Inclusion is just one of the options in education for meeting the needs of special needs students. Any option that is chosen must follow the guidelines in IDEA providing for FAPE and LRE. Inclusion has many challenges such as; academically, socially, and physically meeting the needs of a wide range of learning abilities and styles in one classroom. At the same time, inclusion benefits all stakeholders; students, parents, teachers, and society by addressing the many challenges of this population
The Challenges of Inclusion of Exceptional Learners in the General Education Classroom
Many schools are moving towards inclusion but this term gets defined in many different ways. Is it merely the inclusion of students with various disabilities in the general education classroom? If so, is it enough for them to be with non-handicapped peers for only a few classes during the day or do they need to be in the general education classroom for the majority of the day for it to count as inclusion? Or does it maybe go deeper than that into the realm of the social aspect of the classroom?
For the purposes of this paper, inclusion will be defined as exceptional learners being in the general education classroom for any part of the day, no matter how much time they spend in special programs. It also includes incorporating the social aspect of the classroom with the goal being that the exceptional learners be involved socially with their peers.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) never actually uses the word “inclusion” but with the requirements of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), IDEA definitely seems to support the idea of inclusion. If the goal of education is to prepare students for the day when they are full members of society then the more diversity we can have in the classroom the better. Inclusion is important for both the exceptional learners and the “normal” students. For students with disabilities to be as independent as possible they need to be exposed to the world that exists outside of a special education classroom. For mainstream students to be as understanding and as informed as possible they need to be exposed to students that are different from them in as many ways as possible.
Inclusion does present many challenges including academic, social, and physical issues. Teachers are already busy with the responsibilities they have with mainstream students, many of whom already have diverse and special needs without being classified as special needs. When you add in the extra responsibilities that come along with having these exceptional students in the classroom many teachers fear that it will be too much for them to deal with. Many teachers just don’t know how to respond to the challenge of how to reach students with academic disabilities or having many different students at different levels and paces. When you add in the social and physical challenges it is understandable that some teachers will have difficulty adapting to changes that should be made in the learning environment. Since it involves all children in a classroom, the biggest challenge is trying to facilitate exceptional students being fully integrated into the classroom socially as well as academically. Reaching Exceptional Learners
The greatest challenge of having special needs students in the mainstream classroom is that you increase the range of learning styles within the classroom. This means that teachers have to further differentiate their instruction to accommodate the new learning styles they have to deal with. Good teachers are already widely differentiating their instruction to increase understanding and retention among the range they have in their classroom. Adding in a special needs population makes this especially important. Peterson and Hittie (2003) present it this way, “When we watch our students carefully and understand the conditions and situations in which they learn best, we can design our instruction to capitalize on our observations. In addition, we can teach students to understand their own learning styles.” One way to overcome the challenge of different learning styles is to design assignments involving several learning modalities so that each student can study the material in a way that works best with their learning styles. Opportunities should be given for auditory, visual, tactile, and other learning styles. Similar to learning styles is the theory of multiple intelligences. Multilevel Teaching and Scaffolding
Another challenge of inclusive teaching that scares teachers is the range of levels and paces that students may be bringing with them into the class. Generally, inclusion means there is the possibility to have, for example, a student at a 2nd grade reading level and another student at a 5th grade reading level in the same room. Multilevel teaching and scaffolding are two different but very similar strategies to deal with this challenge. These strategies also fit very well with the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) because they keep each and every student learning at their own pace and level and continually progressing forward as they can. The best thing is that these practice not only keep students from “falling behind” they keep the top level of students from becoming complacent and thinking they don’t have to work. Traditionally, teachers have tried to keep a classroom learning the same material, at the same level and pace. Within that scenario you will have some students who begin to feel like they can’t do anything and are dumb while seated right next to them are students who get A’s without cracking open a book and think they don’t have to work. Multilevel teaching avoids this scenario by keeping all students at an appropriate level. However, multilevel teaching does not mean creating ability groups within a classroom but children at different levels can work with and help each other because students may be at one level in one subject area that another student needs help in and vice versa. Scaffolding is similar in that, “when we have children of differing abilities learn together, we provide them support and assistance to reach to the next level of learning.” (Peterson & Hittie, 2003) Scaffolding encourages students to reach just beyond their actual level and push themselves to that next level. The challenges thought to be presented by having many different levels and speeds of learners in the classroom are only there because teachers think they have to keep the class all together. Students can be learning the same material at a different level in the same classroom through using these techniques. The Learning Environment
