Parents may face many challenges when exploring education options in the American public school system — especially if they have a child with special needs.
For example, how do parents find an education setting that best fits their child’s specific needs? Will the supports they’re seeking for their child be provided by the school? And if not, how do parents advocate for a more suitable placement? Searching for the right education setting for a child with a disability can be challenging, but it’s most effective with research and understanding a few key advocacy strategies.
Years of research and experience tell us that inclusive education — the practice of educating children of all abilities in one classroom — is the gold standard. Many schools, however, still have classrooms where children with disabilities are educated separately from the rest of the student population. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a federal law originally enacted in 1975 and revised multiple times since, provides guidance for educating children with special needs. Though the word “inclusion" isn’t specifically used in its documents, the law requires that, to the greatest degree possible, children with disabilities should be educated in the “least restrictive environment" alongside their non-disabled peers — that is, in classrooms with children of all abilities.
Providing this type of learning environment, however, is subject to the needs of the student and the ability of the school to meet them. If a child’s learning needs can be met in general education classes, then the school can offer inclusive education. If the school believes it won’t be able to provide the supports a child requires in this type of setting — due to constraints on classroom options, staffing, budget, or resources — then a child can be placed in a “self-contained" (or segregated) classroom. While advocates for children with learning disabilities often support inclusive education — and many parents prefer it — the reality is that you may not always have a choice at the school your child will attend.
If you are looking for this type of placement, it’s important to know exactly what inclusive education is and how it will work for your child. There are terms and definitions associated with this model, but their use may in many communities be inaccurate because inclusion is not widely practiced in the United States. School staff often have little experience with inclusive classrooms — but if they do, it will be helpful for you to understand what the terms are, what to look for, and what to ask about.
There are several reliable resources that describe inclusion, such as The Inclusive Schools Network. It’s also important to learn your district’s policies regarding inclusive education. Is your child’s school generally flexible and accommodating of students with special needs? Or does it send these students to magnet, private, or other schools that provide better services to students with disabilites? This solution can place parents in a difficult position — enrolling their child in a school that may be far from home or advocating for an inclusive classroom in the local school.
Research on your local department of education website can get your started understanding the district’s policies on inclusion. You can also call the district office to speak with the special education director, who will be able to give you the relevant information and provide you with district policies.
To learn which schools have adopted inclusion successfully, reach out to national organizations like TASH and The Arc; they both support the inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of life, including school. Being well-informed about the philosophy and practice of inclusion is your first step in this journey.
There may also be organizations in your local community that will put you in touch with other parents who have worked with schools to adopt an inclusion model. DIscussing their experiences of what was successful and what wasn’t in their advocacy efforts will help you to adapt your approach with your child’s school.
If you decide to advocate for an inclusive setting in your child’s school, you will need to provide relevant information about your child’s special needs to the school staff. Being honest and upfront about your child’s strengths and weaknesses will be critical in deciding which types of supports are needed and whether the school can provide them.
Typically, schools develop services for children based on a learning disability diagnosis. While these are valuable, parents can provide much more comprehensive, well-rounded information that will give schools a greater understanding of their child’s needs and abilities. For example, they can discuss the types of supports that work for their child in situations that commonly arise in school, such as transitions, participating in large groups, or taking part in recess.
If your child is being included elsewhere or has had other learning experiences with inclusive settings, you may be able to share videos or pictures of her in these environments. By providing this information in an open and honest manner, either through conversation or a portfolio, you’re more likely to persuade school leaders to consider this as a path to success for her.
Beyond your own knowledge, also be prepared to share inclusive education resources with school staff. These can be in the form of handouts, books, videos, or photos; Brookes Publishing has many professional books about inclusion classrooms that are geared towards educators.
These resources help staff who haven’t worked with an inclusion model envision what it would look like in their school, how classwork would be handled, and the ways in which disabled students would be included with non-disabled peers. Schools may not have the budget to buy additional teacher resources, so sharing your expertise can enable them to explore inclusion as an option for their students.
Beyond the materials and online resources you share, let the school know about organizations in your community that offer training and support for inclusion; tapping into outside agencies can provide extra materials and expertise for schools.
Inclusive education is not a program that can be handled by one classroom teacher; rather, it requires a comprehensive system of support that includes the principal, teachers, bus driver(s), recess supervisor(s), and parents. Successful inclusion will also require you to attend meetings, respond to correspondence, and regularly communicate with your child’s teacher.
Moreover, you’ll need to be supportive and understanding of the limitations that schools face with budgets, staff placement, and teacher personalities. Staff must be willing, available, and trained, materials need to be in place, and schedules sorted out for inclusion classrooms to succeed.
Inclusive education does not happen overnight; it requires thoughtful preparation and buy-in from staff at all levels of the school community. Be supportive when advocating for inclusion, and acknowledge that an entire system has to change, not just a classroom. Wherever your advocacy lands your child, be positive and continue to look for additional ways in which she can be included, both in and out of school. As inclusion educator and specialist, Lisa Friedman says, “Be an opener of doors."