Inclusive education teaches students with disabilities alongside students who do not have disabilities in regular classroom settings, instead of segregating them in special classrooms. The principle of inclusion is based on the idea that every child has a right to belong and to be included in the school community. Internationally, inclusive education is widely accepted as having benefits for students with disabilities as well as those without disabilities. However, the success rates of inclusion programs vary, depending on how well they are implemented.

The History of Inclusion

In principle, inclusive education has been the law of the land in the United States since 1975, when Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The act has been revised several times, with the most recent amendments, as of date of publication, in 2011. This legislation guarantees that "to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities... are educated with children who are not disabled." The law allows schools some degree of flexibility, depending on the severity of a child's disability. It enshrines in law the basic principle that children have a right to "appropriate education in the least restrictive manner." Educational programs are generally considered least restrictive when they take place in a regular classroom. In practice, children with learning disabilities have continued to be taught separately much of the time. Over the years, a two-track system developed in many school districts -- one for general education -- and one for special education. More recently, a concerted effort has arisen to make inclusive schools a reality.

Types of Inclusive Education

Two main types of inclusive education exist. In regular inclusion or partial inclusion, children with disabilities are taught in the regular classroom for most of the day. Occasionally, these students may be pulled out for specialized services that require special equipment or that might be disruptive to the regular class. In full inclusion, students with disabilities receive all special services they need in the regular classroom and stay there all day. Full inclusion is considered most practical when a child's disabilities are relatively mild.

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How Inclusive Education Is Implemented

Before welcoming students with disabilities into their classrooms, general education teachers must be well trained in the principles and practices of inclusion. The teachers need the support of colleagues, administrators and parents, and, most importantly, help from special education teachers. At the same time, resource teachers' roles are redefined, as they work collaboratively with classroom teachers. This collaboration may involve team-teaching, such as teaching a subject or lesson together, or shared teaching such as taking turns, lesson by lesson. Some resource teachers take on more of a consultative role, spending short periods of time in the regular classroom before moving on to another class. Before a student can receive services, he must undergo testing to determine which services he needs. This evaluation results in an individualized education plan, known as an IEP. This evaluation is conducted by professionals that specialize in identifying the areas in which the child is lagging developmentally, and which resources the child needs in school.

The Benefits of Inclusion

In an inclusive classroom, children with disabilities have a chance to be with, and hopefully, to feel like the other kids. Students with disabilities are less likely to miss out on social events, and they have more opportunities to make friends. The chance to achieve alongside their peers without disabilities can help their self-esteem. With the support of a skilled teacher, they may become more socially competent and also may feel less isolated. Potential benefits also exist for students who do not have disabilities, because they may gain greater understanding and empathy of others, as they learn to accept and appreciate students with disabilities. Students without disabilities may also benefit educationally from the more individualized and personalized approach that inclusive teaching can provide. The extent to which these programs are successful depends on the resources available to the school system for implementing inclusion and the extent to which teachers are trained in teaching students with disabilities.

The Disadvantages of Inclusion

On the other hand, if teachers are not on board philosophically, the entire effort could be undermined. If they are not well trained or if the classroom is not sufficiently supported by learning specialists and aides, students with disabilities might not get the additional support they need. Also, if student behavior is not carefully monitored, children with disabilities may be ostracized in small ways that affect their feelings of self-worth, leading to further isolation, and possibly also to reduced learning.

Additional Considerations

In their study of inclusive classrooms, Shiren Pavri and Richard Luftig note that regular classroom teachers and students don't always accept students with disabilities, who tend to be immature socially and often lack the skills to make friends. Inclusive education can work, but it does not happen automatically. Careful teacher preparation is vital, and students need to be actively coached in the social skills they need to gain acceptance. Much discussion about the benefits has occurred, with some professionals stating that not enough general teachers have been trained to also teach students with disabilities and that the broad range of disabilities requires teachers trained specifically in those disabilities. Detractors say that the ideal has not been reached in all school systems across the country.

About the Author

Mark Giffen started writing professionally in 2010. His short story, "Fireflies," appeared in the "Baltimore Review." He taught school for 19 years and now works at a public library. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and a Master of Science in elementary education from the University of Chicago.