Episode 150 – Working with young children with developmental disabilities is both a challenging and rewarding experience for child care professionals. In this episode, we interview Lynette Klejka, Assistant Director of Inclusion at the Summit County Board of Developmental Disabilities in Ohio about the Community Partnerships for Inclusion (CPI) program that she runs. She talks to us about the importance of seeing a child first and the diagnosis second when supporting children of varying abilities in the classroom and shares some strategies for the classroom.
We have to remember to see a child first and a diagnosis second, and be able to – when a family walks in – recognize, that family chose you. Out of all other early-childhood programs, they chose you. What does that say about you?
Lynnette, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Hey, thank you so much, Ron. It’s great to be here.
We are lucky today to have on the show Lynnette Klejka. She is the Summit County Development Disabilities Board assistant director of inclusion. So we’re going to talk to Lynnette today about inclusion and accessibility in childcare. Looking forward to this conversation, not one that we’ve talked much about on the Preschool Podcast. So look forward to hearing your points of view on it, Lynnette, and all the work you’re doing in that area. Let’s start off learning a little bit more about you and how you ended up in this role.
Absolutely, and thank you for asking. And thank you for having me here today. This is a true privilege to be here. Basically I am just a smalltown girl from the state of Ohio. I grew up in Sheffield Lake, Ohio – woo woo! – and I thoroughly enjoyed the outside, playing with my friends, engaging with family. And just what you would see from the outside is a typical childhood upbringing.
But my upbringing wasn’t actually quite that typical. At the age of seven, just so you know, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. And my schooling began in 1970. So we know that in the 1970s we were just coming along with public law 94-142 [The Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the United States] and inclusion and special education in the classrooms. And I don’t think people knew what to do with me.
And so, Ron, I will start right off by telling you, I hated school. School for me was a life sentence. And it seemed to go on forever; it just did. And I chose to make myself excluded; I chose to step back; I chose to withdraw. I was the classic child who tried to sit in the back, kept their head down, prayed to God every day in every classroom that teacher would not call on me, “Please.” Oh, you talk about a life sentence. Ask me to go to the chalkboard and write.
Because nobody around me knew, and I had very, very little support. So as I grew, I kept that. I was such an introvert growing up. And with that I have to say, Ron, though, that my personality is not that of an introvert. I’m very much an extrovert. And so I really struggled with trying to be out there, but then hiding who I am because I didn’t want anybody to know I was different.
And just to share one moment in first grade, before my diagnosis: [at a] parent-teacher conference with my family the teacher looked at my parents and said, “She’s lazy, she’s uninterested and she needs to get our act together or we’re going to have to hold her back.” That’s how I was defined, so I grew up feeling stupid.
And so as I grew I had always strived to make sure everyone was included. I have always strived to meet people where they’re at. I’ve always strived to find the positive and to help people find the positive in themselves. Now, I did not know it was directly related to how I grew up. But that’s just who I have evolved from. I could never – and have never – in my early-childhood field thought to not enroll a family that came to my site. That’s just never even came to an acknowledgement with me.
But I will say I also never set out to be an advocate for early-childhood inclusion. That wasn’t on the playing field. My first career was actually as a high school band director. So I was out there on that marching band field and in concerts and took a job in early-childhood. It was just a temporary job to cover [how] I had just moved and I needed some employment. So I thought, “I will do this for the summer.”
Oh, my gosh, Ron we’re talking it took me less than six weeks to realize this was where I was always supposed to be at: the unconditional love that you feel from children is just overwhelming if you will allow yourself to feel it and open yourself up to it. It’s just a feeling that I never want to lose. And I loved working with junior high and high school students – don’t get me wrong, I loved that career. But I was only with those students for an hour a day. In early childhood you’re with him for many hours. The impact you have – and as we all know, in early childhood they develop their personality [in] that first five years. 90% of their brain development happens.
I had a supervisor once tell me, “You know, Lynnette, this is not rocket science.” And I thought for years on that, “This isn’t rocket science.” But then I began to change that around a little bit, the more I gained knowledge, and realized, “You’re right, this isn’t rocket science. But if I don’t do my job right, the child who’s supposed to grow up to be a rocket scientist may never have had that opportunity.”
So I don’t think professional sometimes stop for a moment and reflect on just how important their job is. They deserve kudos all the time. They deserve to be recognized as the amazing, outstanding professionals they are and the importance that they provide our children, our families, our society, and for years to come.
