By Teachers, For Teachers
Inclusion in education refers specifically to how students with learning disabilities are included – or not – as part of teaching strategies within general education classrooms. Federal law in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) explicitly states that schools are required to use teaching strategies to help students with disabilities learn alongside their general education peers to the greatest extent possible. While this does not always mean that students with special learning needs will be best served with teaching strategies in a non-special education setting, it does mandate that schools carefully consider to what extent inclusion in the general education classroom is possible.
The full inclusion model of instruction rejects the use of special schools or separate classrooms for the teaching of students with special needs. Instead of special education personnel working to consider each student’s “Least-restrictive environment,” a full inclusion model advances the idea of having all students, regardless of learning disabilities, as part of the general education classroom. Other forms of inclusion are less extreme, but provide opportunities for students with special education needs to learn within mainstream settings when appropriate.
Many special education advocates applaud the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) principal, as it does not mandate full inclusion of special needs students in mainstream environments but does encourage it. Here are four common LRE scenarios a child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) team may determine are appropriate:
General education classroom with support. Students with special learning needs or disabilities are enrolled in general education courses, though their IEP may require accommodations be provided or other forms of support may be provided as well, such as a special education resource and case manager.
Partial general education classroom. While a student with special needs may spend a portion of their day alongside their non-special education peers, another portion of their day is spend directly within a special education setting to more appropriately meet their needs.
Special education program. Students in a full-time special education program will not be included in the general education setting. Rather, they learn within an environment specifically calibrated for their learning needs, usually in classrooms separate from mainstream peers.
Special education school. Beyond just being in different classrooms from their peers, some special education students may be recommended for entire schools equipped with the personnel, programs, and resources designed to meet students’ unique learning disabilities.
While each of these scenarios assists students with their varying degrees of learning needs, it is those first and second tiers – the two that include special education students within mainstream settings – that are considered “Inclusion.” And there are three important models for inclusion of students with special learning needs in the general education classroom.
Blended: A blended learning environment is a traditional learning setting merged with technology. In addition to the non-tech lessons and activities common in classrooms, various technology tools are utilized to supplement instruction, engage learners, and monitor data. This model is especially useful for inclusive environments as students with a variety of learning needs can have better individualized and supported learning experiences with the aid of technology.
Itinerant: The itinerant model features a traveling specialist, usually a certified teacher who is also trained to supplement student learning in specialized areas. The itinerant teacher is not the regular classroom teacher, but rather a supportive professional who often visits or assists in multiple classrooms. Often instead of teaching students specific content, they focus on metacognitive skills that help students – especially special education students who benefit from inclusive supports – “Learn how to learn.” Itinerant teachers often serve as consultants for teachers who want to learn more about supporting children with learning disabilities.
Team Teaching: The team teaching model pairs two (or more, but usually two) teachers together to cooperatively teach a class. The typical team includes one teacher who specializes in content (such as an English or math teacher) and a special education teacher. Together, the teachers utilize their skills and focuses to ensure that all students receive a quality education and special education students have appropriate accommodations in place to best support their learning in the mainstream setting.
Including students with learning disabilities within the general education setting comes with its fair share of challenges, even if one of the supportive models of inclusion is implemented well. All children are entitled to an appropriate and quality education, yet rushing into an inclusive environment might do more harm than good if it’s not managed effectively.
Teachers of inclusive classrooms require the proper training and support to ensure they maximize the potential of the setup. Teachers in blended classrooms cannot just be handed technology, but instead require training, models, and feedback to understand how to best utilize the tools. Teachers also need to feel comfortable with itinerant specialists who visit their students and are available for consultation. And while team teaching sounds like a silver bullet for supporting students with disabilities, those teachers need to understand how to effectively work together without upstaging or overlapping one another.
It’s not an easy path to effectively support students with special learning needs or disabilities, but it’s a path worth taking if it means special education students can participate in the general education setting. Once committed to a model of inclusion, the students, parents, teachers, and school must work together to continually refine the methods utilized and ensure each student receives a chance to maximize their learning.
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.