Early in my teaching career, I didn’t believe that inclusive education was the right thing to do.
I distinctly remember having a
heated respectful discussion with a professor in my teacher training program about how they just didn’t understand that students with autism needed to be educated with students just like them.
Instead of debating our differences of philosophy, my professor simply gave us an assignment. Pick one student who is educated in a self-contained (segregated) classroom and create an inclusion plan.
“And don’t pick an easy one, pick a student that you never would think could ever tolerate time in a general education classroom,” she said.
I had the perfect one. Nathan (not his real name) a 5th grade student who had limited verbal abilities, engaged in self-injurious behavior, his verbal stimming was extremely disruptive, and when he got angry would often hit or kick anyone or anything that was next to him. I never in my wildest dreams thought that he would be successful in a setting with typically developing peers.
I was wrong.
The plan included examining the student’s interests, communication skills, and adaptive strengths. The idea was to discover who Nathan was, what he liked, and what he was good at.
Next, the plan included planning with a general education teacher a lesson that would take into consideration Nathan’s strengths.
Despite all of Nathan’s communication and sensory issues, he was a wizard with scissors. In fact, that was one of his favorite things to do. If he wasn’t cutting strips of paper or cardboard, he was shredding paper with his hands, or picking up leaves outside and crumpling them in front of his eyes so that he could see the minute pieces fall to the ground.
The plan began to form. Whatever we were going to do in the 5th-grade classroom, it would involve cutting.
After a few more planning sessions, the day finally came. It was time for Nathan and me to walk down the long hallway to the classroom for science class. The activity was to create a topography map out of cardboard.
Luckily for Nathan, there was a whole bunch of cardboard to be cut for this activity. As he sat in a desk in a classroom with 35 or so of his peers, I was astounded at how calm and focused he was cutting to his heart’s content.
His task was meaningful, age-appropriate, and for 45 minutes in that science class, he belonged.
Did that one activity set Nathan on a path of full inclusion? No. But what it did do was set me on a path of believing that any student could be successful when certain conditions were present.
Maybe you don’t believe that inclusive education benefits all students (you are not alone by the way) and you won’t be persuaded.
Maybe you are on the fence, but just not convinced that all students can access general education curriculum in the same location as typically developing students.
So why is it that so often “inclusion” doesn’t work? Here are three reasons (although I could list many more) why inclusive education is a failure before it ever begins.
1. There Is No Plan
What often passes for inclusion is simply putting a student with significant support needs in a classroom or learning space with typically developing peers and just “hoping” things work out. Then when it doesn’t, the people who didn’t think it to work in the first place point and say, “See!”
I recently interviewed Erin Studer (principal of CHIME Institute), a full inclusion charter school in Woodland Hills, California. Something he said will stick with me forever. “Co-teaching and co-planning go together. If you are not co-planning, you aren’t actually co-teaching. You have no plan.”
Shelley Moore describes how to think about designing lessons with the hardest to reach students in mind.
Nicole Eredics (Inclusive Class) provides examples of assignment modifications for students with intellectual disabilities who are included in general curriculum classrooms.
This is only scratching the surface of what is possible, but make no mistake, it is possible.
2. Violation of Natural Proportions
Although different schools have unique ways of implementing inclusive education, there are important indicators that are typically available in successful programs.
One of these indicators is called “natural proportions.” If students with disabilities are approximately 12% of the school population, ideally 12% of any one classroom would be comprised of students with disabilities.
Lou Brown (educator and founder of the advocacy group TASH) and I had a more in-depth discussion about this concept. If we are violating natural proportions in our classrooms, then it is difficult to say that we are really practicing inclusion.
3. When Special Education is a Place, not a Service
Many times when special education services are discussed the emphasis is on location.
“This student needs a special education classroom.” “This student needs an autism classroom.” “This student needs a classroom for students with emotional behavior disorders.”
What is not always discussed, is the services and supports that a student needs. In addition, the discussion should focus on is how (if at all) those supports could be provided by the local school and the classroom they would attend if they didn’t have a disability.
The answer is not that we need more self-contained special education classrooms. If you increase the number of segregated classrooms, people will always find a reason to put students in them. The answer is to build capacity at the neighborhood school to support their students.
Inclusion Begins and Ends with Your Mindset
It starts with district leaders to communicate the expectations of inclusive practices. That special education students are everyone’s responsibility, not just those who are trained in specific interventions. When we begin with the mindset that our goal for student success includes all students, we can do amazing things without relying on sending “special” students to “special” places to learn.