Inclusive education — that is, a model in which children of all abilities are educated alongside one another in general education classrooms — is finally starting to attract the attention it deserves in American public schools. Inclusion improves outcomes, fosters social and emotional development, and equips students for life outside of school.
Despite its success, however, school districts maintain that there are significant challenges to implementing full inclusion. Claims of insufficient resources, ill-prepared staff, and myths about its use continue to create barriers to widespread adoption. The good news is that there are effective ways to overcome these challenges and move towards inclusive schools in every community.
Moving beyond myths
The first challenge to overcome is debunking common myths and misunderstandings of inclusive education; to that end, educators, schools, and communities need accurate, up-to-date information. It’s important that educational leaders understand that inclusion is not a service or program that is offered to a single group of students. It doesn’t happen in just one classroom, nor is it an instructional strategy employed by one or two teachers. Rather, inclusion is an attitude we adopt in our interactions with one another. Our commitment to include every student, regardless of ability, in meaningful learning experiences alongside typically- and non-typically-developing peers creates school environments that, in turn, result in better outcomes for all students.
The website, Wrightslaw, is an excellent place to start learning and sharing accurate information about inclusion. Newsletters, Parent Night events, teacher in-service workshops, and videos such as Including Isaac can also help convey the meaning and importance of inclusion. Knowledge is a foundation to the success of this type of education.
Understanding its value
Often, schools must be convinced of the value of inclusive education for all students. The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion has compiled extensive research that shows the many benefits of inclusion to both typically- and non-typically-developing students. For example, The National Institute for Urban School Improvement found that:
Surveys conducted with parents and teachers involved in inclusive settings generally show that they see no harm to the non-disabled children and that they have positive opinions about inclusion. In fact, one survey of more than 300 parents of elementary-age children shows that 89 percent would enroll their children in an inclusive classroom again.
Moreover, evidence reported by Gail McGregor and Timm R. Vogelsberg in their book Inclusive Schooling Practices: Pedagogical and Research Foundations showed that:
- Inclusion education results in greater numbers of typical students making reading and math progress compared to non-inclusive general education classes.
- Inclusion does not compromise general education students’ outcomes.
- Typical peers benefit from involvement and relationships with students who have disabilities in inclusive settings.
The presence of students with disabilities in general education classrooms leads to new learning opportunities for typical students. In fact, according to researcher Mary Falvey, “There have been no studies conducted since the late 1970s that have shown an academic advantage for students with intellectual or other developmental disabilities educated in separate settings.” As these researchers make clear, inclusion can be a significant benefit to the entire school community.
Finally, one of the greatest challenges to widespread adoption of inclusive education is understanding how it works. Inclusion is like a car. There are many parts under the hood that all need to work together in order for it to run smoothly. One of the most important components is the support of school administrators and staff. All of the adults who work at the school help to set the tone of inclusion — from the principal to the bus driver, the playground supervisor to the classroom teacher. Authority figures should model friendly, welcoming behavior and make inclusion a priority in all school activities. In fact, many inclusive schools institute a school-wide character education program in which staff, students, and families participate. This allows for the reinforcement of a shared goal — inclusion — throughout a community.
How It Works
Educating children together
Another important aspect of inclusion education is ensuring that non-typically-developing students are, for the most part, taught in general education classrooms alongside their typically-developing peers. Special education teachers and paraprofessionals offer their support, as outlined in a student’s IEP, while the classroom teacher makes accommodations and/or modifications to the curriculum. That said, there may also be a need for focused instruction outside of the classroom, which can be scheduled during the least disruptive time of day.
Providing learning supports
Beyond just curriculum modifications, learning materials and other resources should be made accessible to all students according to their needs. Varying levels of text, visual supports, manipulatives, and assistive technology ought to be woven into the class program. For suggestions as to how to implement these strategies, you can look to Brookes Publishing Company, where there is a selection of teacher guides for the inclusive classroom. In addition, there are outside agencies such as Lekotek that work with schools to provide adaptive materials.
Communicating with families
Inclusion also involves the work of parents and families. Communication between home and school is critical to ensuring that the non-typically-developing student is learning and thriving in the classroom. Depending on your child’s needs, having daily, weekly, or monthly updates about her intellectual, emotional, and social development is essential, above and beyond the annual IEP meetings. Ideally, these lines of communication between parents and teachers will be set up prior to the start of the school year. Emails, phone calls, or even text messages offer different means of staying connected. And if your child's teacher hasn’t let families know how to reach her at the start of the school year, be sure to ask!
While there are challenges involved in following an inclusive model of education, the benefits are clear and well-documented. Children of all abilities will benefit from equal education and an accepting, respectful school community. Most importantly, they will gain the empathy, awareness, and skills to enable them to thrive in this increasingly diverse world.
Follow this link for Nicole Eredics' article, Inclusive Education: How to Be an Advocate for Your Child.
Falvey, M. (2004). Towards realizing the influence of “Toward realization of the least restrictive environments for severely disabled students.” Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 29(1), 9-10.
McGregor, G., & Vogelsberg, T. (1998). Inclusive Schooling Practices: Pedagogical and Research Foundations. Retrieved May 25, 2015, from ERIC.
Staub, D. (2005). Inclusion and the Other Kids: Here’s What Research Shows so Far About Inclusion’s Effect on Nondisabled Students. Retrieved May 25, 2015, from Urban Schools.