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Mainstreaming Disabled Students: Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 7/12/2012

Students with disabilities were once educated in separate, special education classes. Today an increasing number of students with disabilities are learning in typical classrooms with non-disabled peers. Find out how these students are being integrated into the mainstream classroom.

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    Including Students with Special Needs

    Federal law states that students with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. Once called mainstreaming, the practice of integrating kids labeled disabled into mainstream classrooms is now commonly referred to as inclusion. Many different ways to include students with special needs exist, depending on the type and severity of a student’s disability.

    Inclusive education means meeting individual needs. One student, for example, might spend all day in an inclusive classroom, learning all of the academic subjects just as the other students in the class. Another child with Down Syndrome may study academics in special education classes and join mainstream classrooms in art, music, or physical education. Still, another student with a physical disability may use assistive technology with a personal computer to complete written assignments in the inclusive classroom. This student may be "pulled out" for assistance in writing math and longer assignments. She may also leave the classroom or her peers for adaptive physical education, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and/or speech therapy.

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    Making Inclusion Work

    Several factors must be in place to make inclusion work. School principals must cooperate and share the message that all staff members, not just special education teachers, are expected to be involved in educating children with disabilities. Inclusion also requires specially trained staff. In many schools, an inclusion specialist works with classroom teachers. In the classroom, a specially trained aide works with children with disabilities who need assistance.

    Since classroom teachers need training and ongoing support to effectively teach many types of learners, they must meet regularly with inclusion specialists. Inclusion specialists assist teachers in making accommodations and modifications for students with special needs. A student with severe reading difficulties, for instance, can have a peer tutor read to him or listen to books on CDs. To help a student with ADHD transition to another activity, a teacher can ring a bell to cue him or her. Students who are deaf require a sign language interpreter to translate the teacher's instruction.

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    Benefits

    Inclusion not only benefits children with disabilities; it also benefits other children and teachers. Integrating students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms allows typical children to learn about various types of disabilities and to appreciate similarities and differences in people. Parents of typical students notice that inclusion of children with disabilities encourages their own children’s learning. In addition, teachers become better educators by learning to instruct different kinds of students. Inclusion can prompt teachers to use more creative methods, such as cooperative learning and teaching to children's different learning styles, which enhances all students’ learning.