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Examining the Pros and Cons of Mainstreaming

written by: Kathy Foust • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 10/15/2012

When we make a decision, what we are actually doing is comparing the pros and cons in order to achieve the best outcome. Mainstreaming, placing special education students into a regular education setting, is no different. Let's take a look at some advantages and disadvantages to mainstreaming.

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    Many students with special needs are placed into a self-contained classroom or multi-classroom program in which they learn alongside peers who have disabilities as well. This is sometimes referred to by the number of student to teaching staff ratio, such as a 12:1:1 classroom environment; 12 students, 1 teaching assistant, 1 teacher. Placing students with special needs into the regular education classroom is known as mainstreaming.

    Placing students into either of these classroom environments may or may not be the right decision for that particular student. Each student's abilities and deficits must be examined against the pros and cons of mainstreaming to come up with an optimal choice on a case by case basis.

    Although the law is currently pushing for more students to be mainstreamed, it does sometimes come with resistance. There are regular education teachers that do not want students with special needs placed into their classrooms. Conversely, there are special education teachers who feel the best environment for a student is one in which all teaching staff have specialized training specific to a student's special needs.

    We all know that mainstreaming has to happen and is an increasingly common practice, especially as school budgets shrink, but when resistance is met, it can make the students' classroom environment that much harder to deal with.

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    Pros of Mainstreaming

    Social Advantages:

    Students get to receive their education with their non-disabled peers who are the same age as them. By doing so, students get to interact with their peers in ways that the special education classroom wouldn’t do. Many students with special needs often have an identified need to improve their social skills. Placing them into classes with a diverse group of students can certainly help increase those skills.

    It also helps self-esteem as well, because the students know that they are in "regular" education classes with their peers. No matter how hard we work to break down walls and build acceptance, the social stigma of being different still exists. By blending students of differing abilities into one classroom, not only does it help the students with special needs, but it also helps the regular education students as well, by teaching them how to work with others who are different from them. It teaches all students compassion, acceptance, collaboration and patience, life-long skills that will better prepare them for the future.

    Academic Advantages:

    Another advantage of mainstreaming is that the students are receiving the same curricula material as their non-disabled peers. Although they may receive accommodations and modifications to the curriculum, they are still learning what everyone else is learning. It gives these students a chance to learn something that they may not have had a chance to learn in a special education classroom.

    Tolerance:

    If classrooms aren't mainstreamed, then a great majority of the student population will not be exposed to students with special needs. This means that they will never get to learn or promote the kind of tolerance that will carry with them through adulthood.

    Mainstreaming special needs students with the rest of the population exposes all students to all types of people, whether they have disorders or not. As the other students learn tolerance, the students with special needs will learn what behaviors are acceptable and which ones aren't.

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    Cons of Mainstreaming

    Social Disadvantages:

    Some students with special needs have behavioral issues that will need to be addressed in the classroom. These issues are not only disruptive to the rest of the class, but can also be embarrassing to the student, causing more damage to their self-esteem and social world than would happen if the student was not mainstreamed.

    Academic Disadvantages:

    While the students with special needs are able to use the same curricula as students without special needs, they may not be able to keep up with the work. This can result in them feeling like the odd man out. The extra effort that teachers have to put into ensuring everyone understands the work may also take away from the rest of the classroom. This can impact the pace of the classroom as a whole. While some mainstreamed students with special needs will have pull-outs into a resource room or some other means of individualized tutoring, any slowdown in the classroom pace that can impact reaching specific goals is a concern.

    Tolerance:

    Tolerance is a wonderful thing to learn, but it can also backfire. Students who do not have special needs may be under the impression that the student with special needs "gets away" with more than the rest of the class because of his or her disability. This can lead to resentment and it can also lead to the other students acting out.

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    Weighing the Pros and Cons

    You've looked at the pros and cons. Mainstreaming offers enough of both for those involved to be able to form a clear and informed opinion on what is the right path for a particular student.

    As stated before, more and more students with special needs are being placed into regular education classes because of a general belief that it is the best placement for them, based on their needs.As with anything, this placement omes with a lot of work for the students, parents, and teachers involved in the process.

    The IEP team needs to make the decision based on what is best for the student. The decision needs to be carefully thought out, and if the student is mainstreamed, they need to be carefully monitored and also need to make sure that they have all they need to be successful in the regular education setting. The pros and cons need to continue to be weighed so that the plan works to the benefit of the student and does not cause a decrease in achieving the academic goals of either the individual or of the other students in the class.