Students with disabilities face substantially increased rates of abuse and restraint in schools. As an education and disability advocate seeking to change that, I frequently encounter well-meaning arguments for separating higher-needs students from the general population.
Many parents and teachers express sympathy, yet also a desire to keep certain groups of students away from the general population for a variety of reasons.
“Is mainstreaming special needs kids a good idea if it prevents the other kids from learning?”
“And what were the 20-something other kids in the room doing when the teacher was spending most of her time attending to your special-needs child?”
“It’s too bad the other children are the ones who lose out when special-needs kids are mainstreamed. This story is all well and good, but it means that this woman’s child got way more than the other children did in terms of support and attention.”
These are the types of comments found in parent forums and in response to articles about autism and other disabilities in the classroom. And they are echoed by teachers who are facing poorly integrated classrooms with strong behavior challenges. Resistance to inclusion itself as a practice remains entrenched.
Many teachers and parents do not know the pedagogy behind inclusive instruction. Inclusion is not about throwing disabled children into general education classrooms without support or tools and leaving teachers to clean up the resultant chaos. Schools don’t meet anyone’s needs when they integrate thoughtlessly.
They also do not meet the legal requirements defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees all children the right to free appropriate public education. That includes education for disabled students in the least-restrictive environment possible—not segregated and sequestered away from their peers.
Inclusion works when educators collaborate, get the support they need, and believe in the value of all students."
It might be less convenient at first for teachers and students (and parents) to learn about and embrace the disabled student populations at their schools. But there is no inherent right to be free from inconvenience. Perhaps it’s time to look more closely at why we as educators and parents are demanding that to begin with.
Inclusion, by definition, involves carefully assessing a child’s needs and then implementing a strategic plan to support that child within the general classroom setting. This is done by a special education team, rather than one general education teacher. The team offers options such as teacher training, team-teaching, pushed-in special education instruction, classroom accommodations (a standing desk, computer workstation, etc.), an interpreter, or a classroom assistant added to the room for portions of the day.
My son is autistic, and he has an assistant in his mainstream classroom to support him and several other students as needed. The rest of my son’s accommodations rarely affect his classmates at all. He uses a keyboard to write, he meets with the school counselor when he’s overwhelmed, and he has social-skills mentoring. The staff at his school meets and works together, mainstreaming children of all abilities. Test scores and academic achievement remain strong, even with a push-in of students from a countywide behavioral program for students with significant emotional disabilities. The general education students are doing great!
Cost is frequently at the heart of arguments against inclusion. It does take money to adequately support special needs students in mainstream classrooms, of course. It costs significantly less to push an assistant in and offer training, however, than to create a separate classroom with a special education teacher or place a child in a specialized private school.
The cost of time is more significant. Inclusion requires teachers, schools, and entire school systems to commit to the model. It requires training and a general overhaul in perspective—about the role of education and the inherent value of each child and his or her learning experience—disabled or not.
However, inclusion is best practice for disabled and non-disabled students alike. Studies show that when inclusion is done well, the whole class benefits. It doesn’t take away from one group to focus on another—quite the opposite. It enhances the ability of non-disabled kids to cooperate, work together, understand and value different perspectives, think critically, and even test well.
Yes, research indicates that a majority of general education students test the same or better on standardized tests when they are educated in the same classroom environment as their disabled peers. Classrooms that have several unsupported students with severe behavioral disabilities are the exception. But diagnoses like this are rare, and added supports for those students seems to be key.
When supported and given adequate training and tools, teachers in inclusive classrooms understand and instruct a variety of learners, individualizing instruction to meet the needs of all learners better. Students have varied needs and strengths, whether disabled or not. Teachers in inclusion settings learn to address this and teach better because of it.
Empathy—which cannot be measured quantitatively—matters, too. How children view peers who look and learn differently from themselves is also a consideration as they grow to adulthood and become members of their communities, and as they live and work alongside a diverse array of citizens. It’s a critical factor in whether communities and workplaces are able to function and thrive.
Finally, and most importantly, disabled students can achieve. Their talents and gifts are varied, as are the talents and gifts of all students. They are legally entitled to an appropriate public education, but they also have so much to offer their non-disabled peers, teachers, and schools.
Inclusion works when educators collaborate, get the support they need, and believe in the value of all students. It’s time for schools and teachers to reevaluate their long-held biases, and it’s time to address the initial financial investment required for training and staffing. It’s also the law.
Inclusion is the least expensive, most effective method of teaching students. It starts from the top, with administrators making this a priority. When administrators model inclusivity and support teachers in its implementation, the entire school (and school system) culture changes. Test scores are rarely negatively impacted and often go up. More importantly, children become better citizens.
Inclusion is best practice. It is also, quite simply, the right way to teach.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2019 edition of Education Week as What Students With Disabilities Deserve