But to jump back more onto the inclusion side: Like I said, I never thought to not tell families to enroll in come to my center And I should say I’ve been in the early childhood field for 20 years as a teacher [and] as an administrator. In the last 10 years I co-owned a childcare site. And it was in that timeframe, that last 10 years, where I really understood my role. I really was challenged, my inclusion was challenged. We’re all challenged – inclusion doesn’t come with a textbook. There are a lot of resources out there to support it but there’s no one best way to do it because every child is different. Each one of us is different.
But if I could just share a real quick story: My life was actually changed in the mid-2000’s when we enrolled a wonderful family. And this little boy impacted me like no other child. I had worked with many children with varying diagnoses. But this one particular child’s challenged who I was as a human being – and I will try not to get emotional.
This child was full of life. He was adored by his classmates and he was eager to take on everything. He was also non-verbal, had low vision, rarely made eye contact, could not sit up on his own, could not eat on his own and to be able to engage with his friends he had to have support.
So think about it: Who was I? I was an early-childhood professional who had a music education degree, so I had never used a stander or a lifting chair or a wedge. I didn’t know what to do a “YouTube” was. But here I was and I was not going to say no to Stanley because I promised myself, my fight was for every child. And we were going to make it inclusive And he was a member of our early-childhood and our classroom community. And by golly, we were going to make sure he was active in everything we did.
And through that experience what I learned more than anything is I actually wasn’t the teacher in this moment, I was the student. By doing nothing more than being himself he’s taught me to think outside the box; he taught me to laugh when I wanted to cry; he taught his friends and I had to be more engaging with all people; he taught me not to give up on myself; and he taught me not to doubt myself.
But he also taught me – for the first time in my life – to stop and look at myself, Ron, and say, “It’s okay, Lynnette. It’s okay to be different”. Because until that time I had not shared my diagnosis with anybody, ever. I kept it hidden. I love who I am. I would not change who I am. And it is not okay for anybody else to try to change me or anyone else that has a diagnosis in this world because we are all perfect exactly the way we are. I might need additional supports, but that’s it.
So meet me where I’m at, I’ll meet you where you’re at and let’s go together. But the reality is, one out of five Americans are diagnosed with a disability. And if we all live long enough we will all have a disability diagnosis. Disability is natural, just as I have red hair and someone else has brown hair. It’s innately who we are.
And so when this job came up at the Summit [County] Board of Developmental Disabilities [Summit DD] I decided to apply for it. It was a lot, a lot of contemplation because the reality was I thought I was living the dream. I had my own childcare site. I had amazing business partners that I worked with. We were living the dream. Was I, at the age of 48, going to give that all up?
And then I looked at this little boy, and I said, “Absolutely you’re going to give it up,” because everybody deserves to feel exactly the way we do. Everybody deserves to realize that they can do this. If I can do this –I’m a hot mess, Ron, all the time. I swear I wake up every morning and I’m, like, “I have made every mistake out there. There’s not one more I could make.” And, by golly, I make it usually before I leave the house. It just is what it is.
So I made a promise to that little boy. I made a promise to him that I would continue to strive for inclusion until every child was included in every facet of what they choose to be included in. So here I am: I’m at Summit DD, I’ve been here for five years as of this past Wednesday, it was my anniversary. And we are plugging away with the inclusion efforts in the county. So I am so sorry that was a really long answer.
No, it was an amazing story. And I’m glad you spoke to it because there’s so many pieces to unpack. But one thing that really resonates with me [that] is re-emphasized from that story is that the power of early-childhood education, is that it’s on such a human level that it can really only take one child, an experience with one child – as you mentioned in your specific case – to change your life and change their life. And so it’s amazing, the impact that you can have.
And then and then when you extrapolate that to think, “One out of every five people has some kind of a disability,” then wow, like you said, it’s not something that is an edge case. It’s normal, it’s everywhere around us: our friends, our family, our schools, our classes, our places of work, everywhere. This is something that as a result, then, we need to have people like you who are working with us to understand how best to provide accessibility for everybody in schools and in childcare programs.
And so let’s get a little bit into that practical side of things. So you have the advantage of having experienced it yourself over time. And I certainly can understand that in 1970 things were very different than now, and so it was a really tough experience for you. But in 2019 if I’m really an early-childhood educator and I’m certainly working with children who have some kind of learning or development disabilities – because one of out of every five children do – what are things I can do to make sure my classrooms and my programs are inclusive?
KLEJKA: It’s about empowering ourselves. It is about preparing ourselves for all children. And I think, number one, we have to remember to see a child first and a diagnosis second, and be able to – when a family walks in – recognize, that family chose you. Out of all other early-childhood programs, they chose you. What does that say about you?
