In the past, this meant that students with special needs were sequestered in their own classrooms because educators believed that they were better served away from their typically-developing peers. As awareness of equal rights for the disability community has grown, an emerging body of research has lent support to a new approach to teaching, known as inclusive education.
Inclusive education is reforming the way we engage and teach today’s students. It reflects the diversity of the larger world and recognizes that all children, regardless of ability, deserve equal educational opportunities. The inclusion of students with special needs in general education classrooms is quickly proving to be a highly effective model for all children.
The History of Inclusive Education
The Disability Rights Movement, which began in the 1960s, has made considerable strides securing equal opportunities in areas such as housing, jobs, and education. Today, we no longer believe that a lack of physical ability equates to a lack of intelligence. Over time, we have come to recognize the contributions that each person makes through her skills, talents, and intellect.
As a result of this gradual shift in thinking, people began to realize that millions of children with disabilities were being underserved, leading to the 1990 passage of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law requires “… public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs.” In general, “least restrictive environment” means that, to the maximum extent possible, children who have disabilities should be educated alongside non-disabled peers so that all children have access to the same educational opportunities and experiences. In schools, the type of learning environment that provides this access is known as inclusive education.
The Nature of Inclusive Education
Inclusive education has several key elements that differ from traditional, segregated special education. First, it begins with the premise that all children can and do learn from meaningful, quality curricula. The term, “presume competence,” coined by inclusion expert Cheryl M. Jorgensen, reminds us not to judge a person’s abilities or potential. Based on this philosophy, inclusive classrooms are strength-oriented, student-centered, and academically rigorous. Moreover, the characteristics of successful inclusive classrooms are those in which disabled students are physically present and included in class activities for the majority of the day, are engaged with their classmates, and receive work that is challenging.
General education teachers are highly trained in delivering lessons that are differentiated and developmentally appropriate. Variations in disabled student learning needs are assessed and planned for through Individual Education Plans or 504 Plans, which are legal documents that outline the ways in which a student with special needs will be emotionally, physically, and academically supported through the school year. These plans are developed by a team of parents, teachers, and support personnel who combine their expertise to develop ways in which curriculum modifications, accommodations, and support personnel can be provided for the learner to enable her to access the curriculum in a general education classroom.
Inclusive education is being successfully delivered in many K–12 classrooms. Colleges and universities are also beginning to consider more inclusive models of schooling supported by organizations such as Think College that are emerging to develop and expand inclusive higher education options for people with disabilities.
The Research on Inclusive Education
Research from the Council for Exceptional Children finds that “students served in inclusive classrooms earned higher grades, achieved higher or comparable scores on standardized tests, committed no more behavioral infractions, and attended more days of school than did students taught in pull-out special education classrooms.”
A paper published in the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities online journal, researchers stated that “students without disabilities made significantly greater progress in reading and math when served in inclusive settings. The Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center also published research stating that “no significant difference was found in the academic achievement of students without disabilities who were served in classrooms with and without inclusion.”
While there are some exceptions to the assertion that all children can be educated in an inclusive classroom, the traditional model of special education pales in comparison to the overwhelming educational benefits of inclusive education for all students. The range of cultural, linguistic, economic, and individual abilities in American schools, as well as our increased acceptance and understanding of individual differences and belief that all children should be growing and learning alongside one another, make inclusive education an ideal model to prepare our children for a future in a global society.
Learn how to be an advocate for your child by reading further advice and articles about learning disabilities and differences on Noodle.
Cassandra M. Cole, Nancy Waldron, Massoumeh Majd, and Susan Hasazi (2004) Academic Progress of Students Across Inclusive and Traditional Settings. Mental Retardation: April 2004, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 136-144.
A Guide to Disability Rights Laws. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2015, from The U.S. Department of Justice.
Rea, McLaughlin, & Walther-Thomas (2002). Outcomes for students with learning disabilities in inclusive and pullout programs.
Ruijs, Van der Veen, & Peetsma, 2010; Sermier Dessemontet & Bless, 2013).” (Benefits of Inclusive Education for ALL Students. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2015, from SWIFT Schools.