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Inclusion Q & A: A Parent's Guide

By: Jerome J. Schultz

What are the advantages of inclusion for my child with a learning disability?

There are social and academic benefits. Having the opportunity to be appropriately educated in a regular classroom gives your child, for perhaps the first time, the chance to feel "like other kids." Unless all kids go freely and without judgment to a learning center or resource room whenever they need it, the trip to the special education room often has a stigma attached to it. Having the opportunity (in a well- supported and appropriately modified inclusive classroom) to achieve and interact and succeed and fail like the others can really do a lot for a child's sense of self-worth. Kids who do well in an inclusive environment feel more like they "own" the education they've been exposed to. Consider the young man who graduated recently from high school after years of being serviced by a special education program. He told me he didn't think he could make it in college because there was no way he could survive without all the special services he had received. This same fellow wasn't sure who had earned the A's and B's he got on his report card, when he asked: "Was it me or the LD teacher?"

The more your child is included, the less likely it is that he/she will miss out on the important social events going on in the class (and after school and on the weekends). If your child is working with a skilled classroom teacher, he/she will help all kids understand and accept learning differences and disabilities as part of the normal range of human characteristics. A skilled teacher also gives your child multiple opportunities to showcase his/her strengths in class activities. As a result, your child will have a better chance of being socially competent and socially integrated.

Another advantage is that the regular education teacher, if he/she is well trained and well-supported, will know more about your child than regular educators in the past and will respond to having your child in class as a professionally stimulating challenge. If the regular class teacher works collaboratively with the special educator, your child really gets "two for the price of one."

What are the advantages of inclusion for the children in the regular class who don't have learning disabilities?

As one student put it: "Why did it take so long for you [adults] to get the kids with LD out of the 'special education' class and back with us where they belong?" This question exemplifies one of the major benefits for the non- disabled student -- the chance to practice what is presumably being preached to them about living in a diverse world in which all people have equal rights.

In addition to the disintegration of social barriers maintained under a two-track special/regular programs, typical students also benefit educationally from the consultation that is available to the classroom teacher in an inclusionary classroom. Even though these students don't have an individualized education program (IEP), the typical child now has the added resource of professionals such as the occupational therapist, physical therapist, and speech and language pathologist, whose suggestions and physical presence add much to the regular classroom.

Some parents of typical children worry that their child may be held back by the presence of a child with special needs. A growing body of research indicates that typical kids in well- supported inclusive environments get a richer, more individualized and personalized education than in a single- teacher, homogeneous classroom. In addition, they learn more about metacognitive strategies (how to think about learning), and develop a greater understanding of individual differences that will prove invaluable to them whether they live in a neighborhood, work on an assembly line or become a neurosurgeon. The inclusive classroom is a "value-added" environment.

What are the disadvantages of inclusion?

The greatest concern is that the classroom teacher is not adequately trained or the classroom itself does not have sufficient supports (e.g., the necessary aides, consultants, ancillary specialists, materials, etc.) to allow the child to meet the objectives specified in his/her IEP. As mentioned earlier, just because a school system says it has a full inclusion model, this doesn't mean that a continuum of services is still available. If, however, the full inclusion of your child would result in a reduction of traditional, individual special education services, that are not adequately replaced by the services offered in the regular class, then this would signal that it's not an appropriate placement, and your child's education could suffer. Obviously, a teacher who does not believe in, understand or really want to teach in such an environment could do much to undermine the potentially positive benefits of inclusion.

Also, inclusion in a class in which the behavior of the typical students is not well monitored by adults may result in your child being ostracized in subtle ways that can have a very negative effect on self concept.

If teachers are well trained either at the pre- service or inservice level, if they believe in and understand the concept and practices of inclusion, if they are supported by colleagues, administrators and parents, if they have all the help they need to meet your child's needs, and if their efforts are sufficiently recognized and reinforced, then inclusion works. A growing number of classrooms and school systems meeting these rather specific conditions necessary for success.

How do teachers learn how to meet the needs of such a wide variety of children in an inclusive classroom?

A small but growing number of teachers are being exposed to the concept and practice of inclusion prior to getting their teaching certificate. This is especially true at the early childhood level, particularly in states such as Massachusetts which have "blended" the special education and regular education certificates at the preschool and early childhood level. Much more work needs to be done in the area of pre- service training, but adapted curriculum and practicum experiences in inclusive classrooms are more and more common.

State and Federal funds have been allocated to provide inservice training for teachers who choose to or who are asked to create inclusive environments. In some systems, such training is done on a district-wide basis, and in other districts, the training is done by school or by grade. In most school systems, the movement toward an inclusive environment is regarded as a three to five year developmental project, with training and consultation provided on an ongoing basis. It is appropriate for parents to ask a program administrator what kind of training and ongoing support is provided for staff and administration, and what kind of specific training and support your child's teacher has had. Many teachers seek out such training on their own through attending conferences, through college courses, or at workshops sponsored by the Department of Education. Teacher satisfaction with inservice training varies widely from district to district, so parents might want to ask teachers about their perception of such training efforts.

