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Why Fair Isn't Always Equal

Here we go again...! It’s the start of a new school year and I am working overtime to get to know my new students. I’m writing social stories, Top-Secret Mission Cards, creating reinforcement systems and doing preference assessments. I am figuring out the best ways to use data to improve behavior plans. I am exhausted! But, I love it!

I love learning about what makes my student tick. I love helping them learn how to self-regulate. I love modeling appropriate social skills. I love acting out the expected and unexpected way to handle difficult social scenarios. And, I love talking to the classes about how we are all different kinds of learners.

For many years, I listened to kids saying, “that’s not fair”, when they saw that one of my students received a sticker for doing their work. Or “that’s not fair” when one of my students needed to chew gum. I tried a variety of ways to explain it, and it wasn’t always successful. I would often fumble over my words or not explain it as clearly as I would like. I decided it was time to write out my thoughts in a book.

​​So, this year, I started my same/different talk with a new focus. I knew I wanted to read them the book, “That’s Not Fair!” and I wanted to preface it with a lesson that everyone could relate to! I told all of the students in the general education classroom that they could have a skittle if they could high-five me without jumping or getting on their tiptoes. Some kids high-fived me and some kids didn’t.

Predictably, many kids started shouting out, “that’s not fair!” I asked kids if they thought the lesson was fair. They all said no. I asked them if it was equal. They all said yes.

After that, we discussed ways to make it fair…lower my hand, let them jump, use a stool. I told them I would allow accommodations because I wanted everyone to be successful. But, I also said that I wouldn’t give accommodations to those who already high-fived me, because they didn’t need it. I tried different accommodations with different kids. Everyone got a skittle. And, they were starting to understand the differences between fair and equal.

Next it was time to read “That’s Not Fair!” - one of “The A-Team Presents…” books. In this book, Henry sees members of The A-Team receiving various accommodations and modifications in class and in school. He thinks it's not fair until he has a conversation with him mom about why fair isn't always equal. This book really clarified for students that different individuals need different things to be successful. While that may not be equal, it is fair because everyone ought to have opportunities to be successful. The kids really enjoyed the book and it prompted a variety of rich and unique discussions with each class.

With my older students, we were able to delve into a discussion about equity. With my intermediate students, we talked about accommodations you see everywhere, from wheelchair ramps, to closed captioning, to parking spaces. With my youngest group, we talked about what each student needed to fall asleep at night and how it was different for each child.

In the end, I believe the students learned a very valuable lesson, and I got many comments afterward. Students even felt comfortable enough to share their own accommodations, and didn’t feel embarrassed that they needed different things than their peers to be successful! I know that I will hear, “that’s not fair” from time to time, but I expect it will be the exception, not the rule.


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