So stand tall and have the confidence to be able to work through and understand, first and foremost, who is the expert on a child? It’s the family. So you’re number one go-to if you are in a moment of, “I’ve never experienced this, I’m not sure what this diagnosis is. Is this a child with a diagnosis?” that that family is your resource.
And I’d like to tell people to never forget your first day as an educator. When you walked in and you were going to change the world and you were going to impact everybody’s life and everybody’s child, I would venture to challenge that no one ever said, “I’m going to impact every child except for…” We don’t do that. But as time goes on, our work gets harder and we are faced with things that we fear.
Because that’s really the greatest barrier to inclusion is fear – attitude, beliefs and fear. It’s fear of the unknown. We begin to pull back and we begin to make excuses. “I don’t have that knowledge,” is a big excuse. But when we really look at ourselves and look at our biases, is it really that we don’t have the knowledge? Anybody can go out and get knowledge. We’re afraid. We’re afraid to make mistakes.
We can’t be afraid. We’ve got to work together. We’ve got to work with that family. We’ve got to seek the resources that we have in our own communities, whether it’s a Developmental Disabilities Board – every state is set up a little differently – or you’re reaching out to the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] or you’re working and reaching out to Zero To Three [National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families], there are so many networks.
If you’re not sure of trainings and you’re not sure who to even go to in your area, reach out to Child Care Aware of America. They’re there the foundation of resources. They can guide you to your locations for that knowledge. Don’t be afraid to learn and don’t be afraid to try because the reality is the support you provide for one will provide for millions. It’s just as simple as that.
If you think about a child that is not able to be exposed to sunlight for long periods of time and you’re contemplating, “I don’t have shade on my playground so this child is not going to be enrolled,” absolutely not. You work it out. You provide that shade for that child because that’s what that child needs to thrive and they deserve to be a part of a community and they deserve to be with their friends, just like everyone else. And what’s really amazing is when you provide that shade, you’re going to have a ton of other children under there because they get hot and they get overheated and they want to be with their friends. And there’s lots of new adventures under that shaded area that they didn’t have before.
So it’s just really neat to see how those things evolve. And we have to make sure we’re open to allow ourselves to change. And we also have to be able to reflect and look at ourselves and say, “We don’t know everything, and that is okay. It is okay that I don’t know this knowledge and that I seek out support for that,” and to recognize that when you go into, as a new early-childhood professional, that when you walk into a school it’s not just you. You have a wealth of colleagues around you. It is a team. You are a team and you just work with each other and help support each other. So I hope I answered that.
Yeah, and it’s an interesting point you make, you give the shade-in-the-playground example, just the impact that inclusion has on all the children in the classroom when you do things like that. And even in my own childhood, I can remember some of my more memorable life lessons came from interactions with children that had learning disabilities because I was exposed to new experiences that were different, right?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Children learn and grow more from their peers than they will from adults. That’s just reality – they want to be with their friends. They want to be where the action is. So let’s let that happen. Let’s let a two-year-old be a two-year-old, no matter what their diagnosis might be. Let them get in there and have fun.
Totally. I can certainly relate with my one-and-a-half-year-old. He learns a lot from his peers while he’s in his early-learning programs than he does from us, I feel like. He comes home learning something ten new things every day, at least.
And so just to unpack a little bit about what you went through, it sounds like what I’m hearing is, a lot of what we need to do when it comes to inclusion and accessibility is tackle some of our own thinking, internally, our own perspectives is oftentimes the biggest hurdle.
Yes, yes, most definitely. It really is. And so once you’re able to do that and you’re opening yourself up you also need to make sure that you’re gathering that knowledge and you have support. And that’s actually what we’re doing here in Summit County. We – I say “we”, I’m not the one who was the brainchild of this, but I am the lucky one who gets to be a part of it every day – in 2010 we created a program known as Community Partnerships for Inclusion. And this particular program – we call it CPI, so I’ll refer to it as CPI – this particular program has designed several trainings around inclusion for early-childhood professionals.
And so we offer these trainings throughout our county. I have had the opportunity to do several of these trainings around the state as well. We touch on what is inclusion, how to set up environments, what does play look like, how to engage with families, [etc.]. The most recent one we created was “Medically fragile children in your classroom and how to support.” So we’ve done a lot of training.