My child has a wonderful relationship with his resource room teacher. Should we worry about losing that support if he's fully included?

In many cases the role of the resource room or learning center teacher has been redefined as inclusionary practices are instituted. In many districts, the special education teacher works collaboratively with the classroom teacher to help meet a child's needs. This collaboration may take the form of consultation, team teaching (teaching a common subject or lesson together) or shared teaching (taking turns, subject- or lesson-by-lesson). In some cases the special educator works only for short periods of time in the regular classroom; others spend half-days or full days in one regular class before moving to another class. Some schools have restructured themselves so that all teachers, regardless of label, take responsibility for a mixed ability, but much smaller group of students at one grade level. Your child may have less actual contact with his "favorite" special educator. Helping the child adjust to the movement from one kind of setting, with its relative psychological security, to another must be part of a transition plan that should be written into an IEP. Just because inclusion sounds good to the adults doesn't mean the kid is going to love it. The longer a child has been in "special education," the more difficult the transition is likely to be.

As parents, we have become quite dependent on the special educator, who is the one person who really knows our child. Who will our 'contact' be? What will happen to our support system in an inclusion program?

Parents often become very comfortable working with a special educator over the years. There is often a very close personal relationship of mutual respect and understanding that helps to maintain confidence in a program. I think that a school system would be foolish to lose this connection, unless they feel that a parent has become over dependent on the special educator. In many inclusive schools, the role of the regular educator is being changed and expanded, so it is possible that the regular teacher might be assigned as your contact. As a parent, though, you might wish to specify that the special education person remain as the liaison, in order to keep the supports that have been so helpful to you in the past. However, don't let your closeness with the special educator cut you off from having "normal" interactions with the regular educator, or with the parents of your child's new friends, or with "normal" school events such as open house. Remember that special education programs have sometimes resulted in a kind of "comfortable isolation" for parents as well as their children, so inclusion may mean some risks and changes (and some positive benefits) for you as well.

Almost all of our child's friends are in her special class. What will happen to these relationships as she moves into an inclusionary setting?

In the same manner that your child should be helped to make the transition from one setting (or school) to another, she should be helped to work out the social transitions. This, incidentally is a normal concern for parents of kids who move from preschool to kindergarten, kindergarten to first grade, and from 5th or 6th grade to middle school, or whenever a small class gets dispersed. It's a reasonable cause for concern, and especially for the child with special needs, who may not make changes easily. Again, it should be part of a transition plan, which may involve the school guidance counselor or psychologist.

I like what I'm hearing about inclusion. It seems so right for my child, yet I sense that our school system is dragging its feet on this important issue. I don't get the feeling that the administration supports the concept. What can parents do?

Although many administrators are looked to for leadership and guidance in the inclusive education movement, they are a neglected group in terms of their own training and support. Find out what kind of training the Department of Education is offering for administrators, ask your administrators if they plan to attend. You may also wish to call the superintendent in an adjacent town who is doing a good job with inclusion and ask him/her how they did it. Then present these findings to your school committee and let them advocate for change. Sponsoring an informational program for the school committee may also be helpful. If all else fails, call a realtor in the adjacent town. Don't wait too long.

What are some signs that the inclusive program in our child's school is not working?

One sure sign would be that the teachers working with your child are unable to demonstrate to you that the goals set forth in your child's IEP are being met. If this is the case, call for a meeting of the team to re-assess the goals and the program. In some cases the goals in an IEP were written for a 1:1 or small group setting, and may not be appropriate for work in an integrated classroom. Do not give up the goals, especially if you and the teachers are sure that they are still relevant, and resist the temptation to rush the child back into a self-contained setting; rather, try to reinterpret the goals in a classroom context. Ask: how can this skill be taught and evaluated given the environment of this class?

If resources that were designated in the IEP (e.g., aide, OT, PT, Speech and Language, etc.) are not provided, you must demand such services. However, parents should be willing to listen to a teacher's or therapist's re-definition of the role, especially in a situation where a child, because of the positive aspects of inclusion, no longer has the need for a certain type of service (e.g., articulation therapy or 1:1 counseling to support her transition to the new class). If, however, you are convinced that the regular classroom setting cannot provide the specific and/or intensive instructional services that you feel are appropriate for your child, exercise your right to request a modification in services or program.

Schultz, Jerome J. Clinical Neuropsychologist/Inclusion Consultant, Wellesley Hills, MA