The history of inclusion in the US school system is quite brief. For many years children with special needs were either sent to their own schools or left out of education altogether. Improvements in inclusion have been incremental over the years. First schools opened special education units with children having little to no contact with their typically performing peers. Today we are mandated to educate students in the least restrictive environment, which means that, hopefully, kids are spending as much of their days as possible in the regular ed classroom.
Unfortunately, though laws have changed not all schools have adapted to be inclusive. In our current society, we have a plethora of information at our fingertips to help us understand the variety of special needs students have. With increased understanding and technology now, more than ever, children with special needs should be included in the regular classroom. It is what’s best for all children.
What are the advantages of inclusion? Some would argue that being in the regular classroom is too frustrating for kids with special needs because they can’t keep up. The advantages of inclusion far outweigh any drawbacks, however, and the drawbacks can often be mitigated.
Role Models: Inclusion is better for kids with special needs because they can see other ‘typical’ kids and emulate them. They get an opportunity to learn acceptable social behaviors and to learn from their peers.
Social and Emotional Development: School isn’t just about academic needs. Kids social and emotional needs also must be considered. It is important for kids to have as normal a school experience as possible.
Increased Tolerance: Inclusion is better for kids without special needs than keeping kids with special needs isolated. The more kids with special needs are included the more their peers start to see the kids for who they are.
Children from inclusive classrooms have more opportunities to develop tolerance for differences and empathy for others.
For inclusion to work well, schools and classrooms need to foster inclusive environments. But how?
Build Relationships: It is important for teachers to foster a one-on-one relationship with each of their students as much as possible. This can be accomplished by greeting them each at the door, asking them about their interests, and using genuine praise in the classroom.
Celebrate Diversity: Pay attention to the materials you use in class. Do they depict children from a variety of backgrounds and with varying abilities? How do books, videos, and other materials portray children with special needs? Celebrate the diversity in your classroom and teach your students to do the same.
Educate Yourself: Educate yourself about the specific disabilities any of the students you work with have. You can then educate your students. Education leads to understanding which then leads to compassion and connection.
Encourage Interaction: Give students opportunities to interact with each other so they can build friendships and a sense of community.
Strengths-Based Approach: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Help kids develop their strengths and see that kids with special needs have strengths too. Focus on progress, no matter how small.
These teaching strategies help students of all backgrounds to be successful in the regular education classroom.
Differentiate Instruction: When teachers differentiate all students can participate and work at their current ability.
Make Objectives Clear: Posting and reviewing objectives in age-appropriate language helps all students achieve the desired objective of each lesson. It is especially helpful for kids with special needs.
Adapt: Teachers are masters at adapting. We watch our students and constantly assess; slowing down when they don’t understand something then speeding up when it’s clear they’ve already got it. We challenge those that are ready for more and provide extra support to those that need it.
Explicit Teaching and Modeling: Model for students and gradually turn the responsibility over to the student. The “I do, We do, You do” approach is especially beneficial to kids with special needs; it gives them the support they need to keep up with traditional classroom activities.
Have a Positive Attitude: As the teacher, your positive attitude about inclusion sets the tone for the rest of the class.
If you see having special needs students in your classroom as a growth opportunity and a positive, your students will too.
Teach to Different Learning Styles: Vary the learning styles you target. Use different approaches and try to cater to many different learning styles so that all students can learn. For example, one lesson you might incorporate movement and music while another you encourage students to write and draw.
Inclusion is good for all students. The strategies teachers use to make the regular education classroom appropriate for students with special needs are helpful for all students. Including students of all backgrounds and abilities increases tolerance and empathy among students. Inclusion is worth it.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.