Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Inclusion in the Classroom

My son arrives at school every day and the first thing he looks for is his little friend Emily. Emily is usually waiting and takes his hand to make sure that he stays in line (literally and figuratively). She is his friend, and helps him feel like he is a part of the rest of the group.  This is exactly the type of friend, peer, mentor (call it what you want) to help a student with special needs; especially with social deficiencies.

In the past decade many changes have taken place in the classroom concerning the treatment of students with special needs. None of these changes have had more impact, or have been more controversial than inclusion. While researchers have found positive effects on students with disabilities, there have also been arguments against the addition of these extraordinary students in the mainstream classroom.

Let’s first look at what inclusion is. Inclusion, as defined by Pamela Lamar-Dukes in the Intervention in Schools &Clinic journal, is “the provision of appropriate instruction for students with disabilities in general education classroom.” This is given regardless of strengths, weaknesses, or disabilities in any area. This also means that students will attend school with their “sibling and neighbors in a chronological age-appropriate classroom.”

I feel that inclusion is a responsibility which should be shared among many people in the school and community. This group, usually called a team, is used to help the student adjust to the mainstream classroom. Some of their roles include creating an Individual Education Program (IEP), and helping all involved implement it.

Prior to inclusion in the classroom students with learning difficulties were herded into a single classroom and were commonly secluded from the mainstream students.

What good was that? If we isolate a student who suffers from a social disorder are we not adding to their issues?

Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), inclusion was added to law. IDEA is considered one of the three major acts to help students with disabilities. The other two are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This federal act “guarantees a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities”. We’ll talk a little bit more about this in a later column.

The idea behind inclusion is to create an environment where everyone in the classroom belongs, is accepted, offers support, and is supported. This support is provided by peers, teachers, and administrators. In common terms, all students should have a chance to be taught in a mainstream classroom with their peers, regardless of disability. This may be changed if the pupil is not able to learn in this environment, or becomes a distraction to others. By doing so, we can provide services to students with disabilities in a setting where they can mingle and learn from students without disabilities. The interaction, in theory, will help both sides. A student with a disability will be able to learn some form of normalcy (I use this term loosely). In turn the students without disabilities will learn how to deal with disabled students, and will have some acceptance of these students. This helps everyone feel that they belong among their peers and school community.

The inclusion of students with disabilities has not come without friction. There has been much negative feedback on the subject as well. This, however, seems to come mostly from the teachers and educators. There are mostly complaints of disruptions in the classroom caused by the individuals with disabilities. In a recent study in an education journal, of 152 students studied, approximately 75 percent have inappropriate social skills. This means that even the so called “normal students showed disruptive behaviors. However, because these other students were labeled with disabilities they were seen as the problem. That’s not to say that they are not hard to handle. We all know they are, but with some help from educators and peers they can improve and become less disruptive.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m complaining about educators, because that is the last thing I want. My wife is a teacher, I’m an educator, and we have been very happy with the teachers that Konner has had so far. I’m just saying that teachers and administrators must be willing to help and not just see a special-needs child as a nuisance. I think that for the most part they do the best they can with what they have.

Both the teachers and the special education instructors are required to change their game plans with inclusion. This has caused some confusion and discomfort. While the teachers are expected to use the same curriculum they also have to use new instructional strategies to help the students with special needs as well as the “typical” students. The fact is that educators are not given the proper training to deal with some of these issues.

There are different approaches from schools throughout the U.S. to implement inclusion into the classroom. Specific classrooms designated for inclusion and peer mentoring are only two. These have proven successful in helping a child with special needs.

Some schools are using one classroom per grade-level to be designated as the inclusion classroom. This works for several reasons. The first reason this is a good idea is money. Most schools are on a stretched budget. This allows schools to use only one extra aid in the designated classroom. The second is that students will be allowed more one-on-one time with an aid, or the teacher, depending on who is giving the care at the time.

One of the major problems involved with behavior of students with disabilities is rejection from peers. Many schools are implementing peer training to help counteract this setback. This works two-fold. Peers can help students with disabilities in tutoring, and to gain social skills. This will help with anxiety and awkwardness. In turn, the students who are mentoring will gain a new respect for the students with disabilities, and open their minds to these individuals. These are skills that can be used throughout their lives.

We have to do whatever we can to help these children with social issues open up to others. That is why we have to include them into the classroom and give them that interaction with others.

Konner has many other students who help him, I only used Emily as an example, but it is all of these students working together that will make life at school for Konner easier. Jen and I are truly blessed that Konner has the classmates that he does.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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