General Education

The Benefits of Inclusive K-12 Education (And How to Advocate for Them)

The Benefits of Inclusive K-12 Education (And How to Advocate for Them)
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Tim Villegas August 9, 2019

Turn the volume up on why all children—not just those with disabilities—benefit from integrated learning environments.

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"When inclusive education is fully embraced, we abandon the idea that children have to become 'normal' in order to contribute to the world." - Norman Kunc

We have a significant problem with education in the United States, and it has nothing to do with Common Core. Instead, it has to do with how we educate students with disabilities, also known as "special education."

Before 1975, there was no guarantee that children with disabilities had the same access to public schools as their non-disabled peers. That changed with the Education For All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), which mandates equal access.

Under this law, special education services often mean separate education services that isolate students with disabilities from their non-disabled peers.

These services continue to operate in too many schools today.

Consider classroom integration of general education students and students with disabilities, a practice known as "full inclusion". Research over the past 40 years shows that students of all abilities benefit when students with and without disabilities learn together.

A 2001 study of six Indiana schools, for example, looked at students in both general education and self-contained classrooms over a two-year period. Of children with disabilities in general education classrooms, 47.1 percent made progress in math, compared to 34 percent in self-contained learning environments.

The study also reports that general education students achieved higher gains in math when children with disabilities were present, most likely because they benefited from the supports provided for students with disabilities. This is hardly the only evidence advocating for integrated classrooms, but one of countless studies supporting full inclusion.

Disabled students are considered fully included if they spend at least 80 percent of their day alongside typically developing students. Yet, despite the proven benefits of full inclusion, recent data show that only 62.5 percent of all students with disabilities are fully included.

The figures decrease dramatically for students with intellectual disabilities (16.3 percent) and students with autism spectrum disorders (29.7 percent).

How to promote full inclusion for your child

Educators aren't the only ones who can advocate for greater integration; families can, too. Parents of children with disabilities can use these strategies to encourage progress outside of the immediate classroom environment.

1. Share your vision for your child with their school

A child's education is a long and complicated journey, and like any journey, it's easier to complete if you have a map. When you develop a vision for your child's education, you're creating a plan to navigate all the tricky twists and turns.

These questions, adapted from the McGill Action Planning System, will help you get started:

  1. What are your dreams for your child? Where do you see them in 10, 15, 20, or even 30 years from now? What goals does your child articulate for their future?
  2. What are your fears for your child? What does exclusion look like for them?
  3. Who is your child? Do they have any special interests? What are their strengths? What are their gifts?
  4. What are your child's needs? Where do they struggle the most academically, socially, and behaviorally?
  5. What would an ideal day at school look like for your child?

Write the answers down in a statement to share at your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting or with their teacher. This will help school staff develop any goals and objectives for your child, and boost your child's chances of having positive learning experiences in the classroom.

2. Develop school-to-home communication

A child with a disability may have difficulty talking about school when she gets home. To lessen the struggle, consider working with your child's teacher to develop a system through which they update you about your child's day.

It doesn't matter how the information is conveyed, so long as it is consistent and formalized. It could be a folder containing assignments and lesson summaries that the child brings to and from school each day, or a weekly newsletter previewing upcoming classroom content.

Whatever method your school chooses to communicate, make sure you are getting all the information you need. The more opportunities you have to learn what is going on at school, the better you will be able to advocate for your child's needs.

3. Know your special education rights.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students must be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) possible. That means a school district must make every effort to provide special education services in a setting alongside non-disabled peers. Many districts come up short, offering services only in a segregated setting.

In order to advocate for full inclusion, you'll need to know exactly what your child is entitled to. Under LRE, students should be educated to the "maximum extent appropriate" with non-disabled peers. They can be removed to be educated "only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."

Be prepared to argue the definition of terms like "appropriate" and "satisfactorily" with educators who don't see things your way.

On occasion, it may become necessary to seek the help of a special education attorney or advocate. While it's always better to work things out collaboratively with a school district, sometimes you need someone with expertise and experience on your side. Be aware that you are always within your rights to seek such assistance.

Getting the best education for your child

Know in advance that you may have to fight for your child's inclusive education, even with equal access laws in place. Arm yourself with facts and remember that the data supports you. For example, when someone argues that children with behavior issues negatively impact their fellow students' education, be ready to point to the 1998 study from the University of Montana showing no such adverse effect. At the end of the day, it's all to start a conversation on why all children—not just yours, not just children with disabilities—benefit from full inclusion.

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