What Is Inclusive Education for Special Needs Children?

True, full inclusive education is both challenging and rare

Portrait of happy girl with down syndrome carried by mother. Credit: Maskot / Getty Images

According to the IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act), all children are entitled to a free and appropriate education in the "least restrictive environment." While there are many ways to interpret these rights, the bottom line is that your child has the right -- if you so desire it -- to be educated in a public setting and to be included within reason with typical peers.

In a public school setting, the term "inclusion" can have more than one meaning, and it will be up to you to determine exactly how your district interprets the term.

In theory, an inclusive education is one that gives disabled children an opportunity to interact with a community of teachers and able-bodied students in a normal school environment. It is different from a "mainstream" education because there is no differentiation between general education and special education.

Two Types of Inclusive Education: Regular and Full Inclusion

There are, however, two subcategories of an inclusive education: full inclusion and partial or regular inclusion.

Regular or partial inclusion means that the child is in all of the normal classes in which able-bodied students participate, with the exception of special education that would otherwise be disruptive to the rest of the class. Examples include speech therapy or physical education.

Full inclusion schools allow disabled students to spend all of their time in an able-bodied student environment, regardless of their disability.

Full inclusion schools are rare due in part to finding teachers who are certified to work with the disabled student population, and concerns that the able-bodied students would be held back so that the disabled students would receive the support they need.

The Challenges of Inclusion

Inclusion can also be a tricky concept if your child has behaviors, cognitive or physical challenges, learning disabilities, or other issues that make it difficult for him to her to take part in typical classroom activities and learning.

As a result, inclusion may have some very significant limits. For example:

  • In some cases, children with special needs may be physically in the same room as typical peers but be using different study materials or working at a different academic level;
  • In some cases, children with special needs may not be included in non-academic programs such as athletics, band, etc., because there are no aides or support staff to manage their particular needs. While this is not strictly speaking legal, it is very common.
  • Often, children with special needs will have 1:1 aides working with them in the school setting. While this makes it possible for children to be in the same space as typical peers, it can also cause social and physical challenges.
  • Because children with special needs are often pulled out of class for therapies, tutoring, and other services related to their disability, they may find it difficult to take part in collaborative class activities or even to keep up with academics.

Because the costs and challenges of full, true inclusion are so significant, it is rare for a school to provide successful, fully-inclusive programming.

Often, schools will recommend that children with special needs be included only in non-academic "specials" such as art, music, or gym. 

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