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Uniting Classrooms - The Triumphs and Tribulations of Inclusion in Special Education

Understood explores the benefits of inclusion in special education and how schools can make it more a reality.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. This usually means in general education classrooms with their peers without disabilities.


Students in inclusion classrooms are able to build self-confidence and learn that everyone is unique. They also develop friendships with peers who have different abilities.

Research suggests that kids with disabilities are better motivated to learn in classes surrounded by their peers. They are more likely to take risks and challenge themselves when they have classmates who will support them.

Inclusion helps teachers learn to differentiate instruction and develop a more diverse set of learning goals. For example, students in an inclusive math class might be working on the same math problem, but they are using different strategies to solve it.

Inclusion can eliminate the need for push-in support, where a student is pulled out of class for help from an outside specialist. The exception would be when a student needs extra time to complete a task, specialized instruction or a quiet environment to deal with behavior problems.


Today, most students with disabilities (SWDs) spend some time in general education classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers. This model of inclusion, also known as mainstreaming, is often lauded for its ability to improve SWDs' academic and long-term outcomes.

However, a small but growing body of research suggests that classroom environments with high numbers of SWDs can negatively impact the experiences of their classmates and teachers. Schools that integrate SWDs thoughtlessly risk not meeting their educational needs while violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's mandate to provide individualized education.

SWDs who are placed in the wrong environment may experience significant behavioral problems that can interfere with learning. They can also be unnecessarily disruptive, requiring instructors to focus attention on them and reducing the amount of time they can devote to other classroom activities.

Classroom Strategies

Students in inclusive classrooms benefit from the chance to interact with peers from different learning levels. They learn to view differences as normal and have more in common with classmates than they might with kids who go to school in traditional special education settings.

In some inclusive classrooms, special education teachers work alongside general educators to deliver lessons. Others have a more hybrid approach where special educators "push in" to classes during certain times of the day instead of pulling students out.

To maximize the benefits of inclusion, educators should consider the classroom ecosystem as a whole. This means considering the impact of inclusion on the experiences of SWDs, their peers, and their general education (GE) teachers. Teachers can do this by studying evidence-based practices, which are teaching methods proven to improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities.


Co-teaching is an increasingly popular way to implement inclusion, especially in schools with large special education populations. In this model, a general and special education teacher conduct a class together in which the material is presented simultaneously. The teachers may also perform alternative teaching techniques such as station teaching, in which students are divided into two groups and each teacher provides instruction at a separate station.

However, research suggests that when this method is done poorly, it can actually hurt students without disabilities. Specifically, those who spend time in classrooms with co-teachers are more likely to have lower reading and math scores than peers who never experience this type of learning environment. This is due to a cookie-cutter approach to teaching, which doesn’t give every student enough time and attention.

Student Experiences

Growing evidence demonstrates the positive effect that inclusion has on kids with special educational needs. But it also helps students without SEN learn more about people who are different and can help them prepare for the world beyond school.

Inclusion allows traditionally developing kids to develop friendships with classmates who have disabilities and to realize that differences are just a part of life. Academically, inclusive classrooms give kids the opportunity to practice skills by teaching or helping their peers with disabilities, which can strengthen subject knowledge.

Inclusive education extends far beyond students with disabilities, including religious, racial and ethnic minorities, girls, the poor, students living with HIV/AIDS, and remote populations. The articles in this issue of Changing Lives explore how a person-centered perspective can help educators incorporate these diverse groups into learning environments that benefit all students.