Students with special education needs tend to be treated differently than their peers who have met developmental milestones. Because of this difference in treatment and educational opportunity, it is beneficial for students with disabilities to experience an inclusive classroom. Inclusion within special education leads to greater learning in classrooms and has a positive overall effect on children. This chapter will define special education inclusion by examining the history of special education laws, the outcomes and limitations of special education inclusion, and how inclusion helps focus teachers on student-centered learning.
Special education (SPED) inclusion, or mainstreaming, is the integration of special education students into general education classrooms (Stanich, 2022). Students who require special education include those with disabilities and those with any behavioral or communication disorder that would make learning more difficult. This may include but is not limited to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, developmental language disorder, down syndrome, or other individuals with any disabilities.
A classroom that does not include any SPED students is described as a general education classroom. General education classrooms exist because a school may not have many SPED students, or may group SPED students in SPED-only classrooms. An inclusive classroom on the other hand, is described as one that includes SPED students in a classroom with their typically developing peers. Inclusive classrooms have proven to be much more effective, especially for SPED students.
Inclusion within SPED is important because it promotes learning and an environment where all students—regardless of any disabilities—are provided equal educational opportunities. Research presented by Kirby (2016) showed that children with disabilities performed at higher levels in reading and writing when included in classrooms with their typically developing peers. Kirby added that SPED inclusion is important because excluding SPED students in a separate classroom reinforces societal barriers and stigmas geared toward individuals with disabilities (2016). This means that SPED inclusion is important not only to improve classroom performance but also to challenge hurtful myths surrounding those who are not typically developing.
Special education laws have significantly changed over time to become the more inclusive laws they are today. As explained by Francisco et al. (2020), individuals with disabilities were first given the opportunity to receive an education in America in the 1800s. American education at this time was very segregated and frequently excluded children with disabilities. Additionally, children with disabilities were not permitted to attend public school and were taught mostly by church leaders who aimed to foster their independence (Francisco et al., 2020).
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Law was adopted (Francisco et al., 2020). With this law, many people began to realize that separating disabled children from their peers denied them the equal opportunity to education that they deserved. Education began to reform to become more inclusive and children with special needs were then given education in small classrooms within public schools (Francisco et al., 2020). Although they were still separated from the rest of the school children, integrating everyone into the same school was a step in the right direction toward greater inclusion.
Within the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the focus began to shift from education integration to inclusion. One of the ways that the focus began to shift was through the introduction of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Lipkin and Okamoto (2015) explained some of the reformations that the IDEA has gone through over the years:
Children with disabilities…have been entitled to a free appropriate public education since 1975 when the US Congress mandated public special educational services for those with special needs through the…Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA has undergone several reauthorizations and amendments by Congress since its initial adoption, most recently in 2004. (Lipkin & Okamoto, 2015)
After the pronouncement of IDEA, children with special needs began to be included in classrooms with their peers while receiving any extra support and accommodations they needed outside of class (Francisco et al., 2020). While current laws require that SPED students are placed in the least restrictive environment (LRE) appropriate to their needs, laws do not mandate that all SPED students be mainstreamed, or placed in SPED-inclusive classrooms. As stated in the quote above, all SPED students have a right to free appropriate education. Although there are improvements that can still be made, special education laws have greatly expanded over the years.
SPED-inclusive classrooms are more successful and teachers’ attitudes are more positive when the instructors are trained prior to entering a SPED-inclusive classroom. In most cases, instructor preparation consists of online courses, seminars, or training which teachers can participate in to become better prepared for SPED instruction. Many teaching techniques used for special education are accessible for only specifically designated special-education teachers and not taught to non-SPED teachers. When surveyed, general education teachers who were not prepared for SPED inclusion responded that they were frustrated with their experience in an inclusive classroom (Crispel & Kasperski, 2019). In contrast, when general education teachers were exposed to training techniques before being placed in a SPED-inclusive classroom, their survey responses showed that their attitudes were more positive, their experiences were more beneficial, and SPED inclusion was better implemented in the classroom. In other words, teachers had better experiences when they were prepared for the transition from a general education classroom to a SPED-inclusive classroom. The research also indicated that teachers with positive attitudes towards SPED inclusion had a greater level of control over their classroom and had better overall experiences teaching (Sze, 2009, as cited in Hernandez et al., 2016). Crispel and Kasperski (2019) indicated that it is critical for teachers to be previously taught and prepared in order to achieve a successful implementation of a SPED-inclusive classroom. Ultimately, it is vital for teachers to be prepared so they are able to aid students in the transition from a general education classroom to a SPED-inclusive classroom.
Student-centered learning (SCL) is exemplified in a SPED-inclusive classroom. This approach inspires students to be actively engaged with their teacher as they have a valued voice in the learning process. According to Lee and Hannafin (2016), “SCL is a complex learning process in which students must be thoroughly supported in the motivational, cognitive, and social aspects” (p. 708). In a SPED inclusive classroom, children have more opportunities to participate in the learning process; therefore, there is more room to accommodate differences in students’ individual backgrounds, abilities, and unique needs. SPED inclusion creates an environment where both special education students and general education students are able to interact with one another within the learning process. SPED inclusion is a student-centered practice because the teacher focuses the curriculum on the individualized needs of each student.
