to support children with complex and diverse needs.

She was once one of those children. Ms. Moore has a learning disability, which manifested itself in behavioural issues at school. She struggled and eventually was expelled. After that, she was placed in alternative school.

Ms. Moore said she thrived there because of teachers who found a way to work with her and support her – a lesson she would apply years later to the boy underneath the table.

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