Teaching a child with a disability is no longer the responsibility of just special education teachers. The inclusion of special education students in the general education classroom is becoming more common as the pressure for accountability in the education of students with disabilities arises. While special education teachers are prepared (for the most part) to teach children with disabilities, that is not the case for all general education teachers. This paper defines inclusion and why it is important, discusses the barriers to inclusion, and identifies ways to make the inclusive classroom a success.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004), along with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has emphasized a focus on improved academic outcomes as well as access to the general curriculum for all students. With this focus comes an increased pressure for accountability in the education of students with disabilities in general education classrooms (Lingo, Barton-Arwood, & Jolivette, 2011). Inclusion is a practice in education where students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) receive their core academic instruction in the general education classroom. While inclusion is a way to educate students with disabilities in their least restrictive environment, which is a federal mandate, many teachers are reluctant to have special education students in their classes. Despite the current barriers towards inclusion, it can be a positive experience for general and special education students. With a clear understanding of the purpose of inclusion, appropriate training, and the ability to collaborate with others, all teachers can be successful teachers in an inclusive classroom.
Inclusion is the practice of bringing services and support to children with special needs into the general education classroom, as opposed to removing special needs students from learning experiences with their same age peers (Kilanowski-Press, Foote, & Rinaldo, 2010). Inclusion as an educational placement offers a variety of service delivery formats designed to educate students with disabilities in the general education classroom. This type of education for special needs students has become common in schools throughout the United States as a result of the reauthorization of IDEA. This reauthorization upholds the provision of the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities. This means students with exceptional learning needs should be educated in a setting that is most like that of their nondisabled peers, as long as their academic goals can be met in the inclusion setting (Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010).
Inclusion can be seen as more than just an educational delivery model; it can be seen as a frame of mind for a learning community (Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). According to Fisher and Frey (2001); Roach, Salisbury, and McGregor (2002), “Inclusive communities offer all students the opportunity to be successful learners by providing access to flexible curricula that is also engaging, challenging, and enriching (as sited in Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). Kids Together, Inc. stated, “The benefits of inclusive education are numerous for both students with and without disabilities.” Inclusion classrooms can help teach tolerance and patience and give children an opportunity to value diversity. Students with disabilities have increased social interactions, which can lead to meaningful relationships and friendships. They have peer role models for academic, social, and behavior skills. The general education classroom offers greater access to the general curriculum which leads to enhanced skill acquisition and generalization of those skills (Kids Together, Inc., 2010). An inclusion environment prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society. Students without disabilities are given opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others. In addition, general education students benefit from the additional resources available in the inclusion setting (Kids Together, Inc., 2010).
Despite the many benefits of an inclusion classroom, not all general education teachers are open to working with special education students. Hwang and Evans (2011) stated, “Even general education teachers with positive attitudes towards inclusion are reluctant in practice to have students with disabilities in their classrooms.” A gap between attitudes towards inclusion (i.e., theory) and a willingness to embrace it (i.e., practice) exists (Hwang, et al., 2011). Because inclusion programs differ from school to school, it is challenging to identify best practices. The amount and nature of support provided to the general education classroom teacher differ from school to school as well (Hines, 2001). This can make it difficult for teachers to feel prepared to teach in an inclusion classroom.
Kochhar, West, and Taymans (2000) suggested that barriers to inclusion typically fall into three categories: organizational, attitudinal, and knowledge (as cited in Hines, 2001). Organizational barriers refer to the differences in ways classes are taught, staffed, and managed. As previously stated, the inclusion model differs from school to school, district to district, and state to state. Services are provided based on student need; however, a lack of funding is also driving the direction of inclusion services. It can be very frustrating for teachers when they do not feel their students’ needs are being met because of a lack of resources. There is no denying that working with special education students requires a great amount of effort and time, and time is something teachers are lacking. With the recent increases in class size, reaching the needs of every student is a challenge. Teaching children with special needs comes with added responsibilities. Not every teacher is willing to take on more work than they are already doing.
Attitudinal barriers refer to teachers’ attitudes towards and beliefs about an inclusive setting. Wood (1998) stated, “Inclusive programs necessitate collaboration with other teachers, so territorial issues regarding role overlap and ambiguity appear to constitute a major barrier to inclusion (as sited in Hwang et al., 2011).” Furthermore, it is common for teachers to follow routine lesson plans from year to year. Working with another teacher and changing the way you teach can be time consuming and scary. In other cases, teachers do not feel the regular education classroom is an appropriate setting for students with severe disabilities (Hwang et al., 2011). They may feel the time devoted to one student takes away from the other students in the class. Knowledge barriers refer to the teachers’ ability to teach students with special needs. Some general education teachers do not feel they have the professional knowledge or training needed to work with special needs students.
The National Education Association has recommendations for appropriate inclusion, which may reduce some of the current barriers. First, a full continuum of placement options and services should be available for each student on an IEP. Second, appropriate professional development should be available to all educators and support staff associated with the inclusion programs. This training should be required of all teachers, regardless if they are not working with special education students at that moment. In addition, teachers should be given adequate time, as part of the normal school day, to coordinate and collaborate with one another on behalf of all their students. Lastly, class sizes should be responsive to student needs. Carpenter and Dyal (2001) stated, “Inclusion is most effective when proactive principals establish models of effective co-teaching and recognize the need for manageable class sizes (as sited in Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010).” Administrators play a key role in the success of inclusive classrooms. It is important that principals collaborate with teachers to insure the inclusion model is being upheld and implemented with integrity and fidelity. Villa et al., (1996) argued, “Administrative support and collaboration were powerful predictors of favorable attitudes towards full inclusion (as sited in Hwang et al., 2011).”