But the uniqueness of this CPI program is we actually collaborate with childcare sites. And through this collaboration we provide them with an inclusion specialist and an inclusion support specialist who come in and they coach, model and help develop strategies and share knowledge with early-childhood professionals in regards to inclusion and best practice when supporting children of varying abilities.
It has been a remarkable program. As I said, we don’t go in and support individual children in IEP’s [Individualized Education Plans] or ISSP’s [Individualized Student Support Plans]. But those children, if they’re eligible for our services they’re the ones that are going to bring us into the classroom, which is great. But our goal is to create an inclusive classroom and help that teacher and drive that teacher.
And honestly, Ron, it is to share everything we know with that teacher so they can do it without us. I like to tell people all the time, “We’re that one job who’s trying to work ourselves out of a job,” because we’re just sharing it all with them. So we’re actually supporting over 100 childcare sites in Summit County with this collaboration. It has been amazing.
It has been so successful, Ron, that in Summit County we actually were able to close the doors on our integrated program at our board. So that no longer exists – we were able to successfully transition every child into a community site. Imagine that: children in childcare centers in their own neighborhoods, meeting in playing with children that they are going to grow up with for many years to come. There it is, it is beautiful.
I also have to give kudos: I work with the most amazing team on the planet. They are out-of-the-box thinkers. They have a drive like I have never experienced. And this has been so successful. We’ve had a couple of counties from around the state start to inquire about what we’re doing. We’ve had recognition at the state level now of what we’re doing and how this can either be replicated or how people can take what we’re doing and modify it to meet their need.
Because I’m the first one to say, “We don’t have all the answers.” I’m also the first one to say, “We want to share everything we’re doing with everybody,” because every child deserves that opportunity. And every teacher deserves to be empowered and be given the recognition that they can do this. You can hook up a G2. You can do this. You can administer diastat [medicine]. We’re going to help and we’re going to help you through that process with the family and with any other resource in the area that is needed.
We work great with the itinerants throughout our county, as well. We have a lot of relationships because we know that we need education as well because there are times we go in and we experience things that we are not necessarily real familiar with But we are the seekers of providing those resources.
So a lot of cool stuff, so much so that we’re taking this in our own county, this type of model, and we’re replicating it throughout life. So I also have a great team that works on supporting the inclusion efforts birth-through-life everywhere, whether it’s our library systems or businesses or parks and rec’s. How can we create this entire county of inclusion – which spread to the state and hopefully beyond – and then finally get to our ultimate goal, which is of course a fully inclusive world where everybody feels a sense of belonging and gets to choose for themselves what they want to do in life? So there is it is in a nutshell.
Amazing, and certainly a great case study, it sounds like, for, like you said, other counties in the States to learn from and apply some of those learnings, which is part of what we want to do on the Podcast is get the word out about amazing programs like this. And it certainly sounds like this one is, in Summit County. If I’m not fortunate enough to be one of those hundred centers in Summit County but I’m very interested in learning more about inclusion and accessibility, any ideas on resources online or otherwise that I can access to learn more about this?
Oh, absolutely. Well, you could reach out to the inclusion manager – you could reach out to me if you’re interested in what’s happening here. I’m always happy to share everything that is going on here. If you want to kind of get an idea of stories and examples, if anyone wants to go to www.SummitDD.org you can see exactly what’s going on in our county and all the amazing things that are happening.
And just to continue for anyone not in the state of Ohio, check it out. We’re happy to talk to anybody to see how we can best support that effort. And we’re happy once again to learn what other people are doing and how [we can] improve what we’re doing, too.
Totally. And if I want to reach out to you, Lynnette, is there an e-mail that you can give out to our audience?
There is. It is LKlejka@SummitDD.org.
Perfect, that’s not so hard to remember. And you know what I was thinking, I had a bit of an “A-ha!” moment because you were saying [about how] someone said to you early on in your early-childhood education experience, “This isn’t rocket science.” But I might make a controversial statement that it’s more complicated than rocket science because rocket science, as being a science, it’s math and it’s a formula. And as long as you know what the formulas are and you have the materials you can build a rocket ship.
But when we talk about early-childhood education it’s much more complicated than that. Humans are very complicated. Every child is different, as you said, and so this job is like rocket science. It’s as complicated or more complicated. I’m just going to throw that out there for debate.
You know what, I’m just going to steal that. I need to steal it, okay? So, just giving you a heads-up. That is awesome, I love it, I absolutely love it.
Well, Lynnette, it’s been wonderful having you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
It is a pleasure. Thank you for asking and I hope you just have a great life and keep doing what you’re doing.
Thanks so much, Lynnette.