Including kids with special needs in programs for kids without them is a growing practice. Here's what you need to know about inclusion.
preschoolers playing on circle rug with puzzle

Understanding Inclusion

Barbara had so much fun and made so many new friends at the local play program she and her 1-year-old daughter attended that she thought it would be great to share the experience with her sister-in-law, Janet. She convinced Janet to join the program with her daughter, Tracy, who is almost 2 and has cerebral palsy.

At the first class Tracy was very excited, and when she's excited she yells. Tracy's yelling upset one of the other parents who complained to the director that she didn't want to be in the same class with Tracy because the yelling was disturbing to her son, Jason.

The director called Janet to explain the situation. At first, Janet was very upset and didn't want to attend the program any more, but Barbara and the director worked together on a solution. They decided to experiment by arriving at the class a few minutes before the other children and parents to get Tracy acclimated and relaxed.

When the other parents and children arrived Tracy still made noise, but not as loudly. She was able to focus on the other children and the activities. It was a difficult transition made smoother with support and understanding. Tracy and her mom were included in the playgroup and everyone benefited.

Scenarios like this are being played out more frequently as inclusion becomes more common. Parents, educators, and concerned individuals within communities agree that inclusion of children with disabilities into preschool is important. But it is controversial as well.

What Is Inclusion?

Inclusion is an ideal that mirrors a question we have been asking for millennia: "How do we live with one another?" Inclusion is about learning to live with one another -- including those with special needs and limitations. Preschools, parent-and-child groups, and daycare centers are the earliest (and best) places to start the inclusionary process, a process that will continue into higher grades and into the community at large.

Inclusion is not a single event but rather the process of educating children with disabilities in their neighborhood school; the same school they would normally attend if they did not have a disability. It refers to the commitment to educate each child to the maximum extent possible, as equal participants in a society in which all children are given the same opportunities to reach their potential.

"Full" inclusion educates children with special needs within the general education classroom, while providing any necessary supports and accommodation. "Partial" inclusion (sometimes called "mainstreaming") refers to the practice of educating students with special needs in the general education classrooms for some portion of their day, while they spend the other portion of the day receiving instruction in a special education classroom or resource room.

The History of Inclusion

The current trend towards inclusion actually began with the civil rights movement. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education marked the end of the idea that we can provide separate but equal education. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975 became the most important federal law affecting special education; it mandated a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for children and youth ages 5 to 21 with disabilities. In 1986, Public Law-99 (part B) extended the school's responsibility to include the education of children ages 3 to 5, and (part H) established programs to infants and toddlers with special needs.

These basic provisions were reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 which also replaced the term "handicap" with "disability." Currently, EHA/IDEA entitles all students with disabilities to an education in the "least restrictive environment" and "to the maximum extent appropriate." This means that education should take place in natural environments -- including the home and community settings in which children without disabilities participate -- while receiving the support necessary to meet their individual needs.

The implementation of this ideal has become a challenge for all concerned and sometimes elicits strong feelings. Why is the welcoming of people with disabilities sometimes met with intense reactions? Inclusion is not simply about placing a child with special needs in a regular classroom or playgroup. Inclusion is about how we deal with diversity in our society and how we deal with, or avoid dealing with, our own differences, weaknesses, and fears.

Potential Advantages of Inclusion

An often-overlooked outcome of inclusion is the change in attitudes of teachers and parents, as well as the children without special needs. Compassion and sensitivity grow when we face our fears and concerns and help others. Parents report that typically developing children enrolled in integrated settings display less prejudice and fewer stereotypes, and are more responsive and helpful to others. Teachers report that the children without disabilities become more aware of the needs of others when they are enrolled in a class that includes a child with a disability. Inclusive education benefits typically developing children by developing their respect for human diversity.

We can also learn gratitude for all we have, compassion for the struggle of others, and the tenacity and triumph of the human spirit when we watch a child who has special needs struggle and succeed at his or her goals.

What better way to learn these lessons than by living them with children and parents who are in the process of discovering every day that what appears to be a tragedy can be overcome, bringing success and satisfaction?

