Inclusion–teaching students with disabilities in general education classrooms–can work well for all students–but only when teachers are given the support and tools they need to successfully facilitate learning for a mixed-ability group of students.
The benefits of inclusive education are numerous for both students with and without disabilities. Inclusion demonstrates acceptance of differences, the importance of collaboration and interdependence, and high expectations for learners. Most importantly, it provides access to general education curriculum standards in a setting with age-appropriate role models. When this occurs, higher levels of learning are achieved.
The following advice is extremely helpful for parents and educators, who are looking to foster a successful inclusive environment for children with disabilities.
- encourage risk-taking
- interact normally
- differentiate instruction
- hold high expectations
- become velcro
- physically isolate the student
- make students sit too long
- make assumptions about professional roles and responsibilities
- forget to provide special education
It is natural to want to protect children who seem vulnerable, especially as they enter into a new environment. However, all of us learn through taking risks. The philosophical principle of ‘dignity of risk’ proposes that students with disabilities deserve the dignity and growth that comes from taking risks. Following this principle encourages inclusive experiences, where the constant possibility of risk also brings the constant possibility of growth. Allow students with disabilities to try new things, test out new relationships, and be challenged to think and work hard.
Children with disabilities should be provided with opportunities that are as close as possible to those that typical children are given. Use similar voice inflections, classroom management routines, and instructional materials unless otherwise determined by the IEP. Encourage students to interact with each other normally by including students with disabilities in group projects, classroom jobs, cooperative learning and daily activities. If you interact normally with the student with disabilities, so will his/her peers. If you use similar instructional materials, even if the task is slightly different, the student with disabilities will fit in more easily, feel more normal and may rise to a higher level of learning.
Differentiation is a common practice in 21st century classrooms and supports the effective inclusion of students with disabilities. Differentiation can occur in three different components of learning: student interest and choice, student learning style and student readiness. When designing lesson plans, provide as many choices as possible. By doing so, you are more likely to tap into student interest and preferred learning style, and motivate students to complete tasks. Be sure to ask yourself, “What will be difficult about this lesson?” and “How can I support the student who might struggle?” The most supportive strategies often include tactile and kinesthetic applications.
Students with disabilities often receive services from a variety of professionals. Close collaboration and communication are essential for seamless, consistent delivery of instruction. When a special education teacher provides service in the general education classroom, the teaching partners should co-plan the lesson so that both adults are fully utilized and the students’ unique needs are met. Remember, the role of a special education teacher is to ensure that the student with disabilities is receiving ‘specially designed instruction’ — not just as a second pair of hands. When professionals plan together, in advance, the lesson can proactively support students who may struggle. For example, the specialist might suggest ways to scaffold the lesson, develop a detailed task analysis, insert a retention strategy or use novelty to grab attention. These ideas will be good for ALL students.
The research is clear: Students are likely to respond to the level of expectations set for them. If you hold low expectations for a student with a disability, then he/she will probably meet them. If you hold high expectations, and provide the correct supports, students will be much more successful. Over and over again, we see students who respond to inclusive settings by improving their behaviors, increasing their participation and learning high-level curriculum–to the surprise of adults who know them. Be sure to make your high expectations clear through verbal and visual cues, and provide positive reinforcement when students perform well.
There are times when a special education staff member becomes “velcroed” to the side of the student with a disability. This usually increases dependence and isolation. Whenever possible, move away from the student. Teach him to look around and see what his peers are doing, or ask a peer for help. Teach him to raise his hand to ask for help and wait until you arrive. These behaviors are necessary if the child is going to increase his independence and achieve success in general education settings.
Some classroom teachers think it will be easier for students in special education if they are seated together near the doorway. While this might make it easier for them to exit for special help, this actually isolates them in an inclusive classroom. And it moves them further away from appropriate role models and peer interactions. Instead, seat students with disabilities around the room, making sure that each is seated near an academically strong student. Don’t assume they will do best in the front row. Ask prior teachers for advice and try a variety of spots until you have found the ideal learning spot for each student.
Research shows that learning is maximized when instructional practices shift at least every 20 minutes. This means that lecture (or silent and sustained writing) which continues beyond the 20-minute mark loses its value. Students with disabilities are even more likely to need multi-modality, varied instruction. Be sure to insert technology, manipulatives, standing in response to questions, illustration, highlighter tape, small group discussion and other shifts at least every 20 minutes.
The advent of inclusion has caused most educators’ roles to change. Try to avoid making assumptions about what the new role entails. Who is responsible for contacting the parent of a student with disabilities? Who is responsible for directing the para-educator? Who is responsible for grading? None of these questions has one — and only one — correct answer. It will be critical to clarify the new roles and responsibilities with the entire team.
It is wonderful for a student with disabilities to be physically included in a general education classroom, but it is not enough. For maximum growth to occur, these students need specially designed instruction or accommodations. Be sure to check the student’s IEP regularly to remind yourself of the relevant instructional decisions agreed upon by the team.
Inclusion brings about many wonderful benefits for ALL students. With a few simple tools and a strong belief that it can work, teachers will be successful at welcoming students of all abilities into their classrooms.