What is Inclusion in Special Education?

Inclusion is one of many options for special needs students.

Students
Students. Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

Inclusion in special education programs is an important part of the continuum of special education placements required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Inclusion refers to the practice of educating children with learning disabilities and other types of disabilities in the regular education classroom. 

Research has shown that inclusive education can be a positive experience, both for the included child and for the general education students.

While this isn't always the case, of course, there is significant evidence that it CAN be effective.

There is, however, more to the story.

Inclusion or Mainstreaming?

The practice of including children with special needs in a general education classroom is not new. The most common approach is called "mainstreaming." When a child is "mainstreamed," the assumption is usually that either the child will be successful without supports, or that the child will come to the classroom with supports (usually a 1:1 aide) who will help him to keep up with the rest of the class.

The philosophy behind inclusion is distinct from mainstreaming. A truly inclusive classroom is designed to accommodate the needs of all learners, by providing "differentiated" instruction.  In theory, with the right training and resources, a general education teacher can provide such a broad range of instructional approaches that all children can successfully learn in her classroom.

Depending upon the situation, grade, and other factors, the teacher might have the support of an "inclusion specialist" to ensure that each child receives an individualized, inclusive learning experience.

Not surprisingly, while mainstreaming is fairly common, true inclusion is hard to come by. In most situations (particularly after grade 3), teachers are required to train their students to excel in specific standardized tests -- making differentiated instruction difficult to provide.

 And while the idea of inclusive education may be appealing, it is the rare teacher, school, or district that has the resources, creativity, patience, and experience to make it work well.

Special Education Placement Options Under the IDEA

The IDEA requires placement decisions to be made on an individual basis according to each child's needs. Schools must educate children least restrictive environment (LRE) with appropriate specially designed instruction (SDI) and supports necessary to implement their individual education programs(IEPs). The LRE is different for every child: while some children can function well -- with support -- in general education classes, others are better served in a small, individualized setting. Students with relatively severe disabilities may even require a setting that is specifically geared to their particular disability.

Inclusion is one of several placement options on the continuum of special education placements required by IDEA. Options include:

  • Inclusion in the regular classroom with collaboration;
  • Part time placement in a regular classroom with support in a special education resource classroom;
  • Full time placement in a special education resource room;
  • Part time placement in a self-contained special education classroom;
  • Full time placement in a self-contained special education program;
  • Part time placement in a day treatment, therapeutic program, or special school;
  • Full time placement in a day treatment, therapeutic program, or special school; and
  • Placement in a residential, hospital, or home program.

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