What Families Learn

Josine Mash, the mother of 9-year-old Brandon, who has autism, explains this dichotomy in an article, "Could We Truly Appreciate the Sun If It Weren't for the Rain?" in her son's school newsletter. Although she talks about "...the pain of not being able to converse with your own child, the person you most cherish...," she focuses on his struggle to develop. "His speech emerged slowly, in stages, across a span of years ... Like a visitor to a strange land; he struggles to make sense of our language." A dark yellow color is "navy yellow" and a jar of white paste is "vanilla." She also talks about how much she has learned by being a part of this process. "Could we truly appreciate the sun if it weren't for the rain? I once saw a magnificent rainbow arching across the ocean. Every time I hear my son's voice I feel like I'm seeing that rainbow, holding its promise in my hand."

Inclusion also brings the special education teacher and other professionals into the regular class to help. Early detection of developing problems can be addressed before they cause behavior problems or learning difficulties.

"What About the Other Kids?"

Despite some concern that being in an integrated class would somehow slow the development of children without disabilities, it has been found that normally developing children enrolled in integrated programs make developmental gains at least equivalent to those made by their peers in nonintegrated programs.

Why? The educational strategies for inclusion are the same strategies used for all children; to create an environment rich in diversity, learning, support, and respect for all children and their individual needs, allowing every child to reach his or her potential.

Of course, there are real benefits for the children with special needs. Most agree that developing the social skills of young children is a primary goal -- and that is often done through playing and developing friendships. Where do we find many of our first friends? Family, neighborhood, school, daycare centers, preschools, and playgroups. But children with special needs often see only family and some paid professionals. What they lack are the normal interactions with other children. "One ordinary garden-variety kid-friend can achieve all sorts of miracles in learning that a classroom of special educators, speech therapists, and social workers cannot seem to manage," writes Debra Kendrick, a journalist who is visually impaired.

Where does this bring us? Back to Tracy and the others who form friendships that can last into their school years and maybe longer.

Potential Disadvantages

Research confirms the social benefits of inclusion. However, inclusion requires planned social skills interventions, such as helping children learn to share, make friends, and encourage play, between children with and without disabilities. Special equipment and changes in the physical environment may be necessary to support these interventions. Arranging the room into a variety of interest centers encourages small groups of two to three children to play together. Adaptive equipment may also be needed to promote play or even make play possible. A child who is usually in a wheelchair may need a stander in order to participate on the same physical level as the other children.

Full inclusion might be one way to satisfy the law, but not everyone is in agreement about its benefits. Many fear that full inclusion would eliminate all special placements, including such services as speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. They fear the reduction of specialized schools for those who can not benefit from inclusion into regular classrooms. Parents of special needs children are concerned that full inclusion would harm their children's educational development. Some children with disabilities will not thrive in a regular classroom. They may need specialized services that are unavailable in a regular educational setting.

Clearly, educational decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis with awareness of the many ways to receive needed services. The best choice is the one that is best for each individual child. Inclusion into typical classrooms should not be a blanket policy for all children with disabilities but must be an available option. Extreme caution must be exercised so that full inclusion does not result in social isolation, poor performance, or settings in which services are unavailable or not appropriate for the family.

Making Full Inclusion Work for Everyone

In order to be successful, the family and the child with special needs will need additional support personnel when in a regular education or recreational program. Staffing, class size, number of children with disabilities, and the nature and quality of a child's disability are important factors. Ideally the number of children with special needs in a classroom should approach the ratio in society, where approximately one out of 15 American children has a disability. This increases the opportunity for children to get to know and appreciate one another without overwhelming the capacity of the teachers and students.

Staff development, staff skill, and quality programming are key ingredients. Attitudes about inclusion, access to a specialist, and collaborative planning and curriculum are additional factors influencing the success of inclusion. Teachers need special training, and children need special preparation in order to make these programs work.

Inclusion is a value, much like the commitment to racial or gender equality. It may not always be easy. It may require change and accommodation, but the process of inclusion and the encouragement of each individual child allows each person to develop his or her talents and strengths. It also provides opportunities for all of us to develop the much desired qualities of compassion, empathy, and helpfulness. It can teach us and our children that the greater the diversity, the richer our capacity to create a more humane and respectful society.

Originally published on, October 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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