An inclusion classroom requires involvement and collaboration between educational professionals. Cook and Friend (1995) suggested critical components of a strong, collaborative teaching program require understanding between general education and special education teachers in regards to instructional beliefs, time for instructional planning, agreement on the establishment of classroom routines, establishment of classroom discipline norms, and a classroom where both teachers are equally responsible for instruction (as sited in Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). Kilanowski-Press et al (2010) also suggested that general education and special education teachers must work together in a mutually respectful manner without territoriality or power struggles. Both general education and special education teachers bring a great deal of knowledge to an inclusion classroom. General education teachers share their knowledge of content areas, grade level curriculum, and effective teaching methods, including large group instruction. Special education teachers can facilitate individual learning styles, instructional strategies, clinical teaching, analysis and adjustments of instruction and curriculum, and behavior management. In addition, special education teachers can supplement the work of general education teachers in regard to IEPs that can improve the quality of outcomes for students with disabilities (Hwang et al., 2011).
Co-teaching, peer coaching, collaboration consultation, and collaborative problem solving are all methods of teacher collaboration (Lingo et al., 2011). No matter which method of collaboration is implemented, the focus should be on teachers working together to improve student achievement (Lingo et al., 2011).Co-teaching is commonly referred to as the premier format for inclusive teaching (Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). This is when two or more professionals deliver essential instruction to a diverse, or blended, group of students in a single space. Both teachers are engaged and involved in the instruction of all students, general and special education, in the same classroom. Parallel teaching, station teaching, alternative teaching, and team teaching are all examples of co-teaching (Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). Kilanowski-Press et al., (2010) also indicated the co-teaching model allows for greater differentiation of instruction. When two teachers are working together, they are more readily available to implement interventions for the special needs students.
Some states have chosen to identify consultant teacher support as a model of service delivery. This is a broad umbrella where special education students are served by a variety of direct and indirect service modalities (Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). Indirect support is available to general education teachers when they seek guidance from the special education teacher, or when the two teachers consult as per the students indicated IEP service times. The special education teacher may consult with the general education teacher in regards to assistance with planning, instructional adaptations and modifications for particular students, as well as behavioral or academic intervention development (Kilanowski-Press et al., 2010). Direct support is also available to the students on IEPs. The special education teacher may provide instruction to the special education students in the general education classroom, either in a small group setting or one-on-one. Paraprofessional assistants are frequently utilized in the inclusion classrooms when the consultative model is used. The paraprofessional supports the special needs students in the general education classroom, under the instruction of both the general education and special education teachers.
Whether your school uses the co-teaching model or the consultative model, general education teachers need to be aware of the accommodations available to the special needs students. Accommodations are alterations in the way tasks are presented, which allow children with special needs to complete the same assignment as their nondisabled peers (National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), 2006). Accommodations do not alter the content of the assignment or change the objective being assessed. The IEP team determined which accommodations are needed in order for the student to have access to the general curriculum. The accommodations make it possible for students with special needs to show what they know without being impeded by their disability. It is the responsibility of the teacher providing the instruction to be aware of the accommodations on each student’s IEP and to be sure the accommodations are made available.
While it can be more difficult and time consuming to teach a child with a disability, it is important for teachers to remember we are legally obligated to teach in an inclusive setting if that is what the child’s IEP calls for. When we received our teaching degree, nowhere did it say we would only be responsible for teaching typical students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2010), in fall 2007, nearly 95% of six to twenty-one year old students with disabilities were served in regular schools. Considering this, and the reauthorization of IDEA 2004, it is likely that every teacher will have special education students in their classroom at some point in their career. Breaking down the barriers to inclusion is possible and necessary. Being educated on the importance of inclusion and participating in ongoing collaboration with administration and fellow teachers, an inclusive classroom can be filled with meaningful learning experiences for all students.
Hines, R. A. (2001). Inclusion in middle schools. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/Inclusion_in_Middle_Schools
Hwang, Y. S. & Evans, D. (2011). Attitudes towards inclusion: Gaps between belief and practice. International Journal of Special Education, 26(1), 136-146.
Kids Together, Inc. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.kidstogether.org/inclusion/benefitsofinclusion.htm
Kilanowski-Press, L., Foote, C. J., & Rinaldo, V. J. (2010). Inclusion classrooms and teachers: A survey of current practices. International Journal of Special Education, 25, 43-56.
Lingo, A. S., Barton-Arwood, S. M., & Jolivette, K. (2011). Teachers working together: Improving learning outcomes in the inclusive classroom-practical strategies and examples. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(3), 6-13.
National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2006). Accommodations for students with LD. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/Accommodations_for_Students_with_LD
National Education Association. (1994). NEA policy statement on appropriate inclusion. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/18673.htm
Wood, M. (1998). Whose job is in anyway? Educational roles in inclusion. Exceptional Children, 64, 181-195.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Percentage of students with disabilities educated in regular classrooms. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=59