This week is Inclusive Schools Week as declared by the state of Minnesota. It seems right that Minnesota, who has always been a leader in special education, sets aside time to raise awareness on the benefits of full inclusion in our schools. We’ve come such a long way from the days when children of different abilities flowed through our schools largely unseen by other students except when getting on their “special” bus.
My family has enjoyed full inclusion in our school, and we owe that to a balance of terrific educators, intensive early intervention, and just plain old gritty hard work. My family is a big advocate for full inclusion in public schools. We’ve been lucky that our school shares the same values we do when it comes to education. However, luck should have nothing to do with it, not when it comes to education.
Full inclusion is not a given for every child in every school in the state of Minnesota. In fact there has been a trend in the past few years toward sending students on the autism spectrum to self contained schools and/or placing them in special education centers within the school. Every situation has its own unique circumstances that should define where a student will learn best, but we must first start with an assumption of full inclusion and be creative from there to meet a child’s needs. It is after all honoring the law of “least restrictive environment.”
We all know diversity in education benefits all students. But too often we define diversity as cultural. Instead we need to include learning styles and abilities within that definition. There is plenty of evidence to support that including students with special needs in the classroom benefits all students in many ways. Check out this great publication – Inclusion Works – for tons of information.
In the area of academics, students in inclusive classrooms enjoy increased outcomes across all subjects without suffering from a common fear of inclusion detractors – that typical students will have less teacher attention. Instead inclusive classrooms provide greater access to the general education curriculum. Studies have found: typical peers benefit from involvement and relationships with students who have disabilities in inclusive settings, and the presence of students with disabilities in general education classrooms leads to new learning opportunities for typical students. [Waldron, Cole, and Majd (2001)]
These learning opportunities have a profound effect on all students’ academic outcomes. Two programs in particular show incredible benefits: Class-Wide Peer Tutoring models (CWPT) and Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS). As you can guess from the names, these programs establish peers as “assistant” teachers or tutors for other students. Not only do these programs require students to have a full understanding of the subject, but they instill in students those elusive “soft skills” of responsibility, working as a team, flexibility, and problem-solving. Their roles are fluid as students adapt their part in the teaching dynamic, playing on individual talents and challenges.
So many things that classrooms have adopted to support children with autism benefit the entire classroom. Everyone loves a visual schedule, right? Plus, behavior management tools, stress reduction techniques, organization strategies, and social skills training are areas in which all children need guidance. It is through inclusive education that we achieve all these goals, for everyone. So let’s celebrate our inclusive schools in Minnesota and renew our commitment to supporting all learners through awareness of the spectrum of abilities.