All About Mainstreaming Special Ed Students: How It Works, Why It's Done, and When It Started

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What is Mainstreaming?

Mainstreaming special ed students can be controversial, but in order to examine the controversy, it is important to understand the definition of mainstreaming. Mainstreaming a student with special needs means placing that student into a “regular” classroom, one filled with students that have no special needs. The word “mainstreaming” comes from the concept that students with disabilities can be incorporated into the “mainstream” of education, instead of placing them in separate classrooms and giving them completely separate instruction.

The implementation of mainstreaming differs depending on the school and the system. Some schools are not adequately prepared to mainstream students, in that the teachers, students, and administrators have not been educated in how to work with the disabled students that are being integrated into the classroom. To be truly effective, the mainstreaming process should include student support services, as well as teacher and administrator training, to help the mainstreamed students best adapt to the new environment.

The Reasoning Behind Mainstreaming

There are several reasons given for why mainstreaming is helpful for all of the parties involved. One of the main advantages cited is the fact that both the disabled students and those who are nondisabled gain from working with each other and learning about each other. On the one hand, students with special needs can learn life lessons from their peers, including how to interact effectively with people who are not disabled, which will be important when they are expected to interact in the “real world” outside of a special ed classroom. On the other hand, students without disabilities can learn about the problems that their peers deal with, can demonstrate empathy for them, and in turn learn the importance of helping.

Other advantages include the fact that mainstreaming helps students without disabilities learn how to stand up for those that do have disabilities, and those with disabilities can learn to defend themselves against any antagonism they may experience. In addition, mainstreaming gives disabled students the ability to obtain an equal education, and to be challenged to rise above their disabilities.

The History of Mainstreaming

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142). This legislation protected the rights of children with disabilities and their families. In the 1980s, the attitude that prompted this legislation became stronger, and mainstreaming special ed students with minor disabilities emerged as a more common practice. Students with severe disabilities, however, still sat in separate classrooms for most of the day, although they may have been integrated for a small portion of it.

In 1997, the law was amended under the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA), which strengthened the law’s requirements for mainstreaming, and led to students with more severe disabilities to be mainstreamed for more of the day - and sometimes, for the entire day. Unlike inclusion, mainstreaming requires students to keep up with much of the work. To support these students, teacher’s aides or shadows assist them with individual activities, and special education teachers may work side by side with general education teachers to make sure that students with special needs are getting the help that they need.


This post is part of the series: Special Needs Education

There are many controversies surrounding educating students with special needs. This series of article discusses different aspects of special needs education.

  1. Understanding Mainstreaming in Special Ed
  2. Teaching Strategies for the Inclusive Classroom