Issues surrounding the integration of students with disabilities into the general education classrooms are explored in this research paper. The history of inclusion if first examined by tracing the movement from mainstreaming to the least restrictive environment and finally to full inclusion of students in age-appropriate general education classrooms. Next, the current position of inclusion and its place in education in Canada is discussed. Also, issues facing students, their families and teachers are addressed and suggestions to overcome them are provided. Finally, the pros and cons of inclusive education are presented and it is concluded that the benefits of inclusion overshadow the costs of including special needs students into regular classrooms. Also, inclusion tends to improve the overall educational experience for both special needs students as well as regular students in the classroom.
Keywords: integration, disabilities, inclusion, inclusive education
Inclusion in the Classroom: A Critical Review
Education and inclusion
Education is the cornerstone of responsible citizenship in most well-established democracies. Post Confederation of Canada, the government and ordinary citizens have recognized the significance of education and have made public provisions for its universal availability to children and youth at the elementary and high school levels.
School is the place that provides a community setting for children and youth by helping them develop their knowledge, by promoting citizenship and building social relationships. Hence, when a school is inclusive, communities become inclusive too. Educating children is not only a basic human right, but a vehicle for social inclusion and change.
The recent drive toward inclusive education is more than just about ‘special educational needs’. It reflects changes in the social and political climate wherein a new approach characterizes thinking about differences. The main aim of inclusive education is to ensure that all students participate in the classrooms with their same-age peers and develop emotionally, socially, intellectually and physically to their fullest ability.
Inclusive education is a developing concept. Usually it is understood as education of children with disabilities in regular schools, but it is a much broader idea. It refers to an education system which continually works at increasing participation and removing exclusion from all the aspects of schooling in a way which makes a student feel no different from any other student and which ensures academic achievement (Booth, 2002).
Inclusive education makes the school a place of education for all students, and manages to meet the individual needs of each pupil better. It should be able to lead the school to seek ways to educate all children in the most ordinary ways possible Inclusive schools put into place measures to support all students to fully participate in the life of the school with their age peers. Where barriers to full participation exist, inclusive schools are able to change their organization, and adapt the physical premises and elements within classrooms to the needs of each student.
The primary principle of inclusive education is that ordinary schools should provide education as commonplace as possible for all young people while adapting it to the needs of each. It consists of placing learning-impaired students in general classrooms and integrating their learning experience with students in the general education classes (Turnbull et al., 2004).
Furthermore, there is a distinction between inclusion, where students spend most of their time in the general education classroom; and mainstreaming where students with special needs are educated in the general classroom during specific time periods based on their skills.
The inclusive education model challenges the special education model, mainly the belief that differences in academic or social achievement between students with and without disabilities are too difficult to be accommodated in regular educational settings; that special settings are more effective than regular classroom environments for students with disabilities; and that labelling is necessary for appropriate service.
Advocates of inclusion argue that the rights of and benefits to learners with disabilities who are included in regular classroom environments outweigh the challenges faced by teachers in such a situation. With the support of properly trained resource teachers, regular classroom teachers should be able to work effectively with all students.
History of inclusive education
The history of accommodating the needs of diverse learners in the contemporary educational settings parallels the evolution of social and psychological systems (Kaufman, 1999). Smith et al. (1998) summarize this history as having moved through three phases: segregation, integration and inclusion. However, recently a global shift in thinking on methods schools use in responding to the needs of diverse learners has taken place.
Special education found its origin in society’s concern with human rights following World War II, and by the 1950’s educational placement based upon minority or disability status was a debated issue (Smith et al., 1998). Thus, special education owes much of its origin to the Civil Rights Movement, when the desegregation of American schools validated a parallel human rights argument against segregation based on physical/mental abilities (Friends et al., 1998).
While both Canada and the United States presented responsibility to the provinces and states for implementing educational legislation, The Education for All Children Act (1975) steered in a more inclusive model of special education which supported free and appropriate education for all children in the least restrictive and non- discriminatory environment. Written individual educational plans (IEPs) to target individual needs were designed and implemented (Salend, 2001). In Canada, indirect support for greater inclusion of diverse learners came from the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which challenged discrimination based on mental or physical disability. By the 1980’s most provinces and territories were providing some type of special education through a combination of regular and individualized environments (Dworet & Bennet, 2002).
Inclusive education is today’s educational “hot” topics, and there are a variety of positions on inclusive education. One goal is to help staff and students gain an understanding of all groups present in the local and national communities. Also, inclusive education is sometimes equated with mainstreaming where special needs students are placed in regular classroom situations.
