Inclusion- Make it meaningful

     “If he’s going to lick things (you could replace lick with hit or stim) during the day, isn’t it better he does it in inclusion where he has exposure to typically-developing peers than isolated in a specialized classroom?”- A classroom teacher to a family of a youngster with autism.
     Well, NO.  Let’s have a conversation about what makes inclusion meaningful.  Inclusion is critically important for disabled students when they are able to access learning and receive meaningful benefit from it. It’s not every student’s Least Restrictive Environment, and it’s not meaningful if it’s just a location.
     What makes inclusion meaningful? It is done incredibly well in so many places. Many schools, some may need a push, are dedicated to serving students with Down Syndrome in inclusion and when they access support from experts and have a team that presumes competence, it works beautifully. Students with autism have long been included (not “integrated”, that term needs to be removed from our vocabularies).
     It can be done terribly wrong, even with the best of intentions. IEPs (and classrooms) are not “one size fits all”.
     They are supposed to be developed based on the unique needs of each student. “One size fits all” classrooms have no place in high quality or even appropriate special education. A model which is becoming more common is having all students with autism included in one early childhood classroom. In one district, this “inclusion” classroom is half the day, making the special educator responsible for a larger caseload to progress report on and teach.  This leaves students for whom inclusion may not be the LRE now no highly qualified special education teacher to teach them during that 1/2 day session, despite the law requiring a special educator in the C Grid to teach them. The kids unable to be in inclusion are left in a classroom with just aides, next to the inclusion room.  The teacher in reality is supposed to be teaching two rooms at the same time.  This is not meaningful inclusion, it’s frankly double-dipping the skills of a special educator who was quite busy with 6 or 7 students with autism, who now has an equal amount of typically developing students to teach.
     In another district, there is a substantially separate classroom for kindergarten students with autism.  The class comes to a single general ed classroom for snack and other times, not a few students, but 5 students.  What kind of rationale, but convenience, supports a class, consisting of kids with complicated needs and most with 1:1 staffing, to push into a single gen ed class of 17 students in a school with 4 gen ed K rooms?  What benefit does that provide to the students with special needs and the typically developing students.  For it’s important to note the students with disabilities were physically in the room, but all but one sat at a separate table with their aides.  The other brought tears to the observer’s eyes.  This completely non-verbal student had no communication device (high-tech or low-tech).  She simply ate with the assistance of a 1:1 aide, unable to say hi, the other kids ignoring her, continuing their banter like she wasn’t even there.  The general ed teacher and students didn’t say hi to any of the kids.  That’s not inclusion, that’s a location, just a place to have snack.
     Consider a third district where student attends a substantially separate language based classroom for elementary students.  She had inclusion times in her IEP, but was scheduled to attend specific academic and snack periods in one general ed classroom, but attend specials with another.  That’s not meaningful inclusion; for instead of giving her the ability to make meaningful connections with 21 kids, it made her an acquaintance of 42.  If we want her to make friends and be included, her inclusion should not get dictated by a schedule (and a now departed principal and special ed department  who both don’t get why the parents were upset when they found this out more than halfway through the year and only after an observer noticed there were different kids at a special and at science).
     Broad research strongly suggests children with and without disabilities benefit both socially and academically from inclusive programming. Some of the reasons are that inclusion works when done thoughtfully and with a high level of skill:
1. Inclusion increases the rates of learning and achievement for students with disabilities.
2. Students with disabilities make and maintain friendships.
3. Students with and without disabilities have higher performance in areas of social competence.
4. Students without disabilities have the same or better achievement as measured through standardized testing.
     We can’t forget about the federal law (IDEA) requiring the “least restrictive environment” for students with disabilities, the term used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to support inclusion.  It’s what people like me most often advocate for.  We do it expecting the inclusion to be delivered in a manner which allows the child to receive meaningful benefit from it.
     Least restrictive environment means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, school districts must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, referred to as “supplementary aids and services,” along with their non-disabled peers in the school they would attend if not disabled.
     Inclusion is what I want for every child- when it has benefit to him or her and it’s done right.  If a student is placed in an inclusion program, it needs to be set up to allow academic progress, not just social progress.  To provide anything less is to do a disservice to students.   Students in inclusion can thrive.  Some students, like my son, require a substantially separate setting.
     We must not subscribe to “one size fits all” thinking; we must support students in making progress commensurate with their unique abilities.  We want to provide them education, not just a place to sit and have snack.  We want them to make friends and learn from their friends who don’t have disabilities.  We want the typically developing students to learn everyone is different, but equal, and to have them experience learning which makes them blind to disabilities and accepting of all kids.  That can only happen when we don’t force kids into inclusion settings without appropriate support (not just staff for an aide can be a babysitter, not an educational assistant far too easily) and when we don’t include them for snack, just to have them sit at a separate table.