With inclusion comes questions, both from parents of students with disabilities and from parents of students who don’t have disabilities. Here are some of the more common questions we’ve heard and some answers through both an educator and parent lens. Nicole Eredics, an experienced full inclusion teacher, answers the questions from a teacher’s perspective. Amanda Morin, an educator and parent advocate, responds to the questions from a parent perspective. Here are some common questions about inclusion with Nicole and Amanda’s answers:
How does inclusion benefit my child with a disability?
Nicole: As a full inclusion teacher for many years, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how inclusive classrooms provide numerous social, emotional and intellectual benefits for children with special needs. Below are some of the many ways in which an inclusive classroom can benefit students with disabilities:
- Social – Students with disabilities are fully participating members of the inclusive classroom. There are increased social interactions and relationships between students, staff and families. Students have opportunities to develop relationships, communication, and life skills in an inclusive environment.
- Emotional – Students and families begin to feel more integrated into the school community and a greater sense of belonging develops. The self-confidence and self-esteem of special needs students grows naturally from the positive support of peers and teachers.
- Intellectual – All students have equal access to the curriculum despite academic ability. Accommodations and modifications are made to the curriculum to meet the student’s needs. Students become more actively engaged in learning and become more confident learners as they experience greater success in school. Research indicates that access to the general education curriculum results in better outcomes in the areas of employment and living conditions after graduation.
Amanda: As a parent to two children with autism, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of them being in inclusive classrooms. Both of my sons have thrived emotionally, socially and academically in general education classrooms. They know that everyone in their classes are diverse learners and they’re able to see that everyone learns in their own way.
Both of them have built and maintained friendships with classmates they might not otherwise have had a chance to meet and have learned that what they have in common with other students is often more important than how they differ.
It’s also gone a long way in reducing stigma and helping other parents and teachers recognize that their diagnoses are not a blueprint for who they are as people. Because we talk openly about disability and differences and because my sons have learned to be strong self-advocates, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a number of other parents who are more willing to talk openly about their children’s disabilities.
Won’t my child know he’s different from the other students?
Nicole: It’s important to note that even in a general education classroom, there are students with a wide array of social, emotional, and academic needs. Whether they are visible or not, every students has his or her unique set of strengths and challenges. In an inclusive classroom, all students are taught that these differences are a normal part of life.
Amanda: In any classroom, all the students are different from each other. As a parent, you have the opportunity to play a role in how they view that difference. You can lead the way in letting your child (and/or his teachers) know that your view is that different doesn’t mean less than.
From a developmental standpoint, children develop skills on varying timelines, and as Nicole said, every student has strengths and challenges. Your child may know he’s different, but in a truly inclusive environment, he will also know that his classmates also have things in which they excel and with which they struggle. My son Jacob explained how he views being “different” in an article he wrote for Education Week:
“I didn’t hide the fact that I did need help with certain things. But I also helped my classmates with things they didn’t have as fine as grasp on as I did, probably because I focused on that topic more intently. Having as many viewpoints in a classroom as possible is beneficial to all the people involved.”
I’m worried my child won’t have all the support he needs if he’s fully included. Is that possible?
Nicole: Before your child is placed in an inclusive environment, an Individual Education Plan is developed with a team of education professionals to ensure that your child receives all the support he needs. Parents are a very important part of their child’s education plan as well and can work with the team to plan for supports. Individual Education Plans are living documents, which means they can be updated and revised as needed. So, if your child’s needs change during the year then the team (including parents) can reconvene to create a more suitable plan.
Amanda: In many inclusive classrooms, the role of support staff has been redefined and the staff works in collaboration with general education teachers to be sure those support needs are met. In some cases, that may mean co-teaching. It may mean that your child’s services are provided in the general education setting (this is sometimes known as “push-in” services).
Keep in mind, too, that if you’re concerned your child’s meets aren’t being met, you can always request an IEP meeting so the team can revisit the goals, supports and resources the IEP plan outlined.
How will my child make friends in a general education classroom?
Nicole: In an inclusive, general education classroom there is as much attention given to the social development of students as there is academic. Teachers give explicit instruction in social inclusion, model socially inclusive behavior, provide socially inclusive opportunities for students, and expect that all students will adhere to an inclusive belief system. Students with and without disabilities are encouraged and given opportunities to develop friendships with one another.