In recent years advocates for inclusive education have argued that as many as 40% of students with intellectual disabilities are still being educated in segregated settings while they have a right to inclusive education (Porter, 2004). A review of current educational policies in most Canadian provinces shows that inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms is the dominant policy (Hutchinson, 2007), although most jurisdiction maintain segregated classrooms for those students who might benefit from such placements or whose parents prefer such placements (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2000). Researchers and educators advocate that all children, including those with disabilities, be educated in regular classrooms that reflect the diversity of Canadian society and its inclusive values (Lupart & Webber, 2002). While such advocates agree that students with disabilities may not be able to accomplish the same curricular goals as the other students, they believe that inclusive education enables them to be treated with dignity and allows others to recognize their hidden abilities.
In recent years, there does seem to have been progress in the extent to which children and youth are educated in regular versus special class placements. However, while inclusion is increasingly being accepted as the preferred approach for educating all learners, other approaches to education continue in many areas of the country. Implementations of inclusive practices are inconsistent from province to province, community to community, and between school systems (e.g., English, French, Public, and Catholic). The inconsistency of approach has resulted in confusion and uncertainty among parents and teachers. Also, many educators believe that inclusive means bringing special needs students into ‘regular’ classrooms with ‘normal’ children. The problem with this perspective lies in the fact that there are no ‘regular’ classrooms with ‘normal’ children. All children are unique, and so are their needs and abilities. Thus, it is absolutely necessary for teachers to provide students with individualized attention that will help them develop in particular areas and it’s important to build success into each student’s individual learning experiences.
The special education policy that prevails in most jurisdictions fails to assure the commitment of teachers and their schools to inclusion. In many parts of the country, inclusive education is considered an ‘add on’ to the existing special education system, and it thus may not be a priority at all.
Also, effective strategies are not widely in place to foster transitions from early childhood programming to school and from high school to employment or to other post-secondary options. Many special needs students who do graduate from high school, have no clear recognition of the skills gained or academics learned in order to gain access to post-secondary programs.
Issues for students and families
Young people with continue to be denied access to regular education in many cases. ‘Zero tolerance’ and other behavioural policies result in the segregation of students, especially for those with challenging behaviour issues.
Procedures for student assessment and labelling create administrative burdens for teachers while creating a stigma for students. Being identified as a special needs student carries with it the threat of embarrassment and being bullied.
Procedures for gaining access to disability-specific supports (e.g., attendants, speech specialists, assistive technologies) and other resources needed for success in regular classrooms are typically restrictive and not available on an equitable basis. There are serious concerns in many parts of the country about the inadequacy and inflexibility of the supports that are available and about the long delays in securing the supports that may eventually come on stream. Similarly, alternative student testing and other accommodations for students are not assured.
Parents have a pivotal role to play as collaborators with the teachers, especially for students with special needs. However, in some cases, lack of substantial parental involvement is observed and results in poorer educational quality for the child.
Issues for teachers
Indeed inclusion presents an enormous challenge to teachers as it brings with it increased anxiety and extra workload. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are taxing for many teachers and many only have a limited background in this area. Also, the practical usefulness of IEPs is questionable as to whether they do not inform and guide instructional practices.
Usually, there is confusion among teachers and educational assistants about their respective roles and responsibilities. Teachers often leave the prime responsibility for educating students with significant disabilities to teacher assistants. However, assistants should be playing a supplementary and not a lead role.
Additionally, instructional supports for teachers on inclusion (e.g., learning resources, sample lesson plans, etc.) are also needed. However, a lack of availability and even inappropriateness of such supports has been a concern.
Addressing the issues
In order to address the above mentioned issues; teachers, parents and children need various kinds of supports.
Support for teachers
Model schools need to be created highlight community-learning and value diversity. There needs to be a commitment to meeting all the values and pedagogical challenges. Flexibility in the curriculum as well as periodic testing is needed so that teachers can adapt to the varying needs and abilities of diverse learners in their classrooms. Also, individual educational plans (IEPs) need to grow with the child and any individualized planning should drive instructional practice and serve as a real guide for the teacher.
Governing structures need to be more ‘teacher friendly’ and sensitive to issues of student-teacher ratio. Also, tangible resources such as teacher assistants, supportive professionals, classroom equipment etc. are needed in order to keep class sizes manageable without a sense of competition among schools.
In addition to that, school boards should be able to provide teachers with the practical assistance and training required in order to balance the expectations of the current curriculum as well as individual student needs.
Furthermore, teachers and parents need to be more mutually supportive of one another. Parents should continue to advocate for quality education and inclusive programs for their children, and should also include support for teachers and the school within that.
