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Inclusion: A Great Idea That Doesn’t Always Work

Inclusion: A Great Idea That Doesn’t Always Work
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Inclusion, in which students with disabilities go to school with their same-age peers rather than in separate schools, does not necessarily lead to the best outcomes for students with disabilities, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

Inclusion is generally considered the best option to educate students with disabilities, as Disability Scoop notes. Certainly, the idea of “separate schools” for students with disabilities like my teenage son Charlie sounds, and can be, tantamount to segregating them away from students without disabilities. But, much as I believe in the idea of inclusion for all students with disabilities, the reality is that it is not always the best option.

Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities qualify for a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) until they are adults (on the day they turn 21 in some states and up till they are 22 in others).

As Wrightslaw points out, the term “inclusion” is not actually mentioned in the IDEA. LRE means that a student is educated in as inclusive a setting as possible — “in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled” — so as to provide a student who is “different” (with physical, intellectual, learning, developmental or other disabilities) with an education that is as close as possible to that of “typical” students, in the belief that doing so will better enable a child with disabilities to work, live and be in the community.

Does the “Least-Restricted Environment” School Help?

Researchers E. Michael Foster and Erin Pearson of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Johns Hopkins University, respectively, assessed data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 on 484 children and young persons, all whose primary diagnosis was autism. In 2007, these individuals were 23 years old, so researchers were able to consider the impact of their education on their lives.

When Foster and Pearson compared autistic children who had not been educated in an inclusive setting with autistic children who spent 75 to 100 percent of their time in general education classrooms, they found that neither group was more likely to attend college, to not drop out of high school or to show improvements in their functional cognitive score.

Foster and Pearson concluded that there is “no systematic indication that the level of inclusivity improves key future outcomes.” Their research questions whether the idea of educating a child in a school setting that is the least-restricted possible necessarily provides the best outcomes for the students.

Did the School Districts Really Do Everything They Could Have?

In assessing the results of Foster’s and Pearson’s study, we need to ask: did school districts, administrators and educational staff really seek to accommodate the needs of students?

With more children now being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, more services for them available and a better understanding of how to teach autistic children, another study about inclusion could have very different results.

Why We Chose a Separate School For Charlie

My son’s experience suggests how sometimes the “least-restricted environment” can be the most restrictive of all.

Charlie has needed special education services since he started school and for many years we sought to educate him in neighborhood public schools. He has always been in a special education classroom, often with a ratio of one teacher or aide to student.

Academically, Charlie has never been at the grade level of the children his age so we knew he would not be able to be fully mainstreamed. Over the years, we sought to have him integrated in “specials” (music, art, library and PE) only to find that these settings could be even more challenging, as they are less structured learning environments for all students. Still, Charlie attending a local elementary school with kids his age offered opportunities for less formal interactions as basic as seeing, and being seen by, the school community in the hallway, the cafeteria, the gym, at after-school events like school carnivals and book nights.

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Photo of Charlie attending an ice cream social with students at his elementary school in 2004 by the author

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6:29PM PST on Nov 20, 2012

I appreiciate your sharing / discussing your love of your son, Dr. Chew. God bless.

5:37AM PST on Nov 14, 2012

There's a middle ground between total inclusion in a mainstream classroom or attending a separate "special" school. That is specialized classes within the regular school system, with participation to whatever degree is comfortable and safe for the special needs student...being on a sports team or attending sports events, ditto for clubs and field trips and other extracurricular activities. Special needs students can also attend a mainstream class during the day in addition to their specialized classes, go to the lunchroom for lunch with the rest of their grade level group, go outside for recess with all the other kids (so long as this is comfortable, and safe for everyone).

I have taught both special needs classes and mainstream classes with special needs students included for part of the day. I found both workable. Some teachers complain about having to make individualized efforts with a special needs student in their mainstream classroom...but, in fact, the best teachers are making individualized efforts and using differentiated lesson planning all the time with all their students.

It's not by any means always a special needs child with a diagnosed condition or learning disability who is the most disruptive student.

7:31AM PST on Nov 11, 2012

Well take for instance a child who is disruptive. If they disrupt the entire classroom and the teacher can not control them, then they should place the child in another class, where there are specially trained teachers who can control them.

10:09PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

it should be handled case by case, every kid is different.
i don't think classes should be forced to take a kid who is disruptive just because they want him mainstreamed. a classroom only advances as fast as the slowest student and if there is one that is a constant disruption then something needs to be done for all.
no child should be forced into a setting where they are being setup for abuse or failure just to suit some ideal.

2:40PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

Deborah J. that is all easyier said than done. should it work both ways? or if the disabled student is not good with people. if they behave in a way other students themself find bothersom. they need to shut up and take it? I'm trying to rerember my school days but I'm at a road block. what ever it was, my interaction was not best so nobody liked me. now, having empathy for the "drooling retard" type of student. yes.

but the one that screams and crys easy at everything. or is just spine tinglingly weird. how do you say "now now. be nice to _______"
I used to scream because it was fun (I think this was pre K?) and nobody liked it. now I don't even lady like shreek when startled(i tend to make an odd aray of noise, like "guh" and "ehehehiehehee" "nuuahh" and "blap!". it's amuzing really) I guess I'd need to be in true terror. but yeah. if there was a student to just screams for fun and dosen't want to stop. how do you tell others "don't make fun of the screamer"

1:21PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

My son is on the milder end of the spectrum, but was so distressed in the public school that we took him out and homeschooled him after 5th grade. He was very advanced in some areas, terribly behind in others, and ostracized socially. He thrived in a homeschool environment, started taking classes with other homeschoolers, went on the the local community college and did well, and will be entering a small competitive private college next year as a junior. Listening to what his mental state was telling us was key. He was able to advance in the areas he had been weak in previously once he was out of the toxic environment, and he blossomed socially with a smaller and more welcoming group of students.

12:21PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

It would help to include in the mainstream K-12 curriculum some proactive educating for understanding, tolerance, and patience in dealing with other people. Get to the root of teasing, bullying, and ostracism, teach compassion and empathy. This would have immediate AND far-reaching benefits regardless of whether the logistics of inclusion in the classroom or community setting are feasible.

7:32AM PST on Nov 10, 2012

All too often with inclusion, students do not receive the specialized services they need and their IEPs may be ignored altogether with administrator attitudes and either or dynamics telling parents they can't have both for their child. The best schools provide the options of varied portions of the school day mainstreamed with portions of one on one services--but I suspect schools doing such best practices remain the minority.

5:09PM PST on Nov 8, 2012

I think like with most things concerning education, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

5:00PM PST on Nov 8, 2012

Michael R. were they mr. popular in highschool? where all the girls wanted to date him?

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