Bringing Inclusion into the Classroom
About the author: Kait Hager is a special education teacher in Western Massachusetts who runs a substantially separate classroom devoted to the education of students on the Autism Spectrum. She has a bachelor’s degree in education from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a master’s of special education from Bay Path College.
Inclusion is a buzzword. Special education administrators throw it around like candy at a Memorial Day parade, tossing it by the handful at parents and teachers. It sparkles in the fluorescent light of conference rooms. Parents of students with severe special needs — developmental delays, spectrum disorders, communication needs — love to hear inclusion. It implies their child might be able to be involved, to be a part of the larger group, at a time when they feel like their children are so far removed from the community.
PBSParents has a whole section of their education heading devoted to inclusion. They write, “Research shows that when a child with disabilities attends classes alongside peers who do not have disabilities, good things happen.” Parents of students with severe needs clutch at that idea, hold it tightly and eagerly push for inclusion. But in the light of day, inclusion is easier said than done.
By definition, inclusion is part of the idea of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Wrightslaw (2007), the big book of laws and regulations in education, states that, “ … Each public agency must ensure that … To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … are educated with children who are non-disabled.”
It doesn’t say much more than that, except that if children are removed, it’s because their disability is so severe, that even with “supplementary aids and services” their education “cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” In summary, every student has the right to be in a classic classroom setting with typically functioning peers. The only exception is if their disability is so debilitating that they can’t be there, and then their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is something called a substantially separate classroom.
I run a sub-separate classroom in my building for students with special needs. In the 2014-2015 school year, I had six students all on the Autism spectrum. They ranged from high functioning to low functioning, verbal to nonverbal, physically handicapped to able-bodied. Their cognitive skills fluctuated between kindergarten and third grade. The students’ interests included bus specs, zombies, music, the color pink, Justin Bieber, old cartoons, puzzles and Legos. No two of my students were the same, and yet they all experienced inclusion in my classroom.
4 Keys to Classroom Inclusion
- Administration. In order for their inclusion to be really effective, I had to have an administrator in the building who would help me push for inclusion. She pushed guidance counselors for me. She nudged the principal. She even elbowed a few of the more reluctant teachers. Without her, this plan would have flopped like a soufflé out of the oven. And if you don’t have an administrator pushing for you, you better be willing to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself.
- Electives. Don’t rush headlong into educational classes, the ones that count for credit. My guess is — and this is how it is with my students — that these students with severe needs are not cognitively appropriate in Algebra 1, Physics, or a 10th grade English class. So start with gym classes, woodshop, culinary, music. Start with the classes where there is room for flexibility and expansion. In those math,science and English classes, the formula is typically the same: come in, sit down, listen to the lecture or take notes from the board, stay seated the whole time and then leave. Think about whether or not you can see your students doing this and taking something away from this experience. I can’t see my kids doing it.
- Individualization. Some attempts at inclusion feature small classrooms of a few students who jump into a mainstream setting all together. It’s important to remember that each student is an individual. We all get in the pool different ways. Some of us run, some cannonball, some take the stairs and some only dip their feet in over the edge. So when you’re planning inclusion for your students, think about their interests. With my students, some electives weren’t for them. One of my students is sporadic, energetic and needs to keep his hands busy. Chorus is not for him. But he thrived in woodshop. He made birdhouses and shelves, and even after his semester in that class, he frequented the shop routinely. Another student of mine loved to listen to music. So he attended chorus and band. He would play the guitar and hum along to whatever song the chorus was belting out, be it “Africa” by Toto or “Seasons of Love” from RENT.
- Communication. If inclusion isn’t working, if the teacher leading the class reports that it just doesn’t fit, fix it. Sit down with the teacher and ask what they’re hoping the student can gain from the experience. Conversely, tell the teacher leading the class what you hope your student is going to get from their time in that class. If you want your student to be able to hum along, make sure that teacher knows the student won’t be singing. If you want your student to learn how to identify a ¼ cup from a ¾ cup in culinary, make sure that teacher knows what your goal is.
Inclusion can be a reality and can become more than a buzzword whispered in the background of an IEP meeting. The biggest problem for students with severe needs is that inclusion takes a lot of work. It takes time,energy and collaboration for it to be an effective experience.. If you’re committed to the idea of effective inclusion, you can do it.