By Jennifer Krystopowicz April 8th 2014 5:00 PM
Inclusion is a defining principle of special education: ensuring that students with special needs participate in a general education setting for 100% of the school day. However, I must admit that when I hear an educator, administrator, policy maker, or parent make the statement that all students with special needs should learn in an inclusive environment, a wave of anxiety ripples through my body. I understand that, as a National Board certified special education teacher with experience in both a general education and self-contained classroom, I should be advocating for full inclusion since this seems to be “the way” schools are heading. However, my experience as a special educator has given me a new understanding that inclusion does not meet the needs of all special education students.
When I first learned about the idea of inclusion in 2007, and extensively studied the various models while earning my Master’s degree, I openly embraced the idea of 100% inclusion for all students with disabilities. The models that were presented seemed promising: Parallel teaching, Station Teaching, Alternative Teaching, etc. Seven years later, there have been advancements of knowledge and programs in the special education field, yet the same inclusion models remain. Classrooms are still “testing” or “figuring out” what model best works for their students. Is this fair to continue to test the same models when it is at the expense of our students with special needs?
I began questioning inclusion during my first year of teaching when I became immersed in my career as a self-contained special education teacher in a non-categorical classroom. Questions such as: Could some of my students function 100% of the day in inclusion? Would they receive as much attention and support as they were receiving in my self-contained setting? How would these supports be delivered when the teacher to student ratio is much higher in a general education setting and there is limited support from para professionals?
As these questions were buzzing in my mind, I came to one conclusion: It is nearly impossible for a general education teacher, who has the demanding responsibility of teaching over 25 students, to be expected to teach students who cannot write, speak, or express wants and needs. These students benefit from specialized programs where they will receive specialized instruction, such as self-contained classrooms.
According to The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), least restrictive environment is defined as ensuring that “…children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
As stated, if the general education classroom cannot provide the necessary means to ensure a student with special needs is having all of his or her goals, needs, and requirements met according to their Individual Education Plan (IEP), then another placement is appropriate. Another setting, such as a self-contained classroom or resource room, is considered his or her Least Restrictive Environment. Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity work with countless students with autism, intellectual disabilities, and emotional disabilities. Some of these students were considered high functioning since they read and performed work close to grade level. However, because of their short attention span, sensitivity to stimulus, or emotional imbalances, these students required an environment that had a small teacher to student ratio. If there were no self-contained classrooms available, how will we nurture these students and their peers in the public school system?
Specialized programs, such as self-contained classrooms, can serve as a bridge between participating in a specialized and general education setting. Here at Tyler Elementary, we have classes to serve as that bridge. Our special education classrooms service a wide range of disabilities including, but not limited to, students with Intellectual Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, Autism, Multiple Disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Students with IEPs who can function in the general education setting are provided support through an Inclusion Special Education Teacher that in most cases rotates to different classrooms to service the students on his or her caseload. Students who require more assistance and smaller class size are placed in self-contained classrooms. Students in these classes are with peers close to their age and academic level, a Special Education Teacher, and paraprofessional for additional support. Each classroom contains its own set of diverse learners that require the curriculum to be tailored to their needs.
Last year, I started the concept of reverse inclusion where I provided the necessary support for my two highest functioning students with disability to participate in the Literacy Block in the 5th grade general education class. In reverse, the four lowest performing students in the general class came to me in the self-contain setting for a reading intervention program. This model of inclusion was successful because of the environment of the self-contained classroom where these four students greatly benefited from specialized instruction for part of the day. As a result, reading levels increased and overall student morale improved.
The District of Columbia Public Schools is aware of these differences and has many schools that contain specialized programs to meet the needs of all students. 100% inclusion in the general education setting is ideal for many students with disabilities, but it is not a fit for all. It is our job as special educators to accept this reality and create environments that will benefit all learners.