Thirteen-year-old Max Matthews loves to hang out with his friends, watch football or stroll through his Bella Vista neighborhood. The 8th grader at the Meredith School in Queen Village has autism and ocular motor apraxia, which affects eye movements. Since Kindergarten, Max has been included in a general-population classroom, where he makes important friendships with peers from his neighborhood.
“That’s really important because when you have a child with a social disability, what I had feared the most was whether he could have friends,” says his mom, Helen. “Being in an inclusive classroom means the expectations for him are set at the same level as other children to maximize his potential.”
Inclusion is not only beneficial, it is a civil-rights issue and mandated by federal law, says Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, who points to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act requiring that all students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment.”
Methods of inclusion
How each student is integrated into the general classroom differs based on that student’s needs. Some can spend the entire school day with their peers, though they may need additional support from a teacher or aide, a copy of class notes or extended time to complete an assignment or test. Others may stay in the class for certain subjects but leave for more individualized instruction in other subjects.
But if a student is not able to be successful in the general-education classroom, maybe due to academic or behavioral challenges, she may be moved to a self-contained classroom within the school with fewer students and more adult support.“Our typical situation is what we call the least dangerous assumption,” says Lisa Lawson, PhD, director of special education and student support services for the Brandywine, DE school district. “We assume that all students can be successful in the general-education setting with support services and any kind of accommodations and modifications that we set forth in their IEP (individualized education program.)”
Inclusion benefits all students
Students with special needs sitting alongside their general-education peers offers benefits for all kids.
“It’s good for the general-ed students to learn to respect the fact that there are people with differences and we’re all not great at everything,” says Elaine Hill, director of special services for the Voorhees, NJ school district.
For students with disabilities, inclusion leads to higher graduation rates, positive achievement outcomes, greater social competence, improved communication skills and the acquisition of a fuller range of skills that are available in inclusive classrooms.
Lawson points out that students need to understand that not all classmates may be treated the same. “Fair does not mean equal,” she says. “If you see your classmate with a fidget spinner in between reading and math and you’re asking why he gets that and you don’t, that may be something he needs but you don’t need. It’s important to have that front-end conversation of why things are different.”
Students will adapt to the environment they’re in, Lawson adds.
“We live in a diverse society of all kinds of people,” she says. “There are more similarities than differences.”
Educating all students inclusively does come with costs. Financially, inclusive settings are not necessarily cost-cutting measures in the short term, says McInerney. “You have to make some significant investments. However those investments are very efficient and an effective use of funds, because they hold the potential to dramatically improve educational outcomes for all of our students.”
It’s also essential that teachers are appropriately trained, adds Hill. You can’t ask a general-education teacher to do more than his skill level and time constraints dictate.
“There has to be a continuum of services available,” she says. “Inclusion is absolutely the first option but you have to have other options for kids who might have something that would interfere with their functioning in a general-ed classroom.”
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.