Inclusion: A Great Idea That Doesn’t Always Work

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.

Things changed when Charlie entered middle school. It was far larger in size and Charlie, who has lots of cognitive and communication challenges, could only attend music, art or PE if, and (we were told) only if, he could function at pretty much the same level as the students without disabilities. We didn’t get too far contesting this protocol (which quite overlooks the notion of “accommodations” in the IDEA) because Charlie himself, having entered puberty, had an increase in the intensity and number of difficult behaviors.

Months of efforts to keep Charlie in his in-district classroom only led to him being more excluded and stigmatized. By the time the decision was made for Charlie to attend an out-of-district county autism center for children with severe behavioral challenges, the district’s behavioral consultant had him in a helmet with a face guard and staff hovering over him every minute, and he was more or less confined to one room for the whole day.

My Son Is Thriving At a Separate School, But Did We Give Up?

It took Charlie the better part of a year to settle into the out-of-district center. He’s been there now for almost three years and has been quite content, and the school with him. Since the school is specifically focused on children (aged 3 – 21) with the same diagnosis and behavior issues as his, they have plenty of trained teachers, therapists, aides and other staff including a music teacher, an art teacher, vocational education teachers and teachers for Adapted Physical Education (APE). The school is in a large building with its own gym and Charlie spends his time in different classrooms, in the cafeteria and in the hallways for walks to work out his energy.

The question of “inclusive setting” or “separate school” is often a very delicate and sensitive issue for families with kids like Charlie. Sending a child to a separate school can feel like a surrender, as if you’re giving up on keeping a child in the community. In the end, we made the choice of a separate school for Charlie based on his educational needs, rather than on principles, by juggling between the reality and beliefs and choosing the best thing for Charlie himself.

Charlie is on the severe end of the autism spectrum. For children who have Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, cerebral palsy and/or other diagnoses with varying degrees of severity, a placement in a separate school could well be a sign of a school district not making all the efforts it could to accommodate a student. The administration at the middle school that Charlie left long ago did not exactly go out of its way to accommodate his needs or those of other students with disabilities. We could have kept fighting to keep him in the middle school but concluded these efforts were adding to Charlie’s struggles. He was telling us, without words, he didn’t want to be there as he knew he wasn’t welcomed.

Have you had an experience  – positive or, like ours, fraught with difficulties — with inclusion and mainstreaming?

Related Care2 Coverage

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


Steve D.
Past Member 2 years ago

I am really appreciating very much by seeing your interesting posts.

J C Bro
J C Brou5 years ago

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

Miranda Lyon
Miranda Lyon5 years ago

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.

Sheri J.
Sheri J5 years ago

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.

Billie C.
Billie C5 years ago

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.

Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen5 years ago

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"

Ann F.
Ann Fontaine5 years ago

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.

Deborah J.
Deborah J5 years ago

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.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

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.

jenny H.
jenny H5 years ago

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