While it may not be a major challenge for many teachers, having a student with disabilities in their classroom may mean rearranging the classroom or another adaptation to accommodate the student. For a student in a wheelchair it may mean rearranging desks to accommodate the wheelchair and that might be all the accommodations needed. However another accommodation that is very helpful for many disabled students that have trouble with short-term memory, is to provide written instruction for activities such as the morning routine, set up a word wall, or distribute checklists for multistep tasks. This saves the teacher a moment of frustration at having to repeat his or herself and saves the student a moment of embarrassment at having to ask. These accommodations are all set up to encourage independence for all students. (McGrath, 2007) Beyond Academics
The most difficult part of inclusion by far is getting beyond the academics. With a good attitude, good supports from special education faculty and administration, flexibility and a little creativity any teacher can get through the academic challenges presented by including special needs students in the general education classroom. Something that is much harder though is facilitating the social inclusion of those students into the classroom. It may be that the mainstream students don’t know how to react to the special needs students at the beginning or that the special needs students are unsure of themselves. In either scenario the important thing is that all students feel like they belong. “Being included in a group and feeling included can be two, quite different situations…If the student feels that they do not really belong to the class, then inclusion has not really happened.” (Hannell, 2007) This again comes down to attitudes. A teacher can be using wonderful inclusive strategies but doing them in a way where the student feels excluded still. Some ways to avoid this are to create a class identity and refer to the class as a group unit, avoid using certain tone of voice or phrasing with special needs students, make sure that all students have equal opportunities and responsibilities, and teach students to value diversity and individuality. (Hannell, 2007) To facilitate understanding among mainstream students teachers should be honest about another student’s disabilities when asked and help students see that everyone needs help from time to time with different tasks and that everyone can do something well. (Willis, 2009) Benefits for All
The benefits of inclusive education reach all groups involved, special needs and mainstream students, teachers, parents, and society. Special needs students benefit by being challenged academically more than they usually are in segregated settings which means they achieve more academically. They also benefit socially through learning to interact with mainstream students and having to communicate and work with those students. Special needs students in inclusive environments have a much higher social competence than those that have been kept segregated from their mainstream peers. (Loreman, Deppeler, & Harvey, 2005) There are even more benefits for mainstream students by being in an inclusive environment. Beyond just being exposed to many diverse individuals and having the opportunity to learn special skills like American Sign Language or Braille, these students benefit from having a higher staff ratio, increased funds, improved instructional strategies, and having the opportunity to be involved in peer-tutoring.Teachers benefit as well from having the challenges of learning to meet different needs. Few, if any teachers, believed they were done learning when they received their degree, nor did they want to be. Having challenges as a teacher gives teachers a chance to challenge themselves and rise to that challenge. It also gives teachers a chance to broaden their horizons and become more open to different individuals. This same reasoning goes for the parents of both mainstream and special needs students. Parents of mainstream students learn from their children to be accepting of diversity and learn about disabled individuals. Parents of special needs students get every parent’s dream, seeing their child being accepted as they are and included by their peers. Society as a whole becomes more accepting of these individuals and they in turn become a more integral part of society. In Conclusion
Inclusion, like any other theory or model in education, is not perfect and will not work for every individual, teacher, or school. It has its own specific brand of challenges that it presents but, done well, benefits everyone and is well worth the effort. There are many different inclusion models out there and where one may fail, another may work. The most important ingredient for a successful inclusion model implementation though is a good attitude from teachers, administrators, parents, paraprofessionals and a willingness from all of the groups to work together. References
Hannell, G. (2007). The Teacher’s Guide to Intervention and Inclusive Education: 1000+ Strategies to Help ALL Students Succeed! Minnetonka, MN: Peytral Publications, Inc. Loreman, T., Deppeler, J., & Harvey, D. (2005). inclusive EDUCATION: A practical guide to supporting diversity in the classroom .London: RoutledgeFalmer. McGrath, C. (2007). The Inclusion-Classroom Problem Solver: Structures and Supports to Serve All Learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Peterson, J.M. & Hittie, M.M. (2003). Inclusive Teaching: Creating Effective Schools for All Learners. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc. Willis, C. (2009). Creating Inclusive Learning Environments for Young Children: What to Do on Monday Morning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.