The "Culture" of Inclusion

By: Sue McGhie-Troff and Robin Collett

Bobby entered Kindergarten with parents and teachers anticipating a normal first schooling experience. This was not the case. Intuitively his mother knew he was different; she did not realize just how different. Bobby had no prior educational interventions. He could not communicate verbally or follow simple directions. He would not sit in his seat for longer than five minutes and regularly refused to go out for recess. When he finally went outside for recess, he would not return. His response to most requests was to scream, cry, tantrum, and bite.

After two weeks of daily disruptions and ineffective interventions, the school’s multidisciplinary team decided Bobby did not belong in a regular school setting. The team recommended a Communication Disorder self-contained placement. This recommendation was made even though the entire staff envisioned and embraced an inclusive philosophy. Even with this belief, the team decided it was impossible to meet Bobby’s needs in a regular setting. However, the placement was delayed by the district Inclusion specialist who provided full-time support for three weeks to shape Bobby’s behavior and who assured the team a move to self-contained placement was possible if interventions were unsuccessful. After three weeks of interventions, Bobby sat in his seat, participated in recess, followed simple directions, and spoke in three-word sentences.

Without the philosophical change supporting inclusion, even the dramatic progress Bobby made would not have resulted in his remaining in a regular school setting. For students with disabilities to succeed, everyone needs to see them not as “inclusion students” but as individuals with strengths and needs that a committed well-trained staff can address.

District office administrator point of view

As a district administrator, I see a “culture” where practice perpetuates self-contained placements as the answer to some student’s unique disability(ies) In many instances this exists because we either do not understand the disability, or desire others to find the solutions.

In Bobby’s case the multidisciplinary team sought a self-contained placement partly because the district “culture” deemed it appropriate and he became someone else’s problem and partly because it was an easy solution to his disability. Due to district policy, the team also recognized that if they did not make the placement immediately they would lose the self-contained unit and be “stuck” with him all year. This example underscores the anti-inclusionary “culture” which perpetuates separation as the best option. It also gives credence to the belief that students with disabilities do not belong, when in reality they can succeed and do belong.

For a district administrator, this multifaceted situation requires a balancing act of time and resources. To successfully include students, it is important to intervene and provide school teams with the knowledge, backup, and skills necessary for student success. With scarce resources this can seem like an impossible task and often perpetuates the self-contained “culture,” not because it is best, but because it is expedient. However, as we strive to meet individual student needs this intervention must be done.

Thus, the issue is not one of inclusion alone. The issue is that of values, responsibility and individual accountability. The question then becomes, how does one influence an individual, a school, or a districts’ commitment, dedication and passion for the successful learning of all students regardless of where that learning takes place? The answer lies in “change.” It includes the capacity to see where we are at currently with all students, to envision where we would like to be, and to make the changes necessary for everyone’s success.

Principal Point of View

From a principal’s point of view, inclusion  requires a paradigm shift, a “cultural” change in the way educators consider student needs as well as their role in addressing those needs. The experience with Bobby taught us an important lesson— that labeling students or viewing them as not capable of belonging is counter-productive. It places limits on the thinking about what is possible and right for the individual. Placing students in the Least Restrictive Environment requires changing the way educators meet student needs. Change associated with any innovation entails an unfolding of experience and a gradual development of skill and sophistication using innovative practices. It is a developmental process that takes time.

Our experience with Bobby taught us that if he could remain in a regular school setting, anyone can. The key to any student’s successful inclusion is thinking in terms of “what if,” rather than “we can’t.” Bobby reminded us that our commitment to inclusion would require a new effort and increased dedication to the home school as the least restrictive environment.

There is a big difference between including students because of federal mandates, parent requests, or “faddish” trends. Successful inclusion is based on the underlying belief that all students can learn and a commitment to work through the normal up’s and down’s of the learning process. Belief is not dictated by policy. Belief is based on experience, values,and a passionate commitment to the success of all students.

Sue McGhie-Troff, Special Education Support Services, and Robin Collett, Coordinator School Safety, Granite School District Utah Special Educator, February 1999