Op-Ed: Schools Must Stop Ostracizing Kids With Special Needs
Recently, two boys in my class sat together reading aloud Chris Raschka’s children’s book Yo! Yes? The students alternated lines as if reading a play. “Yo,” said Tayvon. “Yes,” Kevin read back quietly.
I stopped and watched intently, amazed that in a different classroom this rich interaction might not have been possible. Kevin is a student on the autism spectrum, and until recently he was in a self-contained special education class.
Both he and Tayvon are contributing deeply to each other’s reading: Kevin helps Tayvon read challenging words, while Tayvon prompts Kevin to notice characters’ emotional cues.
Kevin and Tayvon were able to learn from each other because our school offers inclusion. Schools that provide inclusion in the classroom believe that students with disabilities should learn alongside their typically developing peers as much as possible.
The U. S. Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires that students learn in their “least restrictive environment,” allowing them to be removed from the regular educational environment “only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
For some students with special needs, this means receiving all instruction within general education, while for others it requires leaving to receive specialized services that cannot be delivered within the general education environment.
Inclusion in the classroom differs from the historical model of segregated schooling, in which, by default, students with special needs spent their day in a separate, or self-contained, special education classroom.
Inclusion in the classroom benefits students with and without disabilities, as I have learned through five years of teaching inclusion classes. By interacting with a full range of peers, students with delayed skills can learn a huge amount from classmates.
One of my most friendly, talkative students spent his first year of school in a self-contained special education class in which he used almost no verbal expression. When he transitioned to an inclusive classroom, his spoken language exploded.
Additionally, many students with special needs are below grade level in only some areas. For example, one of my students with significant reading delays is one of the brightest in the class when in comes to interpreting complex information. Were he confined to a self-contained classroom, he would miss the challenging grade-level content in which he excels.
Students without special needs learn about diverse abilities early, preparing to collaborate with people of varied strengths and challenges. They also gain increased access to excellent teaching.
Many “best practices” for special education help most children better, including small group instruction, varied communication formats like graphic organizers and movement, and co-teaching with multiple educators in one classroom. When my school supports me to teach students with special needs by providing additional training and personnel, I become a better teacher for all students.
However, learning within the general education setting is not right for all students all the time.
Kelly Costello, an autism teacher, points out that the “least restrictive environment” can sometimes mean a specialized setting.
Although many of her students benefit from inclusion in the classroom, she describes an eighth-grade student who was learning skills far below grade level. “In this case, [eighth-grade chemistry class with his peers] would be a more restrictive environment because he would not be able to work on the skills he needed…nor would he have the [sensory] breaks necessary to his success.”
In other cases, extreme-student needs can disrupt the general education classroom so much that inclusion interferes with other students’ rights to learn. Costello explains that, “in order for inclusion in the classroom to work, just like special education, it must be individualized and based on the needs of each child.”
Inclusion in the classroom is not easy. Schools must build teams of educators with diverse skills and give them ample time and support to collaboratively plan instruction. A few great resources for this work include the Inclusive Schools Network, Kids Included Together, and Including Samuel.
Support can be time- and cost-intensive, but worthwhile. Without them, Tayvon and Kevin would have both missed essential components of their education.