What is Inclusion?
Inclusion has been a common school term for decades. It is a philosophy and strategy in which students with special needs spend most or all of their time with non-disabled peers, rather than being educated in separate classrooms or schools.
When students are part of a full inclusion program, they receive additional academic assistance or instruction in the general education classroom, whenever possible. More commonly, though, schools provide education to the students in a variety of degrees from separated classrooms to mainstreaming (general education classes for less than half the day and usually for less academically rigorous classes such as PE, art, music, story time, etc), to inclusion, and determine the setting that would most likely help the students achieve their individualized educational goals. Specialized services such as speech, OT, PT, and social work are provided outside the regular classroom, but can also be inclusive and have peers from the regular education classroom participate with them, when appropriate.
When I worked as a school social worker, I often created “friendship groups” where I would have three or four peers from the classroom join the child with special needs each week. The regular education students would rotate from a list of all classmates whose parents gave consent. Kids would beg to participate in these groups which often helped the regular education peers as much as the “targeted” student. It was a positive experience for all because a trained professional facilitated the group as they navigated social skills, assertiveness training, and conflict resolution with small group instruction, role play, games, social stories, etc. The peers from the regular education classroom had a fun time with their peer whom they thought could not keep up with them on the playground during recess and would often subsequently ask the child to join them. I often recommend this type of group for children who have difficulty integrating with their peers.
Is Inclusion Right for Your Child?
Before deciding whether inclusion is right for your child, remember that schools are legislated to provide the least restrictive environment (LRE) for the child that will meet the child’s needs and Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The child’s plan should indeed be individualized and always have the child’s best interest in mind. A child with severe behavioral problems or severe sensory processing deficits may negatively impact the classroom setting within the regular education classroom and be disruptive, which would negatively impact the learning environment as well as friendships. A child who is delayed in learning academic skills or who has behavioral or emotional struggles may need individualized instruction or small group instruction in order to make appropriate gains. Placing that child strictly in a regular education classroom may create added anxiety for the child and may increase negative behaviors because of heightened stimulation in the larger regular education setting. A child with these struggles may initially benefit from integrating with same-age peers in classes such as physical education, art, music, library, or computers with an aide present to help the child.
Best Practice for Inclusion Success
To obtain the optimal success rates of including the child within the regular education classroom, the school setting should provide:
- tailored individualized education programs (IEPs)
- adequate support and services for the student
- diversity training and professional development for all educators working with the child
- weekly planning times for all teachers on the child’s team to collaborate and create the optimal learning environment for the child and regular education peers
- smaller class sizes, depending on the student’s special needs
- training in cooperative learning, peer mentoring, and curriculum adaptation to address the child’s needs
- funding to develop appropriate programs to continue to meet these needs
- most importantly, ongoing communication with the child’s support team (educators, specialists, parents, and administrative officers) will provide the most appropriate programming to meet the child’s individualized academic, social, and behavioral needs.
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