As educators, our desire should always be to reach all of our students for the purpose of learning. If we do believe that all students can learn, then we should also believe that all students should be included in all components of education. In my experience in working with elementary students, they are much more forgiving of learning differences than, say, their middle or high school peers. A true inclusive education system is one that includes all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or physical, social, or emotional differences.
Educators and school communities need to understand what an inclusive education system is; it’s also critical to understand why it’s best for students. A critical piece of that is the need to promote inclusive education using best practice approaches that grow all students in lifelong learning. This article will attempt to answer the question of what inclusive education is along with the benefits of this type of system, and briefly touch on specific school best practice strategies. Promoting an education system that includes all children should be the goal of all educational leaders.
What is Inclusive Education?
The 1973 IDEA legislation wrote into law rights to a free public education for all students regardless of their differences and disabilities related to how they learn. Some educators refer to inclusive education in terms of the phrase “least restrictive environment”. This concept involves including all children in the same opportunities that the school has to offer the general population.
Inclusive education is a system that has set processes in place to include all children in the academic, non-academic, and extracurricular areas of overall school. Those processes should be supported by teacher best practice strategies that help all children to feel included. An inclusive education system also should include supports for a student’s behavior in all three areas.
Before IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), many students with special needs were left out. Often times students were sent home or expelled from school due to their differences. They were not afforded the accommodations that support students today. A true inclusive education system looks at the needs of the whole child in all areas of school.
Benefits of Inclusive Education
If the goal of an inclusive education system is to include all children, then we should think about why it’s good for children, teachers and staff, and the whole school. In order for our students to be on a level playing field with each other, students with disabilities need to be afforded the same opportunities as those in the general population. Students in an inclusive system should be provided academic, social, emotional, and physical supports. Why is this inclusive approach better for our citizenry?
When our students leave K-12 school and enter post-secondary education or the workforce, they need to understand the importance of cooperating with different types of people. An inclusive system of education builds on that understanding for the learners. When students with disabilities are pulled out of the classrooms and instructed in totally separate settings, they aren’t always accepted by their peers. Those students also can begin to feel and notice differences. Inclusive setting-based schools can also promote more teamwork and less division.
Components of Inclusive Education
The pieces of an inclusive education system include the academic, non-academic, and extracurricular areas of school. The focus should be on inclusion of all children in these three major components of this system.
The academic area includes the traditional classroom, media center, and student intervention settings. The non-academic area includes areas like the cafeteria, school bus, and playground. Extracurricular areas involve how the student is provided supports and allowed to participate in school sponsored sports or clubs. If students are to be included as part of the whole, they should all be served in each component of the education system.
Strategies to Promote Inclusive Education in Your School or Classroom
Many middle schools have had good success with inclusive settings. Students in that age group can be apprehensive if they feel they are treated differently. For example, students in middle school are often leery of going to a resource or pullout classroom and being treated differently. However, all schools regardless of grade levels can benefit from inclusive settings.
Specific strategies that should be considered to support students in inclusive environments include: team teaching classrooms, students with disabilities scheduled first so that they are included in all areas of the school, common lunch times for students, shared buses, and 100% participation in sports and clubs.
Schools should include their students in the yearbook by grade level and not by academic class. In a school I previously worked in, a resource class was not only grouped in a separate area of the school, they were also pictured in a different area of the yearbook. Students at a young age pick up on those differences. School level best practices that include all students are best for the school as a whole.