Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inclusive Special Education: An Introduction

Inclusive education, also known as inclusion, has been a part of our school system in some form or another for many years. Since the passing of Public Law 94-142, the Education for Handicapped Children Act, in 1975 (updated as IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, in 1990), classrooms and schools across the United States have brought children with disabilities into regular classrooms as part of their learning experience. There are many ways to provide an inclusive education, and not all of these methods may be beneficial to the student with disabilities or his peers. As a former special education teacher, a longtime volunteer with special populations groups, and an advocate of inclusive education, I would like to share what I know about inclusion--what I believe works, and what doesn't, in inclusive education.

The early name for the method of including children with disabilities or special needs in the "regular" classroom was mainstreaming. Today, by definition, mainstreaming focuses on a student's part-time attendance in regular education groups, while inclusion professes to do just what it says--include all children, regardless of skill level or needs, in age-appropriate classrooms as long as the guidelines of IDEA are followed--the placement must be an appropriate educational program, and it must be the "least restrictive environment."

There is a wide range of possible placements along the inclusive education spectrum. From segregated schools, to entirely inclusive placement with minimal "pullout," parents and educators have options to work with. Most children with diagnosed disabilities attend school somewhere along that spectrum. The only exception might be children qualified as extremely "medically fragile," who may be taught through home-based services due to their medical needs. Every child is an individual, and every educational programming solution will be different. Parents should be prepared to ask questions about their child's individualized education program (IEP), and the teacher should be prepared to answer those questions and provide ongoing resources and support for families.

When I was a student intern, as part of my credit hours I assisted special education programs at two local elementary schools and also a high school. The high school program was for severely/profoundly disabled students (students with high levels of physical and developmental disability) and was almost completely segregated from the rest of the school. Although the classroom was in the same building, students received all services outside of lunch and gym class, in that special education classroom. A "buddy" program allowed "typical" (nondisabled) students to spend their free periods as mentors and helpers in the special education room. Unfortunately, because of closeminded attitudes through the school, instead of being truly inclusive, this brought the regular students in as mini-teachers, rather than peers or friends for the disabled students.

The two elementary schools displayed two very different models of "inclusion."

One school was still in the early stages of trying to include children with special needs in regular classes. They placed a large twelve year old with a developmental disability in a first grade classroom reading group because she was "on the same level" as the six year olds. She was bigger than the other children, aware enough to be embarassed, and it was not a comfortable situation for any of the children. Another classroom identified the "slow learners" and separated them into math groups based on ability. This is a process known as tracking. Everyone's kind of at the same ability level, so it supposedly makes teaching easier. There are many differing opinions about this widespread practice. Another option might have been to split the math groups up with a few of the less able students and a few of the more capable students working together, so that the struggling children might learn from their peers (who love teaching what they can do!)

Nothing about what this first school did was inherently bad, but there was a lot of room to grow and improve.

The second school spent a great deal of time preparing an inclusive, supportive environment. Teachers, students, and all other staff (even kitchen and janitorial workers) were trained and educated in how to include ALL learners in the school and its activities. Differences were recognized but not ridiculed. I worked as an intern in a second grade classroom that had included at least one severely autistic, nonverbal child since kindergarten. Because he was familiar to the students, because instead of constantly being removed from the class to do "special ed" stuff,he was assisted in daily classroom activities by both regular and special education teachers; the other students saw him as a valid, important member of their class, not as an outsider who was only around once in a while. Despite the fact that he didn't talk, and had some behavior issues, this child received regular phone calls and play invitations from his peers.

The second model of inclusion described here is NOT idealistic. It CAN be done, but it will take a huge amount of commitment and collaborative effort by all participants.

In Part Two of this introductory article about inclusion, I will discuss more specifics on how to create a more inclusive school environment.