Lastly, development of a model framework for successful inclusion is essential, which will involving administrators, teachers, resource teachers, teacher assistant as well as parents. Moreover, there is a need for teacher-to-teacher mentoring support as well as sharing of ideas and experiences that will benefit the teachers and the students in the long run. Professional development integrated into the regular teacher-training curriculum, as well as ongoing training is required. Also, Jordan and Stanovick (2004) identify three core constructs to help make inclusion work at a classroom level: teachers’ beliefs about their roles and responsibilities, teachers’ sense of efficacy, and the collective belief of the school staff toward inclusive practices.
Support for parents and students
Parents often lack information regarding policies and program offered by the school boards and the government. Thus, teachers and school administrators need to encourage open communication and support services in order to provide accurate information to parents. Also, parents will definitely benefit from regular contact with other parents and support agencies outside the school system.
To support students with disabilities, school leaders need to create a community of acceptance and belonging that helps foster positive attitudes towards all students. Along with a healthy school environment, adequate resources are needed to ensure that student needs are met in a professional and timely manner. Teachers can help by providing supportive and flexible learning environments in the classroom. Also, engaging students in active and meaningful tasks would encourage participation and make education enjoyable. Effective strategies that work best for students with special needs will work well for all students, because every child in the classroom has unique learning needs and a multi-level approach to teaching will best achieve the highest potential for all students.
Finally, to foster a general climate of teamwork, teachers should encourage and facilitate peer support where students should be able to help each other and learn from each others’ experiences. This will help them learn to show respect for and make efforts to accommodate students’ needs and strengths.
Pros of inclusion
Inclusion has resulted in greater communication skills, greater social competence, and greater developmental skills for all special education students who have been a part of the inclusive setting (Bennett, DeLuca, & Bruns, 1997). A second benefit of inclusion is that disabled students make more friends in the general education setting and interact with their student peers at a much higher level not isolated in the special education classes; inclusion allows disabled students to be an active part of the larger student body. Another advantage is that the costs of inclusion are less over time than teaching the special education students in special education classes alone. Increasingly, this discourse emphasizes learners’ rights as well as their needs, and stresses the importance of an education free from discrimination and segregation. Academic and social achievement has actually been found to be higher in regular education with mixed groupings of students from diverse backgrounds and abilities settings (Will, M.C. 2002).
Cons of inclusion
Educators who are critical of inclusion argue that placing special education students in the general education classroom may not be beneficial and full-time placements in general education classrooms would prevent some disabled students from obtaining intensive and individualized attention and teaching. Instruction in the general education class would dilute the specialized attention they would normally receive in a special education class. Also, the financial resources are not available for inclusion to be effective (Fox & Ysseldyke, 1997). Critics of inclusion have asserted that special education funds have not be appropriated to general education in a sufficient amount to make inclusion viable in all cases. In other words, in order for inclusion to work, funds need to be available to make inclusion effective and viable in the general education setting. Another criticism of inclusion was that general education teachers do not possess the requisite training or qualifications to teach disabled students effectively (Schumm & Vaughn, 1995). Moreover, general education teachers do not have opportunities to work with or collaborate with special education teachers and to plan and coordinate lessons and teaching strategies between general and special education teachers.
Inclusion appears to have created an ideological divide in special education, indicating a split on how best to serve students with disabilities under the umbrella of special and general education. The division has caused much debate in the educational community, prompting studies on the viability of integration. In the recent debate about inclusion, a premium is placed upon full participation by all and respect for the rights of others. As to every approach, inclusion too has its share of positives and negatives. As schools implement inclusive practices, research must continue to determine how integration will affect all students’ academic and social progress. Whether inclusion becomes a part of the special education continuum for placement of students with disabilities or initiates a utilitarian school system, educators must rethink, restructure, and reorganize their present delivery system to benefit all students.
The benefits of inclusion surely outweigh the costs. A major benefit of inclusion is that it allows for societal integration of disabled students. Disabled students are much less segregated and isolated from the general student population. This is consistent with the goals and objectives of the IDEA and No Child Left Behind Act which specified that all students should be treated equally; there should be equal protection and equal services. While not always possible, this is a worthwhile goal. Inclusion furthers this goal of achieving full integration for all students. Inclusion, thus, results in greater social cohesion, a greater sense of empathy, and a greater sense of diversity. Inclusion is a worthy goal that should not be abandoned.
Inclusion is crucial because it ensures equality and non-discrimination on the basis of disability and allows students to receive a “free, appropriate public education.” There are pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, to inclusion.
Moreover, students and teachers learn tolerance by developing and fostering a sense of community where diversity and differences are valued. The segregation that results from separate special education classrooms is avoided and the more interaction there is with individuals with differences, the more tolerance, empathy, and understanding is fostered and developed.
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