Students, teachers, and parents have spent the last few weeks gearing up for another school year with their first day back to school pictures, gathering of school supplies, fine tuning the sleep routines, and preparing for the nightly homework battles. As a parent, business leader and  former educator, I’ve decided to focus this article on a pretty controversial topic: inclusion. What does inclusion mean?  

Often, in the past,  special education was provided in separate buildings where students with learning challenges were isolated from their age-appropriate peers. Then, gradually, state and federal mandates were implemented challenging this model, most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This federal regulation enforces the placement of students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment.” This means that students with disabilities should be educated alongside their nondisabled peers whenever possible.

You will find parents, students, and educators on both sides of the inclusion debate. There are those who strongly support inclusion programs where all students with disabilities are placed in traditional classrooms with their nondisabled peers. Others feel just as strongly that learning and personal needs are better met in a more protected setting, where one-on-one instruction can be made available.

I have previously taught special education in a self-contained classroom, and every school year I strived to integrate and promote for my students to have meaning, purpose, and intentional learning and social opportunities with their non-disabled peers. Why? Because there are great benefits to be learned not only for those with disabilities, but also for their non-disabled peers. From personal experience I have observed students learning empathy, compassion, understanding of differences, enhancement of strengths, peer role modeling, feeling of value,  and respect. The benefits for those with disabilities stem from age-appropriate social skills modeling, pushing academic barriers, increased self-confidence, and motivation to achieve more. However, I felt strongly about the impact I was able to make with my students learning within our small-class size setting. I was able to focus on functional learning to enhance social skills within inclusive settings and address behavior needs and coping skills to enhance tolerance and attentiveness around those without disabilities. 

Those experiences have given me a perspective on the benefits of all educational options. I get asked a lot on which side of the debate I am on. My answer: it depends on the individual, just like any other student. We must wrap educational opportunities, learning differences, environmental impacts, and social activities into an individualized approach. Each student’s desirable outcomes affect their motivation, tolerance, and level of attainment. If we are focusing on their strengths and making sure opportunities are provided to support these, then we have a better chance of success.  

Innovative strategies such as multi-age grouping, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, instruction which acknowledges the concept of multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, thematic approaches, whole language instruction, and other innovations of strategies should be provided and created no matter the classroom. As we prepare business leaders to embrace those with disabilities into their workplace, we have found using innovative strategies, having reasonable accommodations, and being inclusive in work culture has shown to be successful. 

My personal opinion still goes back to the individual and their needs and desires. It’s not what a certain classroom or teacher can do for them to make them successful, it comes down to the whole school. Are we teaching our youth how to include and provide intentional opportunities to embrace each other no matter the differences? We shouldn’t be advocating for inclusion just to say we have done it, or stating that a child is better educated because they are mainstreamed. We should ensure that across all educational settings, social experiences, community engagement, and businesses we are becoming inclusive for purposeful, intentional, and meaningful reasons. Being tolerant and checking a box that an opportunity was provided, is not being inclusive. We must believe in what we are being inclusive about, and understand that it could look different for every person. I think the main point we all care about is that there is a desire in each of us to include others, and we find value in people no matter their different abilities.

Parents who have advocated for inclusion made a significant impact on the progression in providing awareness and opportunities. However, I do believe inclusion has different levels of meaning beyond the classroom. Schools should be looking towards an inclusive environment for those with disabilities in order to provide multiple opportunities for integration of all students. This would mean recess and lunch times, placement of different classroom settings throughout the school, clubs, sports, elective classes, and school events are ways we become an inclusive environment. 

In reality, inclusion is not a special education issue. For schools to successfully support students with diverse learning needs, special education reform must be viewed within the broader context of school restructuring. Good schools are good schools for all and good teachers are good teachers for any student. The school culture and core values should be centered on an inclusive approach, but that doesn’t have to be centered strictly around the learning environment. 

In conclusion, this debate will no doubt be one that will continue. We as parents, educators, and community leaders shouldn’t focus so much of our concern on the type of setting one is being served and more so on the experiences they have in all settings that make a purposeful and meaningful impact.

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