Inclusion. By simple words, it is defined as: “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” In terms of education, the word captures an all-embracing societal ideology. Inclusion creates an environment for students with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms
It’s hard to describe the importance of Inclusion without seeing its magic on ALL students firsthand. I have countless stories from the learning that happens (academic and social emotional), and that light bulbs I see go on. First and foremost, WHY.
Why is inclusion important?
- The benefits of inclusion for students with and without disabilities have been well researched and well documented.
- A school’s job is to prepare ALL students for the real world, and the real world doesn’t have separate neighborhoods, jobs and communities for those with special needs.
- It’s a civil right, protected by Federal law, and the socially just thing to do. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that children with disabilities must be educated in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE), and to the maximum extent educated with children who are nondisabled.
I’ve heard from many awesome educators, for both General Education and Special Education asking how they can maximize inclusion with their students. I’ve also heard from some Special Education teachers, asking if I have any tips for making sure their Special Education students are meaningfully included with their same grade General Education peers. Especially if you have a General Education teacher who doesn’t seem to open to collaboration.
This is MY JAM. I have two boys with autism, and Inclusion, or appropriate Least Restrictive Environment is something I advocate for all year long, every single year. It matters that much. Some years it’s been difficult, some years it’s been a perfect collaboration and a dream come true. It’s all about proper supports (for students AND teachers!) an open mindset, and communication. I’ll share some general recommendations from the good and the bad I’ve seen.
I recommend starting the first or second week of school, with a willingness of doing it imperfectly instead of waiting for “things to feel settled”. (Are they ever really?) That way all the students can settle in together, which is part of creating that classroom community. However, the seeds of Inclusion are best planted before the school year begins. I recommend starting with an email to each General Education Teacher you will be collaborating with. Here’s an example of one that might work.
Dear General Education Teacher,
This year we will be sharing a 5th grade student by the name of Greyson Kelly. He loves cars, Lightning McQueen and hot dogs. As you may be aware, as a Special Education Teacher, one of my roles is to work with you to figure out the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for Greyson. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that children who receive Special Education should learn in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that each Special Education student should be with students in general education to the “maximum extent that is appropriate.”
This looks different for each student based on their skills and abilities. For Greyson, I think he would benefit from things like field trips, lunch, recess, PE, library and classroom parties with his General Education peers. As an added bonus, Inclusion truly benefits General Education students as well. I like to reach out at the beginning of the year to meet with you and collaborate to find the support that is right for Greyson.
Special Education Teacher
A lot of Inclusion comes down to communication and planning. Ask the General Education Teacher to be informed of all activities that your shared student may benefit from participating in.
You can also discuss reverse inclusion (General Education students come to Special Education classroom for activities).
Give specific examples of inclusive options, like classroom parties. My boys started doing parties with Gen Ed peers this year, and it’s absolutely incredible. It’s such a different feeling and experience, I’m just sad I didn’t advocate for it sooner. It’s a rich communicative and social environment, the General Education peers are . One student may find classroom parties too loud, overwhelming and a sensory nightmare. Again, there is no one size fits all, but don’t assume it won’t work unless you try it.
Meaningful bad inclusion is worse than no inclusion. Students with Special Needs must be a meaningful participant in the setting. Inclusion is not Johnny going to 5th Grade Language arts for 30 minutes a day, while they are working on contrasting two opinion pieces when Johnny can’t read or write, so he just colors. Inclusion must be individualized. This can be done with the assistance of accommodations, supports and aides.
When it comes to accepting disabilities and different, children are often better models than adults. Through Diversity comes perspective, problem solving, increased creativity, and an understanding that we are all different, and we all have something to contribute to the world. It takes additional time and planning, but it’s worth it.