The term "mainstreaming" was first used in the 1970s to describe the practice of educating students with disabilities and non-disabled peers in the same classroom. Traditionally, mainstreamed students with disabilities are held to the same standards as typically developing students. This practice differs from inclusion, where children with disabilities are included in the regular classroom and receive support through comprehensive programming, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Mainstreaming has its advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages for Special Needs Children
One of the main advantages of mainstreaming children with special needs is that it allows them to be in a more natural environment than self-contained classrooms do. In the real world, individuals with special needs are expected to function in society alongside typically developing peers. Being in a regular classroom provides opportunities for children with special needs to learn important life skills, especially those involving socialization. Mainstreaming also encourages children with special needs to excel academically by providing challenges. Expectations in traditional classrooms are often higher than those of self-contained classrooms, and students achieve greater success when they are held to higher standards.
Disadvantages for Special Needs Children
While mainstreaming is mostly thought to be a positive practice, those who argue against it have valid concerns. By definition, special education students who are mainstreamed are unlikely to receive the specialized services they need. Some view mainstreaming as a way for schools to save money by downsizing special education services. There is also the issue of the appropriateness of the education children with special needs may receive in a traditional classroom. Many regular classroom teachers have little to no training in special education teaching and assessment methods, and they may place unrealistic demands on special needs children as a result.
Advantages for Non-Disabled Children
Having children with special needs as classmates can be beneficial to typically developing children in many ways. Mainstreaming prepares non-disabled students for the real world by teaching them about diversity and helping them develop empathy. The practice of mainstreaming provides typically developing students with opportunities to form meaningful relationships with students with special needs. Non-disabled children can also benefit from mainstreaming when peer-tutoring models are put in place. Teaching or helping a child with special needs practice certain skills gives non-disabled students increased exposure to the subject.
Disadvantages for Non-Disabled Children
Mainstreaming can be seen as a practice that is unfair to typically developing students. In some mainstreamed classrooms, teachers tend to give more time and attention to children with special needs, leaving regular students who may be struggling with little to no help. In terms of socialization, mainstreaming could lead to children developing negative attitudes about peers with special needs, especially if they feel they are receiving more attention from the teacher and other students.
Based in Gainesville, Carissa Lawrence is an experienced teacher who has been writing education related articles since 2013. Lawrence holds a master's degree in early childhood education from the University of Florida.