What are the pros and cons of mainstreaming young children with special needs in public school? How does a parent decide what is the best setting for a child?


Laura Burgess Martin, Special needs parent; work in non-profit sector

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This is a great question and is one that we are beginning to explore with our son who is starting Kindergarten next week. We have had two IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings regarding my son and his placements in school. We had one meeting at the end of last school year after he graduated from private school preschool (he attended a school for children who are deaf). We have since had another meeting (this happened last week before school started) to make a couple of changes to his IEP since a few areas of his development had changed over the summer months.

His team consists of a deaf/hard of hearing (D/HH) teacher, occupational therapist, speech therapist, special education facilitator, regular education classroom kindergarten teacher, nurse, and vision teacher in addition to my husband and myself. Because my son is starting a new school and has quite a few special needs, we made the decision for my son to be in a D/HH classroom with three students for all areas of the day. He will mainstream with a one on one paraprofessional for music, art, and physical education.

As the year progresses and if we feel that he is doing very well in his D/HH class, we will reconvene as a team to determine if he could possibly begin mainstreaming for a classroom subject (we would only agree to this if he is fully ready and continues to have a one on one parapro). At the beginning of the school year, our number one goal is for him to feel comfortable with school, his new schedule, and his new environment. We felt that him mainstreaming with a regular education class for music, art, and PE will be a great start for him in adjusting to a mainstream setting.

Best wishes in your decision. Please let me know if there is anyway I can help!

Lisa Beymer, University Professor, Special Education Teacher

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This is a great question, and one for serious consideration.

As experts have mentioned before me, the answer to this question is impossible to predict! The experience your child has will be completely unique from any other child. Likewise, the consideration for mainstreaming your child is completely dependent upon your student's needs, your family's needs, and the resources available in the school.

First, it is very important to distinguish vocabulary in this context:

If you decide to completely forego special education services for a "full inclusion" experience - the student is in the general education classroom full-time with no documented supports - your student could also forego their rights to services and supports. If a student has a disability, but it is not formally documented by the school in meeting district/state standards, your student will not receive any support for their disability until he/she has gone through the formal evaluation process. This could mean that if needs increase, it could be several months before the evaluation process is complete and formal services are provided. This could be detrimental to the student with disabilities, as his/her needs may not be met.

Mainstreaming is the practice of educating the student with disabilities within the general education classroom during certain parts of the day. My professional opinion is that this is completely acceptable, and should be encouraged, as long as it meets the needs of the student. There is great value in students with disabilities being involved in the general education setting - both for the student with disabilities and for his/her peers. In my mind, if the student with disabilities is able to be successful academically, behaviorally, and socially in the general education setting, they should be there! In an ideal world, special education teachers would be nonexistent because we would have found a way to meet the needs of students with disabilities within the general education setting.

In deciding what's best for your student, it's important to approach the consideration in a multi-faceted manner. Meaning, look at it from many angles, with many tools, including many experts. I would sit down with your child's educational specialist team and discuss the options. They are required by law to complete all necessary examinations to ensure individual student needs are being met. I would get heavily involved in the process! I would be sure to ask for: several observations of the student across multiple environments, input from general education teachers, student comparison to peers, examination of academic skills compared to grade-level standards, review of evaluation reports, etc. All of these are well within your rights as a parent of a student with a disability. The team should be able to determine what the student needs in the right environment. Then we try things out, see if they work, and reevaluate if they don't! It's a continual, collaborative process of meeting the student's changing needs. Stay active!

In the end, do what you feel is best for your child and your family. The school should support you in that!

Lisa Friedman, Inclusive Educator, Religious School Director, teacher, writer & parent

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This is a great question and I want to start where you started. You ask what the pros and cons are of mainstreaming. Here are some thoughts to consider: Pros: - exposure to grade and developmentally appropriate content - opportunities for socialization - opportunities for peer collaboration - potential for peer mentoring (either giving or receiving depending on skills)

Cons: - a potentially challenging pace of instruction - possibility of insufficient individualized support (if the teacher doesn't utilize differentiated instruction techniques) - possible lack of attention or support in emotional development if class size is large

Without knowing the grade, specifics about the district and their philosophy/commitment to inclusion, it is not possible to be more specific - you may experience all or none of these pros and cons. As parent tasked with making placement decisions, being involved in conversations with the IEP and placement team at your child's school will be the most effective way to determine what is best for your child. Remember that every child is unique and while there are general strategies that can benefit all children, education is NOT one-size-fits-all.

Keep asking the questions and do not be afraid to speak up and advocate for your child! Good luck!

Kathryn deBros, Special Educator

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That's a tough question - it's always hard to know the right thing to do! It really depends on the child, and what his or her needs are, but most education plans will put kids somewhere in the middle, erring on the side of mainstreaming. You and your individual education plan (IEP) team will discuss it together, but schools have an obligation to provide all students with the Least Restrictive Environment - that means the setting that allows them the most opportunities to learn what their peers are learning. So in most cases, the special educator will assume that the child will be mainstreamed (in the classroom) and will look at what parts of the day aren't working for that child. If math is over her head, then the child may be pulled out for separate math services. If gym is too chaotic, other circumstances could be arranged for that as well. The student would have to need a totally different curriculum entirely if she/he were to be pulled out for the whole day or put into a separate class to meet those needs - meaning a 5th grader who is working on Kindergarten curriculum, for example. Even then, the school would find an opportunity for that student to join his/her class at some point - maybe for morning meeting or art class. School teams recognize that academics are only half of what students learn in school - the social component is so important! Your child needs an opportunity to make friends, learn to negotiate tough social situations, and learn the routines of a typical classroom, as well as receive some exposure to the mainstream curriculum. In a separate setting, naturally, your child just wouldn't have access to the same opportunities as a traditional setting. On the other hand, some people find that there's so much going on in a traditional classroom (or so much that the child doesn't understand), that their child can't access it anyway. One example is a child with severe Autism who is overstimulated and experiences such escalated anxiety, that he can't take in any instruction. In this case, another environment would be beneficial.

In short - you and your IEP team will make the decision together. You should start from the assumption that your child will be in the classroom as much as possible, and then look at what additional and/or separate services your child may need.

Good luck! And feel free to contact me with any additional questions!

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