All children deserve to grow up side-by-side and learn from each other. All students deserve the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). They should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education. This has been made a law since the Individual Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 (Turnbull, 2020). The term “severe developmental disabilities” is an umbrella term to refer to the disabilities of individuals with autism, severe intellectual disabilities, and multiple disabilities (Browder, Wood, Thompson, & Ribuffo, 2014).
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The inclusion of students with severe disabilities has many benefits to the individual student and the general student population. It may present some difficulties for the general education teacher, but with supports in place, it is very doable and makes for a better society for all. Several evidence-based studies have highlighted the positive impact of inclusion, comprising of a generalized design for learning, peer mentorship, and a multi-leveled support system.
One of the most impactful methods for inclusion and education is the methodology developed by Dr. Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori began her method of education in 1906 with young school-aged children with multiple disabilities residing in Italian institutions. She designed hands-on learning materials to help students with disabilities learn concepts and skills. When tested, these students with special needs outscored typically-developing children who were educated in traditional public schools (Danner et al, 2015). She developed the “Casa De Bambini”, the children’s house, with materials sized for children and used the scientific method to observe the children and provide the best prepared environment to encourage learning. The language was not developed at the time, but Dr. Montessori was developing universal design lessons accessible to all students.
While this paper has many resources from Montessori classroom research, the policies can be applied to all classrooms, as the benefits do not stop at the schoolroom door. Inclusion may start in the classroom but follows out to society in general. The classroom is the first community for students beyond the family, including people who learn and think differently generates a well-rounded community.
What does inclusion look like? It is often broken into three levels, physical, functional and social inclusion.
Physical inclusion is having access to the same space, being able to get in the building with ramps, wider doors for wheelchairs, possibly seating accommodations. Inclusion starts with a physical presence in the classroom, but it does not end there.
Functional inclusion has students functioning at the same level. This is the day to day tasks, being able to pick out what they may want for lunch or which book to read, hanging up their own coat if possible, making self-informed choices about their body.
Social inclusion focuses on students forming connections and making friends in efforts to understand the goals of functioning within society in general. This provides greater opportunities in the future (Shanks, 2014). We need people, organizations, foundations, and corporations at state and city levels that are committed to working together to achieve greater inclusivity.
It’s not about people adapting to a normal level or fitting into an existing structure. Rather, inclusion requires a comprehensive reorganization of structures, institutions, and practices. Inclusion means in school, at work, in neighborhoods, in politics; in short, in all areas of life. Only when society is truly inclusive, will people with disabilities, like all people, be able to enjoy their human rights and guaranteed freedoms (Dattke, 2014). Dating back to some of the earliest teaching strategies for students with severe disabilities, educators have emphasized specific skills that are required to meet a criterion of “ultimate functioning” for their students. This is done as productively and independently as possible in inclusive environments. The criterion of ultimate functioning also includes teaching students to direct their own lives. Experts emphasize the importance of teaching students skills like self-management, goal setting, and choice making (Browder et al, 2014).
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“The key to an appropriate special education is individualization, such as tailoring a student’s education to build on strengths and meet learning needs. Educators individualize by developing an individualized education program (IEP) for each student ages 3 through 21” (Turnbull, 2020 p. 16). IEPs are one of the services granted for all students with disabilities because of the IDEA laws. IEP goals in all classrooms aim to bring a child from their present level of performance to future independence. Dr. Montessori captured the aim of IEPs perfectly in her book, From Childhood to Adolescence. She states her vision of the future is “of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher [one], by means of their own activity through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.”
One of the key distinctions of a Montessori classroom is integrated multi-age classrooms. This facilitates students of multiple levels and learning styles into classroom cohorts regardless of functional ability such as verbal skills or toileting. This would also apply to students with disabilities. Ages are broken into three-year groups, 0-3 are infants, 3-6 are primary classrooms, and 6-9 and 9-12 represent elementary classrooms. These age groups are most typical for Montessori classrooms in the United States. However, Dr. Montessori’s methods were intended from ages 0-21, which align well with IDEA law-mandated transition plans for students with disabilities. She focused on a prepared environment for future success in adulthood. Young adults aged 18-24 are “preparing themselves for [their] place on earth. They are sustaining and expanding their culture, developing leadership abilities with the goal of becoming responsible, contributing members of society” (Montessori Philosophy). These mixed-age (and ability) classrooms allow children to interact with peers both above and below them in level, which facilitates learning via “the zone of proximal development,” a concept developed by Lev Vygotsky (McLeod 2019). Peer tutoring as an instructional strategy has a strong body of evidence suggesting academic and social benefits for both the tutor and the tutee (Browder et al, 2014). A dissertation study by Hudson (2012) demonstrated that students with intellectual disabilities could also increase correct responses to comprehension questions in a read-aloud conducted by peers who were non-disabled in a general education class.
