The trend in special education law has moved away from segregating students with special needs. Instead, there is a movement toward educating disabled or special needs students and non-disabled or typical students together. Today, the best practices involve the inclusion of special needs students with typically developing peers to the maximum extent possible.

What Do the Terms Mean?

Although often used interchangeably, various terms describing educating students with and without special needs in one classroom do not mean the same thing to everyone. Here are some terms and their standard definitions, at least how they will be considered for this article.

  • Inclusion— placing a special education student in a general education setting. The school brings specially designed supports and instruction to the student, rather than removing the disabled student from a general education setting to receive special education services. A special educator is usually involved in the student’s education either as a consultant or co-teacher (along with a regular education teacher) for some or all of the day.
  • Mainstreaming­— placing a special education student in one or more regular education classes once the student has shown an ability to keep up with work assigned in a special education class. A mainstream classroom generally has no special education teacher.
  • Integration— placing a special education student in a setting with both disabled and non-disabled students, often just for a portion of each school day. When integration is on a part-time basis, it can make a special needs student feel like a visitor, unattached and excluded from the integrated class.
  • Integrated co-teaching— placing a special education student in a setting with disabled and non-disabled students where teachers (minimally a special education and a general education teacher) are assigned to the class. In a recent effort to standardize the varied terminology used by many school districts, New York State added the term “integrated co-teaching services” to their continuum of potential services.

The Limits of Inclusion

The federal laws guiding special education in every state include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Each law requires that special needs students be educated with typical students in regular education settings to the maximum extent appropriate. In fact, a school district can only remove a child from a standard classroom “when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” This presumption for an inclusive educational environment, to the maximum extent appropriate, is known as the “least restrictive environment.”

What Does the Research Say?

More than 15 years of research supports the benefits of inclusion to everyone involved. There is no research reporting negative side effects. Students with special needs in inclusion settings benefit from:

  • greater access to the general curriculum.
  • improved reading performance.
  • increased social opportunities and appropriate role models.
  • higher expectations resulting in increased achievement of IEP goals.
  • increased skill acquisition and generalization opportunities.
  • enhanced parent participation.
  • greater opportunities to be integrated into the community (the same goes for their families), fostering a sense of belonging and friendships with neighborhood peers.
  • increased self-respect and confidence.
  • preparation for adult life in an inclusive society.
  • higher employment rate (for disabled high school students).

Students without special needs in inclusion settings benefit from:

  • greater academic outcomes, particularly in math.
  • smaller class sizes and more organized classrooms.
  • increased application of learning strategies beneficial to all students.
  • enhanced feelings of self-esteem from mentoring students with needs.
  • increased appreciation of oneself and acceptance that all people have unique qualities.
  • increased sensitivity regarding the limitations of others.
  • enhanced respect and empathy for all people.
  • strong socialization and collaborative skills.
  • preparation for adult life in an inclusive society.

Parents of typical students placed in an inclusion class may worry their children do not receive adequate attention, fearing the disabled classmates monopolize a teacher’s attention. Parents may also worry that their children are held back by a curriculum that is “dumbed down” for the special needs students. Research shows neither concern is justified.

And teachers benefit from inclusive education through increased training, enhanced support from the school administration, reduced class sizes and teaching a classroom of students who are making great academic gains with extensive opportunities for socialization.

Moreover, the cost of educating students in inclusion settings is much lower than segregating students. One study reports the cost of educating students in segregated settings is double that of educating students in integrated settings.

Perhaps you have read research in recent years that has suggested that inclusive settings, while not harmful, are no more effective than non-inclusive settings. Nevertheless, proponents of inclusion rationalize that the lack of successful inclusion in such studies stems from students placed in general education classrooms without adequate support systems. Parents, educators and administrators must remember that the appropriate use of supplementary aids and services for each student are critical elements to any student’s successful inclusion experience. All parties must maintain proper goals and high expectations for students, and administrators must particularly provide adequate staff training and supports.

Resources Regarding Inclusion:

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