Amanda: One of the benefits of an inclusive classroom is that all students learn and practice the same social expectations alongside each other. Explicit instruction and modeling of socially inclusive behavior and active community-building provides all the students an opportunity to get to know each other. That means that your child will not be the only one being taught the skills to make friends and his peers will have the same language around friendship that he does.
Who do I talk to about concerns without having a special education teacher as a point of contact? Is there a main point of contact?
Nicole: When your student is a member of a general education classroom, the classroom teacher is the main point of contact.
Amanda: It’s always best to assume the general education teacher is your main point of contact. Understandably, that may cause some anxiety if you’re used to speaking mainly with the special education teacher, but keep in mind that teacher is the main point of contact for your child as well. And just because you start with the general education teacher, it doesn’t mean the rest of your child’s support team can’t be part of the conversation.
What if my child is uncomfortable being around students with disabilities?
Nicole: An inclusive classroom is a great opportunity to learn about the different types of people that your child will interact with and encounter throughout his life. If your child is unsure or hesitant about being in a classroom with a student who has disabilities, it can be helpful to ease your child’s concerns by preparing them ahead of time. For example, parents can help by:
- De-mystifying the myths and misunderstandings about people with disabilities. There are numerous books available for both young and teen readers about students with disabilities.
- Providing the student with opportunities to interact with people who have disabilities.
- Continuing to help your child develop strong interpersonal skills with people from all walks of life.
Amanda: Both children and adults are often uncomfortable with situations that are new to them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As parents, it’s important that we acknowledge that discomfort and then take the next step of finding ways to ease it. In addition to Nicole’s suggestions above, you may want to consider attending a meeting of your school district’s Special Education PTA or Special Education Advisory Council (if there is one). Many parents who are part of a SEPTA or SEPAC will happily answer your questions and help you find ways to answer your child’s questions–and yours as well.
My child is going to have questions about kids with disabilities that I don’t know how to answer. What do I do?
Nicole: Here are some ways that teachers and parents can answer those questions:
- Establish general concepts about students with and without disabilities through class discussions, books, movies or a guest speaker. Primarily, teach students that:
- Everyone wants to belong and be included
- Everyone is different
- Everyone has areas of strengths and areas of weaknesses
- Dis-spell any myths and misunderstandings about students with disabilities. Most importantly:
- Some disabilities you can see and some you can’t
- A physical disability does not determine a person’s intelligence
- People with disabilities are people first
- Address student-specific issues that are important for the class to know about in order to interact and learn alongside each other. For example, if a student has a peanut allergy, invite the class nurse in to talk about allergies and the importance of keeping peanut products out of the classroom. If the student with disabilities communicates with an iPad, have the student (parent and/or paraprofessional) give a demonstration.
- Identify famous people with disabilities and highlight their contributions to society not as a source of inspiration but as an important to human growth.
- Provide an opportunity for students to become more understanding of people with disabilities by giving disability awareness lessons.
- Provide age-appropriate learning material on kids with disabilities.
How can a teacher effectively meet the needs of all the children in an inclusive classroom?
Nicole: This is a huge topic to cover so I will highlight some of the more important strategies. Here are some ways that a teacher can effectively meet the needs of all children in the inclusive class:
- Receive appropriate professional training on effective instruction for diverse learners. Some examples of effective instruction include include Universal Design for Learning, collaborative learning, social and emotional learning, and cultivating a growth mindset.
- Provide a classroom that has numerous learning materials that support student access and entry points to the curriculum.
- Continuously assess and evaluate student progress to identify areas that need extra attention.
- Co-teach or seek the advice of a staff member who specializes in learning differences.
How can I welcome the parent with a child with a disability to encourage them to participate with school parent activities?
Amanda: As a parent of children with disabilities, it warms my heart to know that this question is being asked. We’re no different than you are in our desire to be a part of the school community. Sometimes it can be as simple as asking us to join in!
Here are some other ways to let us know we’re welcome:
- Ask for input from parents of students with disabilities before planning an event. What does their child need to be included? Making sure an event is accessible for everyone from the very start will help us feel comfortable knowing we and our children are welcome.
- Know that we may need to bow out and it’s not personal. When you have a child with a disability, sometimes unexpected things come up, such as last minute doctor’s appointments or days when our children aren’t physically or emotionally up to an activity. A little grace in understanding that can go a long way.
- Treat us like parents, not parents of a child with a disability. Our children’s disabilities don’t define who we are any more than they define who our children are. I’m not an “autism mom” or a “special needs mom.” Just think of me as a mom. Better yet, think of me as Amanda, a potential friend or the newest member of your coffee klatch.