Special Education

Inclusion vs. Special Education Classrooms: What Are the Differences?

Inclusion vs. Special Education Classrooms: What Are the Differences?
Inclusion is not only a preference, it’s the law. If a student can succeed in a less restrictive environment (LRE), that is where he must be placed. Image from Unsplash
Jules Csillag profile
Jules Csillag June 30, 2014

Learn from a Noodle expert about the differences, benefits, and potential downsides of inclusion education vs. special education classrooms for all students, including those with learning disabilities.

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Special education and inclusion classrooms run along a continuum. Inclusion (which is also referred to as “general education” or “mainstreaming”) refers to environments where typically developing students are in classes alongside students with Individual Education Plans (IEP’s).

On the other end of the continuum are more restrictive environments, like home and hospital instruction or segregated classes (“special class services”) where there are six to 15 students with one teacher and up to four paraprofessionals.

Inclusion is not only a preference, it’s the law. If a student can succeed in a less restrictive environment (LRE), that is where he must be placed. Students are also not required to be in a single environment for the whole day — sometimes students can be in a more restricted environment for part of the day (e.g. an academic period), but return to a general education group for another part of the day (e.g. physical education).

Pros and Cons

A number of studies tout the benefits of inclusive education. It is more cost-effective than separate classrooms, but more importantly, positive effects have been noted on the students with IEP’s, particularly in their academics (Weiner, 1985); however, according to a report from Princeton University, the “instructional models employed and the classroom environment appeared to have a greater impact on student academic and social success.”

Positive effects have also been found for the typically developing students, including the following list from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC):

  • A reduced fear of human differences accompanied by increased comfort and awareness (Peck et al., 1992)
  • Growth in social cognition (Murray-Seegert,1989)
  • Improvement in self-concept of non-disabled students (Peck et. al., 1992)
  • Development of personal principles and ability to assume an advocacy role toward their peers and friends with disabilities
  • Warm and caring friendships (Bogdan and Taylor, 1989)

The key difficulty with inclusion is that it only works if it is enacted appropriately. According to a study at Grand Canyon University, “both general education teachers and special education teachers believed that administrative support, mutual respect, a positive work environment, and open minds towards inclusion, professional development opportunities, and knowledge of students with disabilities are all crucial components needed to successfully implement inclusion.”

Arguments for segregated classrooms fall largely into one of two categories:

  1. Specialized teachers have the time and expertise to instruct students using best practices.
  2. Students in separate classrooms can develop a positive identity in relation to their learning or neurological difference, and thus can reap academic and social benefits from separate classrooms (e.g. for students who are gifted and talented, students with dyslexia or other specific learning differences, and for post-secondary deaf students.

What works best for your child will depend on your his unique skills and needs, and each school has a different set of resources. Placement decisions must be made with the child’s best interest and learning needs in mind, and sufficient support must be given to teachers and educators to ensure that classrooms differentiate for all learners.



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Want to read more? Check out these six resources:

Sources (in addition to those referenced above):

National Association of the Deaf. Position Statement on Inclusion. Retrieved from: NAD
Smith, T.E.C., Polloway, E.A., Patton, J.R., & Dowdy, C.A. (2004). Teaching students with special needs in inclusive settings, (4th Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. 570 pages.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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