To help students take charge of their own learning, teachers must consider what each child is capable of. One way a teacher can do this is through scaffolding, or offering additional assistance, to a child in the educational process where needed. Providing accommodations is another form of inclusion that can be implemented to ensure that the SPED-inclusive classroom is a student-centered classroom. According to Kern et al., “Accommodations are intended to address student academic and behavioral deficits by reducing obstacles that impede learning and accurately measuring skills” (Kern et al., 2019, para. 1). Whether it be making room for a wheelchair, providing access to different forms of therapy, or following the child’s individualized education plan, a teacher in a SPED-inclusive classroom must ensure that accommodations are given to students who need them so that all students have equal opportunity to education.
There are pros and cons to every teaching approach; SPED-inclusive classrooms are no exception to this rule. Research indicates that there are both positive and negative outcomes for both the students and the instructors in SPED-inclusive classrooms. The following sections will discuss the pros and cons of such environments.
SPED inclusion impacts instructors in many ways. Nilsen (2018) explained that SPED students who participate in inclusive classrooms are also involved in special education groups outside of their everyday classroom. Because of this, the SPED and general education teachers must coordinate their schedules so they can aid the students with special education needs. However, one of the main flaws in SPED integration is that often general education teachers and special education teachers fail to communicate (Nilsen, 2018). The absence of communication causes misunderstandings, differing curriculums, and a lack of educational progress by SPED students. Impaired communication leads to two different worlds—the general education classroom and the SPED-inclusive classroom—rather than achieving the goal of an integrated environment. This “lack of unification” may be resolved by a simple increase in emails or improved contact (Nilsen, 2018, p. 987). These negative outcomes are easily prevented with a little extra time and effort to improve the correspondence between the SPED and general education teachers.
Research that describes the academic outcomes of SPED-inclusive classrooms has generally shown positive results. The results of Tremblay’s 2013 study indicated that SPED inclusion led to improvements in reading and writing scores, as well as greater attendance. Sainato et al. (2015) similarly reported statistically higher academic levels and language skills for students in SPED-inclusive classrooms compared to those of students in general education classrooms. Justice et al. (2014) observed the language development of students in SPED-inclusive classrooms versus general education classrooms, administering language tests to the students in each classroom at the beginning and the end of the school year. Based on the results of these tests, Justice et al. (2014) concluded that language development is highly dependent on the language skills of one’s peers. In other words, a child with special needs who is surrounded by children with advanced language skills would score higher on language tests than a child with special needs who is surrounded by children with poor language skills. This outcome indicates the necessity of proper SPED integration into general education classrooms. Justice et al. (2014) urged education professionals to take great care in their classroom student selection so the greatest amount of academic improvement possible may be achieved. When executed properly, the academic outcomes of the SPED-inclusive classroom on SPED students are clear and positive.
SPED-inclusive classrooms impact the social-emotional development and behavior of SPED students in both positive and negative ways. For example, SPED students in an inclusive classroom generally exhibit better behaviors and higher attendance (Hernandez, et al. 2016). On the other hand, Krull et al. (2014) observed that “Children with [classroom learning difficulties] and/or [classroom behavior problems] are more often socially rejected and less popular” (Krull et al., 2014 p. 185). Nilsen further supported this claim by articulating the following findings: “International research indicate[s] that social inclusion can be a major challenge for pupils with [special education needs], and some of them can experience social loneliness when taking part in regular classes” (Nilsen, 2018, p. 6). Despite the integration of SPED students into the classroom to create equal learning opportunities, there are still setbacks such as being socially rejected or feelings of loneliness for being different. While SPED inclusion within the classroom is actively removing the stigma from marginalized people with disabilities, their integration creates a higher risk for these students to be left out because of the actions of teachers or classmates.
This section will discuss the implications surrounding the finite amount of research that has been performed regarding SPED-inclusive classrooms. Francisco et al. (2020) reported the following: “The lack of empirical studies on the effectiveness of inclusion and the lack of knowledge and awareness of the provisions of special education laws by stakeholders contribute to the issues surrounding inclusion implementation” (p. 1). In other words, there is a lack of studies presenting the positive effects of this practice; therefore, schools may end up denying SPED children access to their right of a Free Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment because of a lack of research and resources. Some problems related to the lack of research include inclusion not being implemented within the classroom leading to exclusion or marginalization of students with disabilities, students with disabilities falling behind in a SPED-inclusive classroom due to teacher’s attitude or lack of training, and the continuing debate over whether SPED inclusion is a successful form of intervention for students with special education needs versus other alternative methods.
There is a fair amount of research detailing the benefits for SPED students placed in a SPED-inclusive classroom with general education students. There is less research to conclude how general education students benefit from being placed in a SPED-inclusive classroom. Ford acknowledged as much, stating, “One limitation is that some students may feel stigmatized as a result of receiving a perceived less challenging curriculum” (Ford, 2013 p. 8). Schools, teachers, and parents of general education students placed in a SPED-inclusive classroom may fear that the child is not receiving as good of an education as they would in a non-inclusive classroom. However, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that separated classrooms lead to better education.
SPED-inclusive classrooms prove to be beneficial for students with special education needs. Not only does research indicate positive academic improvements for the SPED students involved in these classrooms, it also indicates significant social and emotional benefits for these students (Sainato et al., 2015; Tremblay, 2013). Regardless of the lack of research on the outcomes of typically developing students in SPED-inclusive classrooms, it is critical for the teachers and education boards to make integration decisions based on what is most beneficial for their school and the students individually. It is crucial to have a good balance of general education and special education students in every classroom, for students can all learn from one another (Justice et al., 2014). SPED inclusion is an effective student-centered approach because it allows for equal educational opportunities for all students, regardless of any disabilities.
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