The general education classroom also benefits from including students with special needs. All students have the opportunity to learn how to better interact socially. They develop diverse friendships and learn to accept individual differences as normal, from an early age. They get the chance to realize that people with disabilities are not that different from themselves and are a valuable part of society and the classroom. Inclusive classrooms, when representative of the general population, can mirror quality life interaction skills. If a child with disabilities has trouble communicating or a different communication style, this is a learning opportunity for the entire classroom community, teaching basic signs, how to use alternative or computer-aided devices, or communicating via expressions and sight cards. “Skilled social facilitators know how to support not only social interactions, but also communication and emotional bonds. They also know when to fade out of an interaction between children to allow them to interact on their own” (Shanks, 2014). Having students of all abilities in a classroom also helps children learn that personality traits are different from symptoms of a disability. “It is not that the children are unaware of the disabling conditions, but rather that their interactions and thoughts do not reflect value judgments about individual worth or right to be a part of the classroom community“ (Shanks, 2014).
One of the key functions of classrooms is embedded learning opportunities, or ELO. These opportunities represent in-context learning, skills that are applicable to generalization, and help them to follow an interest. Some classrooms focus on “learn, then do” tasks, but ELO is about learning while doing. When children have questions while doing activities, these questions represent the perfect moment the child is wanting to learn something. “Although teacher-delivered systematic instruction is highly effective, students with severe disabilities should also be provided with opportunities for self-directed learning so that they gain greater autonomy. Two strategies with strong research evidence for promoting self-directed learning are pictorial self-instruction and the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction (SDLMI). Directed inquiry, which has a moderate evidence base, is a recent strategy used to promote academic learning (Browder et al, 2014).”
When focusing on an inclusive classroom, teachers need support. Depending on the level of ability for students with severe disabilities, support will range. Sometimes it is sufficient for an aide art time or for certain subjects, other times a student may require an one-to-one paraprofessional. The important thing is that a teacher is not responsible for student success on their own. They need the support of aids, councilors, school administration, parents and the community. One example of the beautiful community support is that from young ages students may take field trips to local grocery stores, libraries, banks, and other community centers. These trips promote skills students will need as adults.
As is hopefully evident, there are many ways to support students, with research done on evidenced-based practices for children with severe disabilities. Students’ success is greatly improved by inclusion practices, universal learning, peer education,multi-tier and multi-level learning and supports being properly incorporated into and normalized in classrooms.
- Browder, D. M., Wood, L., Thompson, J., & Ribuffo, C. (2014). Evidence-based practices for students with severe disabilities (Document No. IC-3). Retrieved from University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability, and Reform Center website: http://ceedar.education.ufl.edu/tools/innovation-configurations/
- Danner, N., Fowler, S. A., Ostrosky, M. M., Epstein, A., & McCollum, J. (2015). Early childhood inclusion in a public Montessori school: access, participation, and supports (dissertation). Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e319/0f3cafaf41a78895e3241fbf0d6887112442.pdf
- Dattke, J. (2014). A Montessori Model for Inclusion. The NAMATA Journal, 39(3), 107–119. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1183188.pdf
- Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education 2014. Retrieved from http://www.dec-sped.org/recommendedpractices
- Hudson, M. E. (2012). Effects of a peer-delivered system of least prompts intervention package and academic read-alouds on listening comprehension for students with moderate intellectual disability (dissertation). ProQuest LLC, Ann Arbor, MI. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1022047625
- McLeod, S. A. (2019). What is the zone of proximal development? . Simply psychology: Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html
- Montessori, M. (2018). From childhood to adolescence. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
- Montessori Philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2020, from http://www.montessori-academy.org/the-montessori-method/montessori-philosophy/
- Shanks, P. (2014). Building the Inclusive Montessori School. In The NAMTA Journal (Vol. 39, pp. 5–36). doi: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1183184.pdf
- Turnbull, A., Turnbull, H. R., Wehmeyer, M. L., & Shogren, K. A. (2020). Exceptional Lives: practice, progress, & dignity in today's schools (9th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.
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